Escalating conflicts on the way to peace and justice

Photo Jonas Jonzon

By Majken Jul Sørensen & Jørgen Johansen

This article is a short version of a text which was first published with the title “Nonviolent Conflict Escalation” in Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 2016. DOI: 10.1002/crq.21173. In this longer article you can find references to all our sources.

”We have mapped all the conflicts in the world” a senior researcher at PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo) told one of the authors at a seminar a couple of weeks ago. If that was true, it would be pretty impressive.

Each of the seven billion people living on earth at the moment are likely to have a considerably number of conflicts every year with their partners, neighbours, friends and family members.

However, the large majority of these conflicts are dealt with in a peaceful and creative manner. Although they can feel burdensome in the heat of the moment, many of them are a way for people to grow as persons and learn more about themselves and each other.

But of course, it was not all these conflicts the senior researcher at the seminar had in mind. She was talking about the UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset which includes violent conflicts involving at least one state. However, her statement is symptomatic for an attitude which seems to be widespread within mainstream peace and conflict studies: because they so often focus on violent and destructive conflicts, their language gets “contaminated”.

Thus there is a strong tendency to associate conflict with violence and something undesirable which should be avoided and de-escalated. Just as important, this perception of conflict also ignores all the large-scale societal conflicts fought along nonviolent lines.

In this text we examine some of the ways that nonviolent stakeholders have deliberately and persistently escalated conflicts, and show how such escalations have been fundamental for them to achieve their goals. These actors have created visibility for hardly recognised injustices and highlighted issues that have endured in the shadows of history.

This approach is the opposite of preventing conflicts; rather, it aims to escalate them in order to create change. It counters both the association of conflict with violence and contributes to a deeper understanding of nonviolent resistance.

However, before discussing a framework of five aspects of escalation, let us see why it is important to distinguish between violence and conflict.

Separating violence from conflict

In conflict analysis, it is extremely important to have a clear distinction between the conflict and the violence that one or more parties to the conflict might use. With the term “violence” we refer to direct violence, where one or more actors intentionally threat or harm other human beings physically. It is common knowledge how one might escalate such violence, from fists to knives, guns to bombs and nuclear weapons.

Another possibility for escalating direct violence is to use a particular method more effectively by attacking more brutally with the knife, hitting more people with the same round of ammunition or selecting a target for the bombing that has higher symbolic value or would kill more people.

Military academies have studied this for centuries. However, from studies of violence it is well known that escalation of method is just one aspect of engaging the enemy.

Terrorists are not necessarily aiming for the largest numbers of dead and injured people, but for strategic and spectacular targets and ways to instill fear in the general population. Likewise, military strategists do not aim for maximal pain, but for methods that they believe will make the enemy surrender or deter from engagement in the conflict.

One nuanced approach to analysing all types of conflicts is demonstrated in Johan Galtung’s conflict triangle.

According to this model, a conflict consists of three different elements: A, the Attitudes that the different stakeholders have to the conflict and each other; and B, the Behaviour of the different actors, which can be both violent and nonviolent. Dropping bombs and blowing up buildings are ways of behaving in a conflict, but behaviour can also be calling for a cease fire or engaging in nonviolent action or negotiations.

Finally, there is the C corner, which represents the content or Contradiction in the Conflict. This is the seemingly incompatible goals that caused the conflict to arise, such as a disputed piece of land or limited access to resources that two or more groups each want to control. The conflict is the sum of the attitudes, the behaviours and the contradiction.

Thus, in the ABC triangle, the war that some call the “conflict” is reduced to only one possible form of behaviour.

Although there have been notable exceptions, peace and conflict studies has had a tendency to treat conflicts as something inherently undesirable. One reason for this is the disproportionate focus on violent conflicts. The problems with separating conflict and means can be found among scholars who emphasise the importance of “de-escalating conflicts” or “preventing conflicts” when in fact they mean de-escalation and prevention of violence.

Nonviolent escalation of method and conflict

For nonviolent activists, the purpose of a nonviolent escalation of method or conflict is to achieve their stated goals, whether it be bringing down a dictator, liberating a country from a foreign occupation, creating a new state or power arrangement, changing a law or swaying public opinion.

In order to be successful, it is not enough for the activists to escalate the method, there also has to be an escalation of the conflict. This might sound like a confusing distinction at first, but it reflects the separation between conflict and violence above.

Escalating the method concerns the strategy and tactics that can be decided on by one of the stakeholders in a conflict. It is part of the B corner of the conflict triangle. Escalation of the conflict is a question of what happens in both the A, B and C corners in the triangle among all the parties to a conflict.

It involves the complex interaction between all the stakeholders and external actors, such as media, and cannot be controlled by one party alone.

Escalation of a conflict can only happen if the dynamic of the conflict changes. In most of the examples given below, an escalation of the method also leads to an escalation of the conflict, because the methods forced the other actors to react.

We know that a conflict has been escalated when it has intensified and reached a level where it can no longer be ignored. A common way of escalating a method might be to bring more protesters to a demonstration, but that does not guarantee an escalation of the conflict. Even if organisers of protests manage to bring many people to a demonstration, the attempt at escalating the conflict remains unsuccessful if the demonstration is completely ignored and nothing changes as a result.

However, other actors can also contribute to escalations of the conflict when they escalate their methods of response. Police brutality which gets exposed, frequently lead to escalations of conflicts. Some indicators of a conflict escalation are when new social groups or mainstream media take an interest in conflicts they have previously ignored, or when they increase their attention to it and demand that something must be done.

Practitioners of nonviolent action are usually aware that escalations is a necessary part of their struggles. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were skilled at finding effective ways of escalating conflicts using nonviolent means.

Five aspects of nonviolent conflict escalation


We have identified five different aspects of nonviolent conflict escalations, which we have called quantitative, innovation, dilemma creation, provocation and persistence.

Most methods can be escalated quantitatively, something which is almost intuitive for the organisers of frequently used nonviolent methods of nonviolent action such as strikes, boycotts and demonstrations. Get more participants, make them stay longer, expand the outreach to include segments of society not previously included, expand geographically, etc. With such quantitative measures it is relatively easy to identify that an escalation of the tactic has taken place.

Under some circumstances, the sheer number of people might be enough to escalate a method so much that it escalates the conflict and results in success. However, it also matters who all these people are.

One example that illustrates this point is the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The 1990’s had seen several student demonstrations against the regime in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The Otpor (Resistance) movement which started to organise in 1998 was dominated by students living in Belgrade, but the students who were driving the resistance were veterans from earlier campaigns.

They were eager for their movement to expand in two different ways. First, they wanted to be active all over Serbia, not just in Belgrade. This effort to spread geographically led to the establishment of approximately 130 Otpor branches all over Serbia.

Second, they were eager to get others involved. Of course they wanted to grow in numbers, but just as important was the dimension of expanding outside student circles to include workers and other “ordinary” citizens. One result of this effort to involve others was that when the culminating day of protesting against the stolen election came on October 5 2000, half a million people participated in the main demonstration, and the mine that supplied coal for the most important power plant was occupied by the workers.

The escalation of the method – the number of people and kind of people who participated in the protests changed the conflict dynamic, which caused people within the security forces to disobey orders and eventually forced Milosevic to step down.

Quantitative elements frequently play a big role in escalations of conflicts, but quantity is not essential when activists find other ways of escalating methods.

The four other ways to escalate instead focus on qualitative aspects of the escalation. Elements that can contribute to such an escalation are innovation of a new method, dilemma creation for the opponent, provocation and persistence.

Dilemma creation

Dilemma creation means that the nonviolent action or campaign is constructed in such a way that no matter what the opponent decides to do, all reactions benefit the nonviolent movement. The term “dilemma demonstration” was first coined by George Lakey but has been investigated further by Majken Jul Sørensen and Brian Martin.

An example of a dilemma action is when the people of Iran go on their roof-tops and shout “Allah Akbar” (God is great) as a protest against the regime. The method is an old technique for activists in Iran that became popular again in 2009.

There is a large potential for quantitative expansion, both when it comes to numbers and time as well as who participates. However, here we would like to draw the attention to the dilemma these actions create for the theocracy that has difficulties coming up with an adequate response. Most inhabitants in Iran are aware that this is a form of protest, and if the regime let people continue to shout, it becomes obvious how widely opposed they are.

On the other hand it is difficult for an Islamic theocracy to justify forbidding people to shout from their roof that God is Great, since it is an expression used by devout Muslims in many situations.

The dilemma they created added a new dimension to the resistance. Not only did they annoy the authorities, they also encouraged other people to dare participating in this relatively safe form of resistance.


Provocation refers to a method that includes elements perceived as provocative by part of the audience. What it takes to provoke depends on the context, but methods involving sex and religion are frequently chosen if the goal is to provoke.

The Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot’s performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February 2012 provoked Russian authorities tremendously and caught the attention of the world press. During mass they managed to perform 41 seconds of their song ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin away!’, before the guards removed them from the building.

The reason the stunt managed to catch the attention of the world was that the music video of this and a similar performance in another church in Moscow was posted on YouTube where it gathered more than 600,000 views in a short time.

The edited film included short movie cuts of Putin expressing political views the activist opposed, clipped together with the performance in the Cathedral. The clergy and political elite perceived the text as provocative, and three women were convicted to prison sentences of two years for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

Punk bands’ public performances can be provocative in themselves in many contexts, but to perform without permission in a cathedral during the mass added to the provocation.

Few activists from the Russian opposition have ever received such attention globally. Voina, the community Pussy Riots belonged to, had done a number of political stunts in the past, but never with the same impact as this one. The place (Cathedral), the content of the text, the movie on social networks, and the international protest at the trial against the activists all contributed to the escalation of the conflict.


Persistence means that the method is escalated by an increase in the effort behind the action, the risks the activists are willing to take or the pain they are prepared to endure. Again context is important, since that which might be considered normal protest behaviour in one field is perceived differently somewhere else.

An escalation through persistence might be connected to how long an event takes place, but persistence might also have other elements. For some it might be impressive to have 50.000 “likes” on Facebook, but it is an increase in effort to have collected more than 55.000 handwritten signatures.

This is what the United Liberation Movement for West Papua did in 2015 as part of its campaign to become a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. The collection of signatures involved great risk of arrest and torture at the hands of the Indonesian authorities, but the group hopes the membership will contribute to bringing West Papua closer to self-determination.

Most people will recognize that is required much more time and effort to get people to physically sign their names than to press the “like” button. The method – documenting support – is the same, but the element of persistence makes it more difficult to ignore.


Many movements and organisations have used innovation to escalate their struggles, either by inventing completely new methods of transferring older ones to a new context.

The organisation Greenpeace has been especially adept at innovating new methods of nonviolent action in order to draw attention to controversial issues. In 1971, the first voyage to sail into a nuclear test zone to prevent the explosion of a nuclear bomb took place, and in 1975 Greenpeace turned the same method towards another issue – whaling.

At this time, many whale species were almost extinct due to extensive hunting, and other species were severely decimated. Japan and the Soviet Union were the only two nations still using large industrial whaling ships. In the beginning of its anti-whaling campaign, Greenpeace focused on the industrial hunting, although many other countries were hunting whales in smaller numbers.

Employing the innovative method of following the whalers and driving inflatable rubber boats directly between the whales and whalers with their harpoons in order to save the whales, Greenpeace brought the issue of whaling high on the agenda in many places.

The drama that unfolded was particularly well-suited for media coverage. The David (Greenpeace) against Goliath (the “bloody butchers” from the whaling ships), a story which involved both Greenpeace actually stopping the whalers, as well as the firing of an explosive harpoon right over the head of Greenpeace activists.

From escalation of method to escalation of conflict

This campaign to stop the whale hunting is an example of an innovation, but it is also a good illustration of how the different forms of escalations can potentially reinforce each other in an effective campaign.

Following the whale hunters did not count on quantity, because it only required a limited number of people in the right places to work as desired. So few nations were involved in large scale whale hunting by the mid 1970’s that a few committed activists could shut down the operations as long as they were persistent in following the whale hunting ships and willing to take the risk of placing themselves directly between the whales and the hunters.

The innovation of the method drew attention to a largely ignored issue because of the drama that was enacted on the sea – the battle between the large whale hunting ships and the people in the small boats. The story they created was partly based on a provocation, but the provocative element was not the main aspect of this escalation.

The boats between the whales and the whale hunters were also a clear example of a dilemma action. The hunters had two main options, both of which undesirable. They could either continue the whale hunt or stop it immediately. Continuing meant risking the lives of the activists and being filmed while doing it.

It also gave the activists more documentation to their stories of the “bloody butchers” and strengthened their struggle for a permanent stop for the whale hunting. The other option was to stop the whale hunt as long as the activists were present, meaning that the activists immediately achieved their goal of saving the whales.

The increased attention caused by the innovative method, dilemma creation and persistence were almost impossible to ignore for the media and audiences. The media coverage of the spectacular actions gave the conflict high visibility, and it became a self-reinforcing circle: More attention and more people involved made it even more difficult not to have an opinion. Thus it led to an increase in the conflict, forcing people who had not previously had an opinion about whaling to take a stand.

By the mid 1980s, Greenpeace and other environmental organisations had managed to escalate the conflict to a stage where governments were forced to come with major concessions.

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) decided on a moratorium to stop all commercial whaling from 1986. This did not mean a complete end to whaling, but there is no doubt that the innovative method played a significant role in shifting the conflict from one that was “below the radar” to the top of the political agenda in the involved states.

When nonviolent campaigns succeed in achieving their goals, escalation is often necessary in order to transform the underlying conflict. A conflict can be going on for a long time at a certain level, without ever reaching a “solution” or even being recognised as a conflict.

An escalation might then be required in order for it to be acknowledged or for one of the parties to win a partial or full victory. Whether escalation and “victory” are good or bad will depend on who is asked.

For the whale hunting states, the escalation that Greenpeace and others initiated was undesirable. But for the people who supported protection of the whales, the escalation was a necessary step for their success. This is also the case with campaigns to overthrow dictators, abolish slavery, and the struggle for women’s right to vote. None of these campaigns would have reached their goals without a lengthy struggle with clear elements of escalation.

Focusing on how to escalate the nonviolent methods in a conflict, we have suggested five aspects that are important in order to understand how nonviolent conflict escalation works. Using a number of different examples, we have illustrated how the method can be escalated quantitatively or through innovation, dilemma creation, provocation and persistence.

When such methods are successful in escalating the conflict, surprise and unpredictability are often core elements in dramatizing the conflict, leading to further escalation.

With the growing focus on unarmed conflicts, it is necessary to better understand the roles and effects of nonviolent escalations. Without analysing the multitude of ways this can be done, we will not be able to fully understand how nonviolent actions can impact societal conflicts.

We hope this text will inspire both researchers and practitioners to investigate this field further, because, to paraphrase the UN declaration of Human Rights “all conflicts are born equal with the same right to recognition”.

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