Why Cease-Fires Make It Worse

They only give each side time to plan the next wave of attacks.

President Salva Kiir speaks during a press conference on Jan. 20, 2014, in Juba, South Sudan.

Photo by Charles Atiki Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images

Political leaders in South Sudan, the world’s newest state, have been murdering their civilians en masse. According to the United Nations, belligerents have killed at least 1,000 civilians and displaced 870,000 people since the fighting began in mid-December. The Obama administration quickly called for a cease-fire, because as spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, a temporary truce would allow for “an immediate cessation of hostilities to stabilize the situation and permit full humanitarian access to civilian populations.”

In late January, the two sides participated in peace talks mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African regional bloc, and signed a cease-fire. But since then the fighting has intensified. Forces allied with the South Sudanese government have been on the rampage while rebel forces have responded with attacks on military targets. New talks are scheduled to begin on Friday in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

I have bad news and worse news. The bad news first: These talks will likely fail, and the belligerents will continue to kill and displace civilians in large numbers.

And the worst news: The cease-fire is making it worse. Indeed, this uncomfortable truth isn’t even unique to South Sudan. Cease-fires almost always make a conflict worse, delaying political deals, prolonging the killing, and ensuring that the fighting continues long after it has begun.

The international community is laudable in its concern for civilian lives in South Sudan. However, in new countries, the medicine of cease-fires and peace processes are worse for civilian safety than the armed conflict as long as foreign powers and international organizations are directly involved in picking winners and losers.

My research on all 174 of the internationally recognized new states that have emerged since 1900 and scores of mass killings reveals that international involvement to temporarily address the symptoms of the violence—the mass death of civilians—increases the likelihood of greater violence and destruction. That is because cease-fires do nothing to eliminate the root causes of violence against civilians. Instead, both sides use the pause in killing to solicit diplomatic and military aid while planning and preparing their next wave of attacks.

According to the 2012 Human Security Report, between 1950 and 2004, 62 percent of cease-fires succeeded with no resumption of conflict in the next five years. The success of two-thirds of cease-fires would seem to support their use. Yet, in the civil wars that begin in new or young states, cease-fires typically succeed only after many that do not. In the interim, the belligerents busy themselves rooting out or killing their civilian rivals.

The war in Bosnia is a good example. In December 1995, the war ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. Four prior cease-fire attempts and peace plans failed despite widespread international involvement from the European Community, U.N. special envoys, U.N. mediators, and the so-called quintet of the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany. Amid the haggling and hand-wringing, at least 100,000 civilian lives were lost, 20,000 women raped, and 2.2 million people displaced by the time the final negotiations began in November 1995. South Sudan is the latest example of the international community’s self-defeating efforts.

Here is how it usually plays out. In the process of appearing to make peace, belligerents in new states gain de facto international approval for their war gains. They also buy themselves valuable time to muster diplomatic support for their political faction as the sole legitimate authority within the new country, while attempting to eliminate their rivals in key parts of the country.

Ideally, the governments of new states would emerge consensually from political institutions representing all the political leaders who wish to govern. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. The typical default position of the international community is to recognize the leaders in control of the national capital. To win control, political leaders fight one another while looking for any edge that will help them take the capital. The more support a faction has from foreign powers, the less it requires domestic allies or has to go about the painstaking work of maintaining broad political coalitions. Indeed, once political allies are no longer necessary partners for controlling the seat of government, they are simply obstacles to continued rule. That’s often when the killing begins.

The current outbreak of violence in South Sudan is the result of the falling out between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. Until recently Kiir and Machar cooperatively governed through the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. They needed each other to win independence and consolidate a new political order. But this changed when Kiir surprised party officials by dissolving all the party posts, firing the vice president, and sacking his Cabinet in mid-November. A few weeks later Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.

Kiir, a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, enjoys no shortage of foreign support because of his country’s oil wealth. Petrodollars make up more than 90 percent of South Sudan’s revenues. Likewise, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has dispatched his security forces to the South Sudanese capital of Juba to protect Kiir’s regime and has pledged that East African governments stand ready to defeat Machar, a member of the country’s second-largest ethnic group. Although various African mediators have been hosting talks since the week the fighting began, Ugandan security forces remained active despite the January cease-fire, rebels claim. 

It might seem that the growing United Nations mission in South Sudan could help save civilian lives since it is charged with protecting the displaced. But the U.N. mission can only hurt by accidentally harboring political fugitives, and through the appearance of a peace process, granting both Kiir and Malar time to marshal their forces and hire the necessary mercenaries and foreign fighters to finish the job.

Whether international involvement comes from small countries such as Cuba in Angola, superpowers like the United States in South Vietnam, or international organizations such as the European Community in the Bosnian War, it’s all counterproductive. The support of outside powers, even if well-meaning, gives belligerents the incentive to fight rather than govern through coalitions, alliances, or hard-won elections.

Nevertheless, there is a policy the international community can pursue that can save civilians from mass killing: We should make clear that any new government that consolidates its power by killing civilians will not be internationally recognized. No seat at the U.N., no membership to the World Trade Organization, no foreign aid agreements, and no participation in the World Cup or the Olympics. Nothing.

It may seem that this policy would be easy to undermine, especially if a major power such as Russia or China chose to ignore the sovereignty boycott and offer its own recognition and support. True, but this new country would essentially be agreeing to join a club of nonrecognized countries. Right now these states include the Republic of Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Republic of South Ossetia, and Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. No one wants to be consigned to this collection of second-class states.

The killing and destruction in South Sudan is horrible. But the international community shouldn’t invest efforts in processes that make the killing worse when there are easy and inexpensive ways to save lives by keeping power permanently out of reach of murderous governments.