Conflict Emergence Stage

Louis Kriesberg

September 2003

After a conflict has remained latent for some time, if the underlying grievances or frustrations are strong enough, a "triggering event" marks the emergence or the "eruption" phase of the conflict. This event or episode may be the first appearance of the conflict, or it may be a confrontation that erupts in the context of a protracted, but dormant, or low-level conflict.

For example, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland undertook a nonviolent civil-rights campaign in 1968, after a long hiatus in their conflict with Great Britain and the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. The police of the Protestant-controlled government broke up nonviolent demonstrations, which were also attacked by Protestant vigilantes. The dormant Irish Republican Army began to organize to defend the Catholic community. Subsequently, the struggle between Catholics seeking to join the Irish Free State, and the Protestants who wanted Northern Ireland to remain united with Great Britain, was violently renewed.

Such triggering events can increase the prominence of particular people, identities, or issues. The event may be perceived as a threat to a particular group's well-being or existence, and old traumas may be aroused, as in Northern Ireland. Past traumas can leave legacies of fear and hatred that can be aroused by political and intellectual figures.[1] For example, Yugoslavia began to break up as Serb nationalism was aroused by accounts of past atrocities and defeats by Croats and Muslims.[2]

Longstanding grievances may also be reshaped by new expectations and threats. This happened in Northern Ireland when the civil rights struggle was reframed into a nationalist struggle over separation versus union. Experiences of oppression and injustice become epitomized and given high importance by particular noteworthy events (for example, Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the racially segregated U.S. South in the 1950s). On the other hand, the privileged are likely to fear the loss of privilege and of the way of life that they have come to feel is their due. (This is precisely why white Southerners felt so threatened by the growing conflict over civil rights, which was triggered by Parks' bold act.)

Modest reformist goals may appear inadequate, in the face of the revelations evident from new encounters with the dominant groups. The goals then are reformulated so that the adversaries are required to make more radical and extreme changes. (See the essay on polarization for a description of how this occurs.) The conflict increasingly is seen by the opponents to be zero sum, so that whatever one side gains is at the expense of the other.

There may also be a series of triggering events, spread out over time. In South Africa, in the 1950s, the struggle against apartheid used nonviolent means. One campaign included large demonstrations against laws requiring blacks to carry pass books. In March 1960, at a demonstration in Sharpeville, police fired on an unarmed crowd of protestors, killing 69 Africans and wounding many more. Nonviolent resistance grew, and the government banned the Pan-African Congress and the African National Congress. These events suggested to Nelson Mandela and other African leaders that some form of armed struggle was necessary.[3] Preparations for armed resistance began, and Mandela and many of his colleagues were arrested, tried, and found guilty. They were imprisoned for life in 1964. An intense and often violent struggle of suppression and resistance then continued for more than two decades, in a severe intractable conflict.

[1] [Volkan, 1988 #623].

[2][Glenny, 1992 #191].

[3] Mandela, 1994 #374].

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "Conflict Emergence Stage." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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