Fratricide and Fraternité: Understanding and Repairing Neighbourly Atrocity

Project Summary

This project is hosted by: Human Rights Consortium

Research interests:
Civil Rights, Human rights, Social Sciences
Project period:
01-Oct-2009 - 03-Jan-2011
Project summary:
Despite Biblical injunctions to love our neighbours as ourselves, history is replete with examples of neighbours killing neighbours. This seminar series explores the causes and consequences of neighbourly atrocities across history, cultures, and continents – from republican Rome to Kenya’s Rift Valley. It seeks to answer two overarching and inter-related questions: (1) what turns neighbour against neighbour? and (2) how do neighbours live together again after atrocity? Thus, this series can be seen as the obverse of the Sawyer Seminars on “The Ethics of the Neighbor” (UCLA 2003-2004).

The seminars bring together all ten Institutes in the School of Advanced Study, University of London, with their formidable, international research networks, as well as a range of distinguished British and international scholars, to investigate neighbourly atrocities from an extensive range of thematic, disciplinary, methodological, geographic, and temporal perspectives.

Management Details

Lead researcher & project contact:

Name Position Institute Organisation Contact
Dr Lars Waldorf Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights Law Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York. University of York



Name Position Institute Organisation Contact
Dr Kirrily Pells Policy Officer, Young Lives Department of International Development Oxford University



Funder Grant type Award
Mellon Foundation


Related Activities

Related events:

Title Details Date
Fratricide and Fraternité Seminars Violence

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there have been at least 111 civil wars around the world.

One of the most troubling and perplexing aspects of this recent violence is what motivates so many otherwise ordinary individuals to participate in killing their neighbours. Searching for answers, several journalists and scholars have clutched at comforting metaphors and mono-causal explanations: “greed,” “grievance,” tribalism, ethnic hatred, “the new barbarism,” and so forth. The latter are largely ahistorical and essentializing, yet their wide currency partly explains the resignation, cynicism, or indifference that all too often informs Western reactions to collective violence in the Global South.

The surge in collective violence has prompted considerable academic research on conflict, conflict prevention, and post-conflict recovery. Yet, this burgeoning literature remains dominated by just a few disciplines and somewhat constrained by the borders of area studies or individual cases. The study of collective violence also tends to be carved up into specializations based on the form it takes (civil war, genocide, revolutions, rebellions, riots, liberation struggles), those it targets (ethnic, racial, or religious groups), and the angle of view (macro- or micro-level). Furthermore, conflict and violence are often treated as separate phenomena, with political science and law focusing on conflict while anthropology and social psychology investigate violence.

While there are good reasons for some of this academic specialization, there is an urgent need for more collaborative work across a broader range of disciplines. In particular, comparative analysis is required into the historical and cultural origins, manifestations, and aftermaths of neighbourly violence. For, as the “frontline” anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom has argued, “themes of terror and hope – however different their manifestation from locale to locale – demonstrate similarities that allow understandings across time and space, village and culture” (1997:89). The seminar series also seeks to expand on the path-breaking work of the Yale political scientist Stathis Kalyvas (2006) to see how his theoretical insights and methodological approaches with respect to civil war violence (particularly focused on the Greek civil war) can be applied to other historical and contemporary forms of neighbourly violence.

© Maurice Harron, 'Reconciliation' Carlisle Square, Derry (1991)


In the aftermath of state violence and mass atrocity, citizens have to make fateful choices between vengeance and forgiveness, remembrance and forgetting. This has led to a proliferation of state mechanisms (usually trials and truth commissions) and local initiatives (like community courts and reconciliation ceremonies). These, in turn, have helped created a new field of study – “transitional justice” – which brings together a number of different disciplines (particularly anthropology, law, literature, political science, public health, and psychology) to look at how post-authoritarian and post-conflict regimes should cope with the massive human rights abuses committed by their predecessors.

In recent years, “transitional justice” has become globalized: international donors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and legal elites have exported internationalized criminal tribunals and South African-style truth commissions to different post-conflict societies with vastly disparate political, historical, and cultural contexts. This seminar series brings together a number of scholars and artists who are critically reappraising whether such mechanisms reflect the needs and wishes of local communities, and how those mechanisms are actually impacting relations among neighbours. So far, the (limited) empirical evidence is not encouraging. Criminal tribunals seem to create martyrs and harden communal resentments (Stover & Weinstein 2004), while truth commissions (even in South Africa) sometimes have little resonance or impact at the local level (Wilson 2001).

At the same time, though, there are grounds for hope: social bonds and trust among neighbours sometimes prove surprisingly resilient. The question, though, is whether external interventions (by the state or international actors) help or hinder the repair of neighbourly ties. Drawing on their fieldwork in Mozambique, Helena Cobban (2007) and Carolyn Nordstrom (1997) both suggest that local actors are best left alone to informally negotiate relations. Nordstrom insists that “[p]eople on the frontlines generate their own solutions” by drawing on local, cultural traditions embedded in everyday life (1997: xviii).

Two recent case studies in Mozambique, however, demonstrate that locally-sensitive development projects can promote social trust in communities (Manor 2007). That experience is not unique: the authors found surprisingly similar results across four other fragile, post-conflict states – despite their very different social, cultural, and political systems (Manor 2007) [1]. The case studies showed that potentially constructive social resources were much more likely to survive at the local level because face-to-face relationships within communities possess more substance and durability than at higher levels where relationships were more impersonal. Yet, they also found that the surviving social resources at the local level were mostly latent and required external catalysts to bring them into play for reconstruction and healing [2]. Just as outside elite manipulation had sometimes polarized local populations and fomented neighbourly violence, external catalysts of a more constructive kind (civil society organizations, international development agencies, or government agencies) could trigger post-conflict collective action to rebuild minimal neighbourly social interactions and ensure that basic livelihood needs will be met.

Central Questions

The series is organized into two parts. In the first half, participants will examine the causes and manifestations of neighbourly violence. It will open with a one-day conference on “Fratricide,” followed by five thematic seminars on neighbours, neighbourhoods, denunciation, intimate atrocities, and participation. In these sessions, we will answer several troubling questions about neighbourly atrocity:

What causes neighbour to turn against neighbour?
When and why does close proximity lead to barbarity?
Do different ethical and cultural traditions, with their varying obligations towards neighbours, affect the existence or levels of neighbourly violence?
To what extent is there a deep structure or common logic to neighbourly violence that crosses different cultures and historical periods?
What is the relationship between the larger causes of conflict and the local-level patterns of violence?
Why are rape, sexual violence, and sexual mutilation endemic features of so much neighbourly violence?

The second half of the series will explore the profound political, social, moral, and cultural consequences of mass violence for individuals and communities. We will lead off with five thematic seminars on partitions, reconciliation, everyday aftermaths, memory, and retribution, and culminate with a one-day conference on “Fraternité.” [3] We will answer persistent questions about the possibility of social repair at the local level:

How, if at all, do neighbours live together again after atrocity?
How can cycles of violence in local communities be broken?
How do neighbours understand, interpret, remember, and narrate atrocity among themselves – both individually and collectively?
Do good fences make better neighbours?
What forms of truth-telling and justice, if any, lead to reconciliation at the local level?
What are the factors that enable those who have suffered sexual violence and children born of such violence to be accepted by their families, neighbours, and communities?

Comparisons and thematic “threads”

To answer those central questions, the series will range from violence in ancient Rome to the Rwandan genocide, from Sophocles’ dramas to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and from Lysias’ speeches to Vichy cinema. In an effort to move beyond the usual academic specializations and disciplinary divides, the series will not be organized chronologically, geographically or by forms of conflict. Rather, it will be structured thematically and will employ historical, cultural, and disciplinary comparisons both across and within the different sessions (see descriptions below).

Four thematic “threads” will run through the seminar series:

Identity. We will explore how identity – that slippery subjectivity – is both socially constructed and politically manipulated before, during, and after mass violence. When and where do the shifting, multiple, and sometimes cross-cutting identities of an individual become dominated by a single-minded identification? When does neighbourly identity succumb – or alternatively prevail – over other identities? When are external agents (e.g. national elites) successful and unsuccessful in redefining individual and community identities – particularly, considerations of who is a proper neighbour? Examining how violence and narratives of violence contribute to identity formation will underscore the conceptual and moral difficulties of classifying individuals as perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers. Individuals often inhabit several categories at once, as in the case of child soldiers, or over time, as yesterday’s perpetrators become today’s victims (and vice-versa). [4]

Agency. The issue of agency is inextricably intertwined with that of identity. The post-election conflict in Kenya is only the most recent example of elites manipulating identity and sanctioning violence to serve their own political ends. But does the focus on elites (through, for example, legal doctrines like command responsibility) inadvertently risk denying agency to, and excusing violence by, non-elites? Yet, how should we legally and morally weigh the intra-group pressure (both coercion and conformity) that often pushes ordinary neighbours to participate in violence? Another way agency comes into play is through the depicting of “victims” – particularly women and children – as acted-upon rather than as actors in their own right. This denial of agency (often by well-meaning governmental and non-governmental agencies) can lead to further forms of violence and exclusion.

Local. For the most part, the seminar series will focus on the local-level dynamics of atrocity and reconciliation. However, it is important to recognize that the local is not “spatially incarcerated” (Appadurai 1988), but rather is inseparably linked to the national and global. Neighbours often opportunistically use national or regional episodes of collective violence to settle personal scores that have little, if anything, to do with the larger causes of the conflict (Kalyvas 2006). After conflict, local elites may try to capture post-conflict “transitional justice” mechanisms or development projects to use them for their own personal ends. That said, it is nonetheless important that Nuremberg’s international legal norms of accountability, now institutionalized in several criminal tribunals, not displace or disrupt local conceptions of retributive and restorative justice.

Everyday violence. What is the relationship between everyday violence and extraordinary atrocity? Some scholars contend that structural violence leads to mass violence, while others deny any causal linkages. At the local level, there appears to be a complicated dynamic as communities move from everyday to extraordinary violence and from extraordinary to everyday violence, with each shaping the other. The anthropologist Paul Richards has emphasized the need to treat conflict as (1) a war-peace continuum (what he terms “no peace, no war”); (2) a social process; and (3) arising from socially-embedded patterns of everyday violence (Richards 2005). This dovetails with the fact, noted above, that local atrocities often opportunistically express the pattern of existing, everyday conflicts between neighbours (particularly over land). In the wake of conflict, violence may express itself in new, more insidious everyday forms, like post-apartheid South Africa’s epidemic of sexual violence. Alternatively, in other places, everyday violence after atrocity may paradoxically act as a form of social capital, with mistrust, fear, and persistent insecurity ensuring a minimalist neighbourliness.

Copyright: Lars Waldorf


Appadurai, A. (1988). “Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory,” Cultural Anthropology

Cobban, H. (2007). Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes (Paradigm Publishers).

Kalyvas, S.N. (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge University Press).

Krishna, A. (2002). Active Social Capital: Tracing the Roots of Development and Democracy (Columbia University Press).

Manor, J. (ed.). (2007). Aid that Works: Successful Development in Fragile States (World Bank).

Nordstrom, C. (1997). A Different Kind of War Story (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Richards, P. (2005). No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts (James Currey).

Stover, E. & Weinstein, H. (eds.). (2004). My Neighbor, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity (Cambridge University Press).

Wilson, R. A. (2001). The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State (Cambridge University Press).


The four other locales were Afghanistan, Cambodia, northern Uganda, and Timor-Leste.
These findings echo an important and authoritative study of localities in rural India (Krishna 2002).
The terms fratricide and fraternité resonate historically and culturally: fratricide with the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and fraternité with the French Revolution and Republic. The use of those terms is not meant to exclude gendered violence or sorority.
This is not to deny, however, that some bear greater moral culpability and legal responsibility for perpetrating violence, while others bear a disproportionate share of the suffering.
Opening conference: Fratricide 01-Jan-2009