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CSS Mediation Perspectives: Settling an Armed Conflict with a Sworn Enemy

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Image courtesy of Flickr. President Santos signing the peace agreement with the FARC on 26 September 2016. Less than a week later, the deal was rejected in a plebiscite.

Mediation Perspectives is a regular series of blog contributions by the CSS Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors.

Intrastate conflicts are notoriously difficult to settle. In many regions of the world, from Afghanistan and Myanmar to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, citizens have grown up during war, only to see their children or even grandchildren born into continued conflict. That is not to say that long-standing enemies never manage to reach a negotiated settlement. In Colombia, after more than half a century of fighting, the government reached a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) in 2016. But implementation is slow, and the state remains at war with the country’s last guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN).


This blog post discusses how “social preferences for punishment” make it difficult for leaders to make concessions to an enemy, using the Colombian case to illustrate some of these dynamics. The core idea is that peace agreements always contain concessions to both sides, yet such concessions tend to be highly unpopular with constituents, as they are seen to reward (instead of punishing) the opponent. By extension, leaders may struggle to make the necessary concessions to secure a peace agreement, even if they prefer such an agreement over continued war. This “problem of costly concessions” highlights the need for peacebuilding to work on transforming narratives and relations at the grassroots level, even if peace agreements continue to be negotiated in elite settings.

Obstacles to a negotiated settlement

Why is it so difficult to settle armed conflicts that cause so much suffering and damage? This question is particularly intriguing once we assume that conflict party leaders act rationally – that is, if we assume that they deliberately choose the course of action that (they believe) will benefit them most. To see why this is a case, let’s engage in a classic thought experiment: if war is costly – and everyone knows this in advance – then why do conflict parties not simply agree on the eventual outcome without ever fighting? Sure, conflict parties may not like the outcome, but they should prefer to settle on something that will happen anyway, if it saves them the painful experience of war.

One famous explanation for this empirical puzzle is imperfect information: Conflict parties do not actually know the outcome of war in advance, and each party has an incentive to exaggerate its capabilities and resolve, so they cannot trust each other’s information. Another key explanation is that belligerents may not be able to credibly commit to the implementation of a peace agreement if they stand to benefit from future defection. This may lead to a situation where conflict parties cannot agree on a settlement, even if they both stand to profit from it.

Costly concessions

In a recent article, I discuss an additional, understudied obstacle to conflict settlement between rational actors: the problem of costly concessions. It builds on the key premise that negotiations with a sworn enemy are different from ordinary negotiations. In such a situation, the members of conflicting parties have been exposed to fighting and entrenched narratives about the conflict, making them identify strongly with members of their own conflict party and developing a strong hatred for their opponent. As a result, they care not only about their own benefits, but also about the benefits of the opponent. They may feel that any concession to an enemy is an unjust reward for the opponent’s behavior, when in fact the opponent deserves punishment. Importantly, members on both sides will likely feel the same way, as both sides tend to blame each other for the pain and suffering. These dynamics make concessions to an opponent highly unpopular with constituents on both sides.

This poses a key challenge to leaders seeking to negotiate a settlement with an opponent: any mutually acceptable agreement necessarily contains concessions, but when such concessions are unpopular, they are costly to make. Importantly, in these types of situations, concessions not only reduce one’s own benefits, but may undermine support for a settlement, as they are seen to reward the behavior of the enemy. As a result, pro-settlement leaders struggle to find an agreement that is acceptable to both their opponent and their own constituents.

Take the example of Colombia: between 2012 and 2016, the government of Colombia negotiated a peace agreement with the FARC, then the largest guerrilla group in the country. With its history of fighting, extortion, and drug trafficking, the FARC was highly unpopular with most Colombians. Weary of war, a majority of Colombians preferred a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict, but they also strongly disliked the idea of granting concessions to the FARC after so many years of fighting. Concessions in the area of justice for crimes committed during the war were particularly controversial. However, the government knew that if it insisted on prison terms for FARC members, a peace deal would hardly be acceptable to the FARC leadership. Similarly, the public was strongly opposed to political participation by the former guerrilla, but this was a key demand of the FARC in exchange for laying down its weapons. And while Juan Manuel Santos, who served as Colombia’s president from 2010 to 2018, was aware of the trade-off, he believed that when you showed Colombians “the whole package – this is the cost of peace, and these are the benefits of peace – people will go for the benefits”.

As we now know, the majority did not vote for the benefits of peace: In a plebiscite after the signing of the peace deal, Colombians narrowly rejected the peace agreement with the FARC. Multiple factors affected the outcome, including a religious backlash against certain agreement provisions related to gender and sexual orientation, or even a hurricane. But when asked why they rejected the peace deal, many No voters argued that the peace deal was too lenient and would reward the FARC instead of punishing it. The opposition camp around former president Álvaro Uribe played into this narrative by highlighting anything that may be framed as a concession.

According to some observers, the rejection at the ballot box was the most critical moment in the peace process. The conflicting parties saved the process by renegotiating parts of the agreement, and a revised version of the agreement was ratified in congress. This may convey the impression that the plebiscite was inconsequential, and that leaders simply ignore their constituents if costly concessions stand in the way of a negotiated agreement. However, changing the ratification mechanism had important consequences in the Colombian context: Many felt that the will of the people had been betrayed, and the incoming administration of Iván Duque Márquez felt less bound by an agreement that lacked full popular legitimacy. Moreover, in some contexts, it may not be possible to overcome constituent constraints by simply changing the ratification mechanism.

Implications for third-party actors

What are the implications of the problem of costly concessions for the transition from war to peace? We have long recognized that some leaders benefit from the instability that war brings, and that others may genuinely believe that continued fighting will lead to a better outcome than negotiations. But as my analysis demonstrates, even those who prefer to settle peacefully may continue to wage war if concessions to a sworn enemy are highly unpopular with constituents.

This has important policy implications. Many third-party actors seek to direct their efforts to promote conflict settlements at the highest level, often even leading to competition among international actors. The problem of costly concessions suggests that efforts to transform relations at the grassroots level may be just as important as, and complementary to, such high-level efforts.

The analysis also raises questions regarding a recent push to directly link such grassroots engagement to high level peace initiatives. At times, such efforts result in new challenges – for example, to frustration among civil society actors when suggestions made during outreach activities are not taken up at the elite peace talks. However, directly linking grassroots initiatives to track I processes may not always be necessary. The analysis suggests that by challenging simplified and self-reinforcing narratives that amplify social preferences for punishment, peacebuilding efforts at grassroots level can help create space for pro-settlement leaders to conclude a peace agreement, even if they are not directly linked to high level negotiations.

Finally, the problem of costly concessions highlights the importance of conflict prevention over conflict resolution. For once war breaks out, the pain and suffering of war reinforce existing conflict narratives and make it even more difficult for leaders to conclude a mutually acceptable agreement with a sworn enemy.


To read a more comprehensive analysis of the problem of costly concessions and the factors that shape the space for a negotiated agreement, read my full (ungated) article here.

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.


About the Author

Valerie Sticher is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich and a PhD candidate at Leiden University. Her PhD research focuses on the role of ceasefires in intrastate peace processes.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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