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CSS Mediation Perspectives: How Ceasefires Affect Conflict Ripeness

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Image courtesy of Julian Stallabrass / Wikimedia, Mural from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a non-state actor in Mexico.

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

How do ceasefires affect the ripeness of conflict for a negotiated solution? Based on evidence from frozen conflicts in places like Cyprus or Western Sahara, many assume that we need to choose between saving lives immediately or in the future, as ceasefires stop the fighting in the short term but may impede the search for a more sustainable political settlement. However, cases such as the Philippines or the Sudan North-South peace process demonstrate that ceasefires do not automatically create such a trade-off: they can serve crucial roles in stopping the fighting and in reviving or sustaining peace processes that lead to lasting solutions.

In a recent article, I analyze the complex relationship between ceasefires and peace negotiations, assessing when and how ceasefires foster or impede conflict ripeness. I suggest that there are three key stages of ripeness – ripeness to initiate negotiations, ripeness to make major concessions, and ripeness to settle – and that ceasefires can play a distinct role in each of these stages. In the early stages, conflict parties should limit ceasefires temporally or geographically, while more comprehensive and indefinite arrangements are ideal towards the end of a process.

Ripeness to initiate negotiations

William Zartman first developed the concept of conflict ripeness, suggesting a set of criteria for identifying when a conflict is ripe for initiating peace negotiations. The most famous of these criteria is a mutually hurting stalemate – a situation in which the principal parties experience strong military, social or economic pain from conflict and do not believe that they can achieve victory. A ceasefire reduces the pain of war, at least in the short term, which may reduce the urgency to negotiate a settlement and undermine conflict ripeness.

In some cases, however, what is preventing negotiations is not so much a lack of a mutually hurting stalemate, but an unwillingness to explore a way out, a lack of cohesion among the parties to a conflict, or a lack of trust in the good faith of the opponent. In these situations, conflict parties may use a ceasefire to signal interest in negotiations or to test the other side’s appetite for collaboration. An example of this is the unilateral ceasefire that the National Liberation Army (ELN), a left-wing guerilla organization in Colombia, announced in response to the UN Secretary General’s call for a global COVID-19 ceasefire. The commitment was widely interpreted as a signal of the ELN’s interest in renewed talks and a way to demonstrate their command and control capacity, and thus their ability and readiness to negotiate.

Ripeness to make major concessions

Once genuine efforts to negotiate a settlement start, the types of obstacles that potentially stand in the way of a negotiated agreement change. For while conflict party leaders now view a settlement as preferable over continued war, they still have diverging expectations about what constitutes an acceptable agreement. In some cases, they may manage to hold the process alive despite these differences, experiencing impasses and setbacks along the way. In other cases, negotiations break down and long periods of fighting ensue before the parties attempt another round of negotiations.

A second stage of ripeness, therefore, is reached once conflict party leaders agree on the broad contours of a peace deal and are willing to make the necessary concessions to achieve such a deal. To reach this milestone – ripeness to make major concessions – they need similar expectations of what constitutes a possible settlement. The more they learn about one another’s capabilities and resolve, the more likely they will identify a zone of possible agreement (ZOPA). Fighting can help reveal information about capabilities and resolve, but so can ceasefires. By complying with a ceasefire, conflict parties can demonstrate a high level of internal cohesion and an undisputed leadership structure.

In the early phases of the 2012–2016 Havana peace process, for example, the FARC announced several unilateral, temporary ceasefires. Compliance with these ceasefires was high, even when the government continued its military operations, demonstrating a high level of command and control of FARC’s leadership. The group also raised the level of attacks shortly before and after the ceasefires, signaling that it acted from a position of strength and not weakness.

Ripeness to settle

Even when conflict party leaders agree on the broad contours of a settlement, they often face other considerable obstacles, such as the problem of credible commitment or a lack of constituent support for a deal that contains considerable concessions to an enemy. Only when these challenges are overcome does a conflict reach the final stage of ripeness, the moment when parties are prepared to settle.

Ceasefires can play an important role in facilitating a move towards that final stage of ripeness, as it is often difficult to complete negotiations while violence is raging. A ceasefire allows the conflict parties to collaborate and prepare for a final settlement. It also makes it more likely that the broader public will support a settlement with an armed non-state actor that was historically seen as an irreconcilable enemy.

Ceasefire design

As the above discussions show, ceasefires can foster conflict ripeness at all stages of a conflict, by allowing parties to signal intent, demonstrating command and control, and helping them build trust and public support for a process. Yet, in the earlier two stages, a ceasefire may also impede progress if it removes military pressure and makes one side feel comfortable with the status quo.

Careful process design can mitigate the risk of ceasefires perpetuating armed conflict, among other options, by making the continuation of a ceasefire directly conditional on progress in political negotiations. This may mean, for example, including an agreement clause that the ceasefire is only renewed if political negotiations move to the next agenda item within a specified period of time. Another option is to limit ceasefires temporally, as the FARC did, or to limit the geographic scope, as was done in the Nuba Mountains ceasefire. Third parties should not push for comprehensive disarmament and demobilization provisions in these early ceasefires: such provisions should only come into effect at the end of negotiations, when a settlement has been reached on substantive issues. Non-state actors are unlikely to accept disarmament and demobilization earlier, and attempts to make them do so may even result in a failed ceasefire, which can be worse than no ceasefire at all.

Once belligerents agree on the broad contours of a peace agreement, and recognize the concessions needed to reach a deal, temporal or geographical limitations may no longer be necessary. To the contrary, threatening a return to violent conflict may make it more difficult to build up trust or secure public support. In Colombia, for example, the FARC’s engagement in temporary, unilateral ceasefires proved insufficient to win over a skeptical public, as the group continued to launch attacks outside the ceasefire periods. Support increased when the group engaged in an indefinite ceasefire.

Third-party actors can support conflict parties in designing ceasefires that match the conflict context and foster ripeness at each stage of a conflict. They can support ceasefire monitoring and verification, helping parties build up confidence in one another, and make a ceasefire more resilient to non-strategic violations. From a ripeness perspective, however, third parties should not enforce a ceasefire prematurely and without the buy-in of the conflict parties, as this may mess up the ripeness process and result in a situation where there is no war but also no peace. From a humanitarian perspective, there may be situations where pressure for a ceasefire is warranted – provided that the third parties have the capacity and political will to uphold such an agreement beyond the much-photographed moment of signing.

In sum, careful ceasefire design and timing can often mitigate the risk of ceasefires impeding conflict ripeness. Where this is not possible, careful analysis of the potential impact of ceasefires on conflict ripeness can ensure that any third-party steps that result in a trade-off between short- and long-term effects are taken deliberately, with humanitarian and political perspectives kept in mind.

You can read my full analysis on the role of ceasefires in ripening conflict in this special issue on conflict ripeness.

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 postdoctoral researcher who wrote her PhD dissertation on the role of ceasefires in peace processes.

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

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