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Why are Negative Peace and Positive Peace Important?

The peace bell at UN Headquarters, New York City

What does it mean to hope for world peace? It is an elusive concept that often seems closer to a vague state than a tangible goal. There are many different ways of talking about and defining peace, with each one trying to come closer to making peace an achievable goal. Johan Galtung, considered the father of peace studies, is responsible for one of the most common of these classifications. His work takes the idea of peace and breaks it down into two different categories: negative peace and positive peace.

Negative peace can be defined most simply as the absence of violence.1 Actions taken in order to achieve negative peace, then, are those that aim to prevent or stop explicit violence from occurring. These types of actions are extremely common, mostly because many of the actions that states and organizations take in pursuit of peace fall into this category. A classic example is peacekeeping. On an international scale, modern peacekeeping utilizes third parties, typically United Nations Peacekeepers, in order to prevent violence from breaking out.2 Essentially, peacekeeping enforces negative peace. Achieving negative peace is often the first goal when it comes to maintaining peaceful societies, as outright violence is an obvious indicator that a society is not peaceful.

Peacekeepers plant trees as part of an initiative by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan

However, the absence of violence does not necessarily mean that a society is peaceful. Another important measure of this would be positive peace, which looks at the underlying conditions of the society and works to take action towards creating a sustainable peace.3 Often, this takes the form of eliminating many of the conditions that have to do with perpetuating violence on a structural level.4 Unlike negative peace, which targets active outbreaks of violence, positive peace targets oppression and inequality. One of the major aspects of this is cooperation, which is often seen through peacebuilding efforts. Peacebuilding works towards replacing structures that reinforce war and violence with those that reinforce peace, often by targeting and eliminating issues like inequality.5 According to Galtung, this is how peace becomes sustainable – by providing structural alternatives to violence through cooperation. Another crucial part of this process is communication, especially what is known as nonviolent communication. Nonviolent communication focuses on speaking and listening in way that emphasizes meeting the needs of others and utilizing compassion.6 This process focuses on communicating observations, feelings, needs, and requests.7 If those on both sides of a conflict are able to believe that their needs are being heard and acknowledged, it allows them to focus on working towards a solution, as opposed to taking out their anger. In this way, nonviolent communication promotes positive peace. Establishing a dialogue between parties becomes one of the structures that replaces violence.

Negative and positive peace are not contradictory, but complimentary. In order for a truly peaceful and nonviolent society to be achieved, there must be both the absence of violence and continued cooperation towards a sustainable culture of peace.8 This is reflected even in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, with Goal 16 setting out to not only reduce all forms of violence, but also strengthen institutions and policies to prevent further forms of violence.9 There is only so much progress that can be made towards cooperation and sustainable peace when there is still active violence. Similarly, a lack of violent conflict does not mean that a society is at peace. It takes both negative and positive peace to achieve a truly peaceful society.


1. Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969).

2. Johan Galtung, “Three Approaches to Peace: Peacekeeping, Peacemaking, and Peacebuilding” (Galtung-Institut for Peace Theory and Peace Practice, n.d.),

3. Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969).

4. Ibid.

5. Johan Galtung, “Three Approaches to Peace: Peacekeeping, Peacemaking, and Peacebuilding” (Galtung-Institut for Peace Theory and Peace Practice, n.d.),

6. Marshall Rosenberg, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” Center for Nonviolent Communication, n.d.,

7. “The NVC Model,” Center for Nonviolent Communication, n.d.,

8. “An Interview with Johan Galtung,” Peace Insight, n.d.,

9. “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – United Nations Sustainable Development,” United Nations (United Nations, n.d.),

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