While reading a recent issue of Popular Science magazine, I was captivated by an article on “dark matter.” Scientists are trying to wrap their minds around the 85 percent of the universe we cannot yet see or understand. But what struck me were the parallels with the challenges of peacebuilding – the idea that conflict also may be 85 percent “dark matter,” requiring peacebuilders to probe more deeply as we practice our craft.

The wreckage of a car following a car bomb explosion in Baghdad. Aug. 28, 2013. In the span of roughly an hour, on Wednesday, more than a dozen explosions struck around the city, killing at least 65 people and wounding far more, in the latest series of terrorist attacks that have engulfed Iraq. (Ayman Oghanna/The New York Times)
The wreckage of a car following a car bomb explosion in Baghdad. In the span of roughly an hour, more than a dozen explosions struck around the city, killing at least 65 people. Photo Credit:The NY Times/Ayman Oghanna

Scientists are working to detect these invisible, intangible particles, which push and pull the objects of the universe in different directions in a kind of “shadow universe,” according to the Popular Science article.

So, what do I mean by the ‘dark matter’ of conflict?  It is everything we cannot see.  Narratives about “us” and “them,” mistrust, stereotypes, identity, perceptions, trauma, standards of masculinity, and unexpressed fears are all examples of this different kind of dark matter. While legions of diplomats and mediators are sweating over peace agreements and facilitating negotiations, there is much more unsaid than said that impacts the outcome of their efforts.  Development officers and aid workers also confront this sort of dark matter. As an example, a group acting out might be motivated by resentment over services provided to one community but not to another.

These sorts of hidden influences may be the most underestimated force in conflict situations.  Narratives about status may echo inside a negotiator’s head when asked to hold talks as an equal with someone perceived as lower class.  Shallow or working trust -- just enough trust to work together -- may be sufficient to solve a problem, but it can easily dissolve when a party is reminded of a past grievance. 

People affected by war, from Colombia to Chechnya, have experienced the trauma caused by what they have seen and lived, but often they haven’t dealt with the after-effects, hindering their ability to move beyond the past and envision a more peaceful future. Understanding and respecting these currents beneath the surface can make the difference between sustainable peace and recurring cycles of violence.

Relations between Sudan and South Sudan provide a relevant example.  After five decades of off-and-on civil war, the leaders of both countries make gestures of working toward peace, but when we peel back the layers, we find tell-tale signs of the issues that lie beneath.

A cultural value among many South Sudanese is a nuanced concept of ‘dignity,’ yet they likely wouldn’t demand ‘dignity’ at the negotiating table.  Conversely, South Sudanese negotiators may undervalue the insecurities of Sudan’s ruling regime and their non-negotiable need to save face.  When these needs go unacknowledged, deliberately or not, the result is the same -- a fragile peace that cannot withstand the tests of time.

This dynamic extends beyond Sudan and South Sudan. Coalition forces in Iraq failed to understand the impact of imprisoning Iraqi women suspected of supporting al-Qaida, an action that threatened family honor.  This gap may actually have generated violent reactions. Dignity, pride, honor, and saving face are all elements of the kind of “dark matter” that affects peace processes anywhere in the world.

Thankfully, peacebuilders have many tools to address dark matter. Dialogue is a technique that produces demonstrable changes simply by encouraging participants to truly listening to others.  I observed this profound transformation myself when I saw Iraqi youth grapple with their own inability to apply principles of non-violence.  They could not fathom, through the lens of their own values, how, as described by a Buddhist leader, one could have compassion for one’s oppressor.  

Yet through a carefully crafted process of structured dialogue, participants confronted with a new perspective reflected on their own beliefs and customs. In this way, the Iraqis were better able to understand the factors that can propel retaliation to defend family honor.  Surfacing dark matter does not remove it, but it can open doors to creative solutions that, for example, could help those involved both retain honor and show compassion.

Trauma healing is an under-appreciated and underutilized practice to deal with dark matter.  Peacebuilding without respect for, or understanding of, trauma, can be worse than counterproductive; it can actually reignite the flames of hatred.  Simply bringing long-buried grievances to the surface can cause potential peace actors to revert to old paradigms of “us” and “them,” preventing participants from seeing potential allies with a common vision and the same human needs.  Yet narratives of victimhood can be overcome through trauma-sensitive activities such as truth-telling and by listening to a perpetrator reflect on past actions.  

Active listening techniques like reframing can be effective ways to deal with dark matter. In the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” for example, women in Liberia come up with the idea of reframing societal views of what it meant to be a ‘real man:’ Rather than fighting as a rebel at the expense of civilian casualties, they sought to define a “real man” as one who protects women and children.

Dark matter in peace processes is much more than a clash of cultures.  It is the part of the iceberg that sank the Titanic, and it can do the same to peace processes.  Awareness of these factors helps peacebuilders anticipate how to deal constructively and sensitively with potential landmines, while working toward the overarching objective of a more sustainable peace.   

Jacqueline H. Wilson is a senior program officer in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.

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