What will prevent another civil war?

Maintaining Peace After Civil War: How The Features Of A Conflict Decide Its Success

Peacekeeping missions are designed to prevent civil wars from breaking out again. Often they manage to do this, but a significant number of cases relapse into civil war within a few years. This begs the question under what conditions peacekeeping missions actually keep the peace. According to prominent analyzes by the United Nations, it is primarily the profile of the peace mission that decides whether it is successful or not. But that is not the case.

In the case of peacekeeping missions, armed peacekeepers, but sometimes only unarmed observers, are supposed to prevent new battles. As the most important actor in such peacekeeping missions, the United Nations (UN) repeatedly investigate the question of what their success depends on. The so-called Capstone Doctrine from 2008 explained the mixed balance primarily with the deployment profile of peacekeeping missions. Successful are impartial, legitimate and credible missions that use coercion only to a limited extent and promote processes in which the conflicting parties take responsibility.1 The doctrine stated that the conflicting parties agreed to the mission as a further cause of success. In a 2015 report, the United Nations also saw the composition, character and capabilities of peace operations as the key to success.2 The two influential analyzes almost completely ignored the context of peace missions: the other post-war developments in the society concerned, as well as the characteristics of the conflict. These conflict characteristics are known before a peacekeeping mission begins. Should they have a say in the chances of lasting peace, it would appear negligent to ignore them. In fact, data from a PRIF project on post-civil war societies since 1990 show the important role conflict features play in lasting peace.

Maintaining peace: sometimes easier, sometimes more difficult

The influence of characteristics of the ended civil war can be better assessed if one looks beforehand at how peacekeeping missions try to prevent new violence. They are supposed to influence the calculations of the former warring parties in favor of peace, among other things by taking a position between the warring sides. In order to attack the enemy, the position of the peacekeeping mission would first have to be overcome, which increases the price and risk of such an attack. Without a peace mission, the conflicting parties see themselves in dangerous uncertainty as to whether the adversary will not take advantage of the fact that one adheres to the terms of an agreement. Furthermore, peacekeeping missions are intended to create a safe environment for civilian efforts to achieve lasting peace.3

How difficult it is for peace missions to carry out their tasks depends on the context. In some contexts there is greater fear of a breach of contract by the enemy and stronger incentives to resume the war than in others. The features of the finished civil war make up a significant part of the context. Since peace missions can prepare for them in advance, they are of particular interest. Four of them are in focus:

  1. A relapse into violence is more likely after very bloody wars than after less intense conflicts. Violent wars deepen the lines of conflict, create more fear, mistrust and a thirst for revenge. Because of the greater destruction, there are fewer civilian options for income and livelihood. It is therefore easier for enemies of the peace process to mobilize fighters.4
  2. it depends on the type of conflict. Civil wars between parties that are defined along ethnic identities are particularly prone to break out. Ethnic ties prove to be more stable than economic and ideological positions and are easier to mobilize, which promotes fear of new violence and provides incentives to prepare for a new war.5
  3. a balance of power at the end of the war lowers the chances of lasting peace. It gives both sides hope for a victory and therefore the risk of another war.6
  4. Both military victories and peace agreements lead to a more stable peace than ceasefires, which regulate military issues but not the underlying political conflict.7 Civil wars that end with a mere armistice are particularly difficult to pacify for structural reasons. In addition, more than victories and peace agreements, they give the conflicting parties the opportunity to resume war.

Overall, a context proves to be all the more difficult, the more of the mentioned conflict features exist that favor a relapse into civil war.

The role of conflict features in peace processes since 1990

The PRIF project mentioned above examined societies after civil wars in which at least 1,000 people were killed. It followed developments until the war broke out again or, if peace was maintained, for up to seven years after the war. The analysis looked at 22 peacekeeping missions (not just those of the United Nations). In 15 cases the peace outlasted the observed period, in the seven others it collapsed.

If the United Nations reports mentioned above were correct and the context was irrelevant, the cases with a stable peace and those with a civil war that has broken out would have to be equally divided into simple and difficult contexts. If, on the other hand, the characteristics of the conflict mattered, cases of successful peacekeeping should occur more often or (almost) exclusively in simple contexts, while peace missions fail above all in difficult contexts. The latter is true.

This was shown with the help of a method that assumes that different paths can lead to the same result. In order to find these paths, she checks whether cases with the same combination of factors consistently or almost consistently show the same result, i.e. stable peace or further civil war. If a combination meets this criterion, it is compared with other combinations of the same result in order to sort out factors that are unnecessary for the explanation.

The analysis identified four paths to lasting peace. On two of the two paths, not a single one of the considered conflict features was present in its disadvantageous form. The other two paths had at most one such conflict feature. Together, the four trails captured 14 of the 15 cases in which peace lasted at least seven years.
There was always a relapse after ethnic wars, at the end of which there was a military equilibrium and which ended with neither a victory nor a peace agreement. This path described five of the seven outbreaks.

Overall, with the four conflict characteristics considered alone, 19 of the 22 cases could be correctly assigned to lasting peace or relapse into war. This shows that it all came down to the context.

The role of the mission profiles depending on the context

Peacekeeping Missions with a Profile of Strength:
  • high number of troops
  • robust mandate
  • led by a permanent member of the UN Security Council

In a further step, the analysis combined the summarized characteristics of the conflict with the profile of the peacekeeping missions. These initially differ in the number of people posted. A mission is considered to be more efficient, the more troops it stationed relative to the size of the population or area.8 It also plays a role whether it has a robust mandate and whether it is allowed to use coercion beyond self-defense. After all, missions led by a permanent member of the UN Security Council signal special military skills and determination.9 Peacekeeping missions with a strong profile have at least two of the three characteristics: a high number of troops, a robust mandate and leadership by a permanent Member of the Security Council. Otherwise, it is a profile of reluctance.
The analysis revealed the following:

  • If beneficial features of the conflict predominated, peace was maintained, regardless of whether the peace mission was strong or cautious.
  • If the disadvantageous characteristics of the conflict dominated and the peace mission displayed a profile of reluctance, with one exception there was always a relapse into civil war. This outlier will be discussed later.

Implications for Peacekeeping Missions

The analysis contradicts the UN papers mentioned at the beginning. Those responsible should not just consider the scope, mandate and composition of a peacekeeping mission. The characteristics of the civil war that has ended strongly influence whether the peace will last. Intensive wars put a greater strain on peace processes than less violent ones; ethnic conflicts are more difficult to resolve than non-ethnic ones; military equilibrium is more unfavorable than asymmetry, and armistices are less effective for lasting peace than military victories and peace agreements. If the beneficial characteristics of the conflict outweigh the peace, both missions with a strong profile and those with a cautious profile will keep the peace. In such contexts, it is advisable to rely on a profile of restraint, as it is associated with lower costs and risks.

A difficult context in which detrimental conflict characteristics predominate seems to allow only the following choice: Either one does not station a peacekeeping mission at all or one does an operation with a fully developed profile of strength. The balance sheet presented speaks in favor of the first option: in difficult contexts, peace collapsed almost without exception if the mission was cautious. In the data, if the conflict characteristics are predominantly disadvantageous, there is no longer-lasting peacekeeping mission with a profile of strength.10 However, it cannot be ruled out that strong missions could keep the peace here. For optimistic politicians, this may be reason enough not to surrender to a difficult context, but to try a peace mission that combines a high number of troops, a robust mandate and operational management by a permanent member of the Security Council and prepares for a longer presence.

The outlier mentioned (Burundi) gives hope for success of peacekeeping missions in difficult contexts. A greater degree of political involvement by the former warring parties set this exception apart from relapses in the same context. It remains to be seen whether such inclusion can help to compensate for a difficult context beyond the individual case. Nonetheless, this suggests that, in addition to the features of the civil war that has ended, political developments beyond the peacekeeping mission also have a decisive influence on its success.

The analysis was limited to operations aimed at averting the outbreak of civil wars. The commandment follows from it: Observe the context and tailor the operation to it. It makes sense to apply the commandment to other types of military intervention as well. Here, too, it can be doubted that what matters most is the resources deployed and your own determination.

The journal Contemporary Security Policy has published a detailed analysis of the 22 peacekeeping missions. The study will soon be freely accessible.
Gromes, Thorsten (2019): Does peacekeeping only work in easy environments? An analysis of conflict characteristics, mission profiles, and civil war recurrence, in: Contemporary Security Policy, 40: 4, 459-480.



Thorsten Gromes is a research associate at PRIF in the Internal Conflicts program area. His research focuses on post-civil war societies and so-called humanitarian military interventions.

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