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Mediation Perspectives: MSN Commentary on the UN Guidance on Mediation of Ceasefires

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Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland / Flickr, Open air cookery near Miraumont-le-Grand, Western Front, during World War I.

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

In this blog, we discuss what ceasefires are and how they related to peace mediation. The Mediation Support Network (MSN) met online on the 16th of February 2023 to discuss the recently published UN DPPA “Guidance on Mediation of Ceasefires”. After reflecting on key points from the Guidance, the MSN members grappled with the questions: what insights and challenges do MSN members face in their work related to ceasefires? What are the gaps and ideas that might carry the Guidance forward?

Key Points: Flexible but Clear Terminology

Terminology is often inconsistently used during peace mediation, and ceasefire mediation is no exception. One reason for this is the need for flexibly adapting to the words that make sense to actors in very different conflict contexts, be this “ceasefire”, “cessation of hostilities (CoH)”, “truce”, “armistice”, “silencing the guns”, “end of violence”, or any other phrase that might be circulating in the mediation parlance. Nevertheless, it is also important to be clear about what an agreement implies such that not every vague statement, proclamation or “agreement” on “stopping violence” is deemed a full ceasefire. Clarity of terms within a ceasefire agreement is especially important for implementation. Thus, there is need for a minimal consensus on the meanings of terms prior to implementing a ceasefire agreement. Without this, a ceasefire agreement can unravel during implementation, which may in turn lead to a resumption of violence.

How has the UN Guidance on Mediation of Ceasefires circumvented this dilemma, i.e. the need to maintain flexibility of terms while also being clear in meaning? The Guidance avoids a clear cut definition, but comes quite close to it by describing different possible attributes of a ceasefire. It says that a ceasefire is a formal, written agreement between two or more conflict parties with a clear purpose, links to political processes, a specific timeline, geographical delimitation, clarity on prohibited and permitted military and non-military activities, and the establishment of modalities for monitoring and verifying compliance with the agreement or alternative means to coordinate and de-escalate violence. The Guidance leaves it open as to whether all or merely some of these provisions must be agreed to qualify as a “ceasefire”. Between the lines, however, one might assume that the more these attributes are included and agreed upon by the parties, the more the ceasefire is likely to be viable, regardless of the specific term the parties wish to adopt as an emblem of the given attribute. This seems an elegant way to deal with the dilemma, i.e. to move from the label to attributes, to leave it up to the parties to discuss and agree upon which attributes fit their context, and also which label they want to give the full package. At the same time, the guidance can inspire parties to think of a multitude of attributes that may make the ceasefire agreement more viable without being prescriptive.

The UN Guidance does more than grapple with terminology; it also outlines ideas regarding the different phases of preparing, agreeing, and implementing a ceasefire, as well as connecting it with political processes. It was on these points that MSN members reflected their specific experiences, adapting some of the generic insights from the Guidance to their specific contexts, and thereby highlighting lessons, gaps and ideas for further developing ceasefire guidance in the future.

MSN Perspectives and Experiences

MSN perspectives and experiences resulted from a vast number of cases, ranging from those in Africa to Asia to Latin America. Some of the recurring topics that arose in this global tour de table included:

How to deal with factionalized parties? Some of the cases MSN members are currently grappling with involve highly factionalized, decentralized non-state armed groups, with unclear command and control structures, such as those found in the Central African Republic. Some of the insights from the UN Guidance are still useful, but many of its approaches do seem to imply a level of command and control that is largely absent in such cases.

In addition to factionalized parties, MSN members also discussed such challenges as the lack of a common language, the vast distances between settlements that are only seasonally accessible, the lack of mobile coverage to communicate orally, as well as the lack of governance structures or economic alternatives to fighting. What has shown to be useful in such situations – particularly regarding communication – is the dissemination of agreements through FM radio, as this has the potential to reach armed actors, as well as civilians and civil society – the latter who increasingly play an important role in several points of the process.

Moving beyond the “inclusion” buzz word: MSN members pointed out that there is a normative, aspirational use of the word “inclusion”, as well as an empirical, evidence-based approach to “inclusion”, i.e. that which seeks to explore if and how inclusion helps or hinders ceasefires and peace agreements. The UN is a norm-heavy organization and thus the Guidance is partially aspirational. There are, however, examples indicating that more inclusive processes affect the content of ceasefire agreements. For instance, the 2020 Juba Agreement for Peace in Sudan contains clauses on civilian protection, provision of humanitarian assistance, and freedom of movement in the ceasefire protocol, whereas such clauses are missing in other similar agreements, likely as a result of less inclusive processes. Experience from MSN members pointed to an additional challenge: inclusion can refer to women, youth and other marginalized groups, but what about the primary challenge of including armed actors who do not want a ceasefire, and without whom there will be no end to violence for anyone? The inclusion of non-armed actors into a ceasefire is highly welcome as it is likely to improve the legitimacy of an agreement, but the first challenge is to get armed actors into the process, as without them there will be no cessation to the violence. There are therefore different types and phases of inclusion, and often there is simply no way around increasing inclusion incrementally.

Incrementalism works: Experiences from MSN members working in the Philippines shows that incrementalism does indeed work. If one traces the different efforts to end violence in the Philippines, the buildup of steps and the multiplicity of actors involved is striking. The work there spanning 1997 to 2022, includes (1) the 1997 agreement for General CoH, (2) the 2001 Agreement on Peace, (3) the 2001 Joint Coordinating Committee on CoH with local monitoring teams, (4) the 2004 Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, (5) the 2004-2022 International Monitoring Team (IMT), and (6) the 2010 Civilian Peacekeeping Component. Ending violence took time and a multiplicity of efforts, with a significant drop in violence in 2004 once the IMT had been established. Local-, civil-society actors had a core role in this process. The case of the Philippines moreover shows how ceasefire and peacekeeping efforts can give space for civil society and peacebuilding efforts, while these actors in  turn might help to create peace that is deeper, more legitimate, and more sustainable.

Framing third parties: MSN members also discussed the complexity of third-party roles in ceasefire mediation and implementation. In some cases, conflict actors simply do not want third parties involved, or only in very marginal roles. Thus, when exploring the role of third-party mediators and mediation support actors, questions of access, acceptability, mandate, and security need reflection and possibly new approaches.

Outlook: Ending Violence in Messy Cases

Looking to the future, the question of how to adapt ideas in the UN Guidance to messy cases, i.e. those with highly-factionalized, armed actors, remains high on the agenda. Similarly, the question of how far the resurgence of international armed conflicts requires similar or different approaches, compared to those of intra-state ceasefires, remains a prominent one. This inquiry also includes further exploration of security arrangements, those that are below the threshold of a preliminary ceasefire, related to first steps at containing and restraining violence, for example, and how to build on them incrementally towards preliminary ceasefires or similar arrangements.

Ceasefires depend on the will of parties to stop fighting. Thus, the political and economic agenda of armed actors needs to be considered center stage, as it is generally political and economic motives that fuel violence in the first place. This is highlighted in the UN Guidance on Ceasefire Mediation, which in turn points out the complementary role of ceasefires to political processes and agreements.

Getting the technical aspects of a ceasefire agreement right is a key step. Yet with the decrease in comprehensive peace agreements, the question remains: how to link ceasefires to an increasingly diverse set of possible political processes, i.e. those beyond classical peace processes and peace agreements. The less clear the link is between the political process and the technical ceasefire process, the more important become the putative “do no harm” considerations. This is because ceasefires without political processes might freeze a conflict or might fail and thereby lead to escalation over time.

In summary, the MSN members saw the UN Guidance as an essential milestone on the long road to a better understanding of how to help parties end violence and build a just and sustainable peace.


This is the fourth commentary of the Mediation Support Network (MSN) to products of the UN MSU: the first was a commentary to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation[1], the second a commentary to Guidance on Gender and Inclusive Mediation Strategies[2], the third a commentary to the UN Practice note on Climate Change and Peace Mediation[3]. MSN commentaries are based on MSN discussions but summarize the authors’ reflections and do not aim to provide a comprehensive or consensus MSN view.

Special thanks to the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs for supporting the Mediation Support Network through the Mediation Support Project (CSS and swisspeace, funded by the Swiss FDFA).

[1] MSN Discussion Points-2.pdf (

[2] MSN Discussion Points-9.pdf

[3] Mediation Perspectives: MSN Commentary on the UN Practice Note on Climate Change and Peace Processes

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 Authors

Simon J. A. Mason is a Senior Researcher and Head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.

Govinda Clayton is Mediation Support Manager at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).

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

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