Guy Burgess
Cate Malek

Originally published March 2005

Revised by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess, March 2020

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

When this essay was first published in 2005, the authors talked about refugees and children of fighting or divorcing parents as examples of "bystanders," and discussed how they were both victims, but how they sometimes, particularly in the case of adults, could also be positive forces helping to mitigate or even resolve the conflict. Another type of bystanders is prominent in 2020. More...

Bystanders are the forgotten parties in a conflict. They are neither direct adversaries nor formal intermediaries. Still, they are often caught in the figurative or literal cross fire. In violent, large-scale conflicts, innocent bystanders bear a large share of the suffering. They are killed and injured, their property is destroyed and they are often forced to flee as refugees.

In smaller scale and nonviolent conflicts, bystanders are forced to live in hostile environments.  In politically polarized communities and nations, for instance the United States and much of Europe in 2020, highly-polarized, highly-engaged political elites hold--and act on--extreme views that very often do not represent the interests or values of the majority of citizens, who are essentially bystanders to the political turmoil paralyzing their countries. People continue to vote for extreme leaders out of fear that the "other side" is worse—but few are pleased with the people they elect to represent them, and they are even less pleased with the governance that results.  (It has been said in the U.S. in 2019 that the U.S. Congress was "less popular than colonoscopies and root canals.") [3]

At a smaller scale, children are bystanders in their parents' conflicts.  Millions of children are directly harmed from their parents' fighting; others are harmed psychologically as they are forced to live in households filled with fighting and tension, and absent love.

One of the first questions when dealing with bystanders is how to limit injury to innocent victims. In January 2004, there were over 17 million refugees seeking asylum outside their countries of origin. In 2018, the number had skyrocketed to 70.8 million people. [1] The majority of these refugees came from places that have been racked by violent conflict, such as Afghanistan, the Sudan, Syria, and Central and South America, where people are fleeing the violent drug trade and failed states such as Venezuela. Often, the places refugees flee to are hardly better.  Refugee camps are terribly overcrowded and under-supplied with basic necessities of life.  They are frequent sites of violence and sexual abuse.  And as the number of refugees grows, receiving countries become less and less willing to take more in, or to adequately protect and help the ones that are there. So the quandary of how to help refugees is one that has not at all been solved.

The same is true, perhaps on a smaller scale, for victims of domestic violence. Some are put into foster care, but many are not, and not all foster care is as safe and supportive as these children need. Also, when social service funds are cut, as they have been quite often in the last 20 or so years, the ability of social service agencies to help at-risk children diminishes more. So this is also an unsolved problem.

Protecting innocent bystanders has proved to be a complicated issue. BI has some more information on this in other essays: refugeeshuman rights violations, women in intractable conflict and human rights protection. We also have a user guide on Domestic Violence

The role of the bystander is not only that of the victim, however. Around the world, bystanders are doing some of the most creative, courageous work on addressing conflict that has been seen in years. One of the key problems with addressing intractable conflict has been finding people with enough interest to give their time, energy, resources and often lives for someone else's war. Wealthy donors looking at a violent conflict from a safe distance talk about preventing intractable conflict, but often pull out when the risks become too great. Or, they may get involved for selfish rather than altruistic reasons— to gain access to natural resources, for example.The conflicting parties themselves are usually too caught up in escalating the conflict to clearly think through ways of ending it. They tend to focus on achieving victory, whatever the cost to themselves and those around them. In the end, it is the bystanders who have so much at stake that they are willing to confront and possibly transform the conflict. 

This is apparent in the political conflict ravaging the U.S.  People who are active politically tend to be those who are the "true believers."They think their side is right, the other side is wrong (at times, evil), and they do pretty much anything they can do to win.  While this has, fortunately, stopped short of violence (with a few notable exceptions), it has included all manner of "dirty tricks," which are particularly easy to deploy in our current highly socially-networked society.  The result has been almost completely dysfuncational government.  The people who are working to get us out of this mess are not the "true-believers" or the political leaders on either side, but rather the people who understand that the enemy is not "the other," but rather our common problems and the way we failing to work together to solve them.  These are people with organizations in The Bridge Alliance, all of which are working to bridge the "red-blue" divide.  And they also are the rare politician who remembers "better days" when Democrats and Republicans could work together, and who stands up for what's right, even when it differs from his or her party's wishes.   We need to encourage more bystanders to get involved in ways that protect their interests and the interests of the larger society. Such efforts can do a lot to try to make U.S. politics more constructive.

Another example of highly effective bystanders is the story told by John Paul Lederach about a group of bystanders who successfully stopped a war. In the 1990s, Wajir, Kenya was caught up in a bad cycle of clan-based violence. Wajir had experienced war many times before and a small group of women were fed up with the constant violence. They held a meeting to see what they could do about it. They decided to focus on the market. These women wanted to make the market safe for people of any clan background to come and buy food for their families. They established monitors who watched the market daily. If there were any infractions, a committee of women would act quickly to address them. Soon, they had created a zone of peace in the market. Once this was accomplished, they began to address the wider violence that was still affecting their lives. They worked with their elders, who were motivated to create the Council of Elders for Peace. They then moved to get the blessing from the government for what they were doing, which they received. Finally, they had conversations with the youth who were fighting in the bush. Some of the key youth in the district formed Youth for Peace. Eventually through the work of all these groups, ceasefires were secured and the clan-based factions were disarmed. , Wajir still faced many problems, but the Wajir Peace and Development Committee is going strong. [4]

The question becomes, how can we harness the power of bystanders? For those playing this role, making a stand and addressing conflicts can be extremely risky. Sometimes, those brave enough to make a stand pay with their lives. This was illustrated in a story from Columbia, which was also included in the essay on confronting extremists.

A group of peasants living in the Rio Carare region of Columbia grouped together to make a stand against the various armed groups moving through their area. For years, various armed factions had been competing for the peasants' land, taxes and allegiance. When one of the armed factions took control of an area, they ruled with a heavy hand. The peasants lived in fear and silence. When friends or family members were killed, they remained silent for fear of provoking more killings. In 1987, a small group of peasant leaders decided to take their lives into their own hands. They formed the Association of Peasant Workers of Carare (ATCC). Their code was fairly simple. They agreed to work together in solidarity, to break the law of silence by doing everything publicly and to engage in dialogue with the armed soldiers. They declared their lands a zone of peace and sent delegations to meet with all of the armed groups. When they met with soldiers, they worked to address them as human beings instead of members of an armed group. In this way, they broke down the barriers that had traditionally existed between the soldiers and the peasants. Above all, they swore to die before they would kill. This group was successful in reducing the violence in their area and received both the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize and the UN "We are the people" award. However, unknown assassins murdered several of the founding leaders, effectively ending the movement. [5]

Bystanders around the world are faced with this same predicament. They are forced to choose between risking their lives to take a stand and watching a conflict spiral out of control injuring or killing many who get in the way. However, because bystanders have the potential to play such a powerful peacebuilding role, it may be possible to offer them support. One way to encourage bystanders would be to develop some kind of support network to help protect them. Another method could be to educate them, giving them examples of other bystanders who have made a significant difference. (See the essay on empowerment.) Many times, bystanders in a conflict are working in isolation, unaware that others have been caught in the same situation and found ways to successfully address it.

(For more information also see the essays on third siders and witnesses.)

Current Implications

When this essay was first published in 2005, the authors talked about refugees and children of fighting or divorcing parents as examples of "bystanders," and discussed how they were both victims, but how they sometimes, particularly in the case of adults, could also be positive forces helping to mitigate or even resolve the conflict.

Another type of bystanders is prominent in 2020. Those are the millions of people who are unhappy about the degree of hostility being exhibited by their political leaders (on all sides), and who do not agree with or support the extreme views that are being advocated by either side. These people are not being represented well (if at all) by our current political leaders.

But they are bearing the brunt of their actions which take the form of destructive laws and regulations (such as the regulations that have cut back on environmental protections, or the actions taken a couple of years ago to greatly minimize the size of public health service and pandemic response. (This is being written just as the novel coronavirus is spreading exponentially in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world.) Everyone is suffering because of the bad decision making being made in Washington, D.C. -- at the White House and Congress.

But just as the original essay suggested, these bystanders are not just victims. They might also be the source of solution--as some of them work to de-escalate political hatreds and advocate more consensus-based solutions to our problems. Examples are the people and organizations who are members of the Bridge Alliance who are working together to defuse political polarization and working across divides to advance a "democracy revitalization movement." Other bystanders are not organized, but they are working alone to create positive and constructive governance processes in their own communities and are supporting those political candidates who seem to be more interested in an willing to compromise, rather than those who are towing a hardline, extreme attempt to totally vanquish the other side. 

Note: Most of the updates that we have been doing to the original Beyond Intractability essays only appear in the "Current Implications" sections because we did not feel free to directly edit other authors' essays.  Since Guy was one of the original authors of this essay, however, he gave me (Heidi) permission to update the body of the essay itself.  Thus, more updated information is found in the body of this essay as well as this "Current Implications" section.

-- Heidi Burgess, March, 2020


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[1] The 18 million number came from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees Website,, January, 2004. The 70.8 million number also came from UNHCR ( accessed on March 18, 2020.

[2] Denver SafeHouse website, , October, 2004. This same number is given atin in 2020 from the Rescource Center for Dometic Violence: Child Protection and Custody. Accessed March 18, 2020.

[3] Interestingly, when I went to find the source of this quote I remembered, I found it went all the way back to 2013!  Looks like Congress has been unpopular for a long time! Accessed March 18, 2020.

[4] From a speech given by John Paul Lederach at the Association of Conflict Researchers Conference; Sacramento, CA; September 30, 2004. Also, John Paul Lederach. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[5] ibid.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Guy and Cate Malek. "Bystanders." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

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