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CSS Mediation Perspectives: The Role of Ceasefires in Peace Processes

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Image: © Jeremy Brickhill, Lines of Control and Withdrawal, from «Mediating Security Arrangements in Peace Processes»

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

Jeremy Brickhill’s publication “Mediating Security Arrangements in Peace Processes” clarifies the role of ceasefires in a peace process. Understanding this role is necessary if ceasefires are to foster the transition from war to peace rather than leading to a stalemate situation. What is unique about Jeremy’s booklet is that, as a former fighter in the Zimbabwean liberation war with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, he can provide insights and models of ceasefires from the perspective of someone who knows the psychology of fighters. We have now translated his publication into Russian, Arabic, and Spanish, because there are few publications on ceasefires, and even fewer that highlight the role of ceasefires in a peace process as clearly and practically as his.


It is commonly believed that any effort to stop violence is good. However, there are different ways and approaches to bring an end to armed fighting. A better understanding of these different approaches and their respective forms and goals is essential if a halt in fighting is to support the transition from war to justice and peace. The ideal-type sequence of security arrangements in a peace process is illustrated in Figure 1, a diagram that Jeremy recently used in our MAS ETH Mediation in Peace Processes course. A stop in fighting that is temporary (=cessation of hostilities) often precedes a stop in fighting that is monitored and where space is created for substantive agreements to be found regarding the conflict parties’ grievances in peace negotiations (=preliminary or interim ceasefire). Only when substantive agreements on political, economic, and judicial questions have been found are conflict parties likely to agree on the tough questions of disarmament, disengagement and reintegration, final status of forces, and termination of the status of war (=definitive ceasefire). Such ceasefires that fit into the logic of a political peace process are distinct from a mere halt in fighting that is delinked from a political process which may lead to long-term separation of communities or countries, yet without resolving their grievances (=stalemate ceasefire).

Figure 1: Ideal-Type Sequence of Security Arrangements in Peace Processes (J. Brickhill, MAS ETH MPP Presentation Nov. 2020)

It is easy for critics to argue that reality is messier, and that conceptual clarity and sequential logic are therefore unsuited for dealing with the confused chaos we encounter when we try to grasp a specific case. Indeed, we have cases where there is already a peace agreement, and where we are therefore in a post-agreement phase, but because the conflict actors continue to fight while exploring options to negotiate on substance, we are actually in a pre-negotiation or negotiation phase (e.g., Central African Republic). We also encounter cases where there is a ceasefire, but the political negotiations have stalled, leading to a frozen stalemate and a continued arms race stretching over the decades (e.g., Korean Peninsula).

The inability to discern a sequential logic in reality leads some critics to throw conceptual clarity and sequential logic out of the window. This is a mistake. The danger lies in trying to do everything at the same time and continually failing. It is impossible to do everything at the same time. The purpose of conceptual clarity and sequential logic is not to impose this way of thinking rigidly on a case and to give it up as soon as it does not fit. The purpose is rather to use clear distinctions and sequential logic to understand the complexity of a given situation. Three types of question seem especially intriguing:

  1. Is there ongoing violence? What first steps can be taken to reduce or stop the violence, whether they be modest unilateral efforts or a cessation of hostilities or even just local ceasefires? When working on these first, tentative steps, how can we already prepare more substantial ones that foster political negotiations?
  2. Are we in a post-agreement phase? If yes, is it a genuine post-agreement phase where we should focus on implementation? Or is the agreement a mere piece of paper, or only a partial agreement, in which case more political negotiations are needed? Which security building blocks exist that require strengthening? Where are other building blocks needed, and how can they be linked to a forthcoming or ongoing political negotiation?
  3. Are we in a situation of “stalemate ceasefire” where there is no political process, or where such a process is stalled or advancing only intermittently? Typically, demarcation lines are related to such situations, where violent conflict heats up and cools down in a cyclical nature through the decades. It is difficult for conflict parties to extricate themselves from such a situation. Often, this requires some regional or international shift in context, as well as the readiness on the part of conflict parties and third parties to act upon such a shift.

Jeremy’s booklet encourages us to apply his ideas to any given case in a two-step process: First, gain clarity about what can be done generically. Second, explore how to adapt and contextualize the generic ideas to the given case at hand. In all such reflections, keep in mind the ultimate goal so aptly outlined by Freedom Nyamubaya: “to demystify security … so that it becomes nationally owned, … inclusive and transparent.”


Acknowledgement and links

Thanks to the Mediation Support Project (CSS and swisspeace, funded by Swiss FDFA) that made Jeremy Brickhill’s publication possible. You can find more information on ceasefire research at CSS here and on security and mediation 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

Simon J. A. Mason is a senior researcher and head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.

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

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