Why do civil wars tend to defy traditional approaches to ‘conflict resolution’?

Posted on October 12, 2015


There is agreement in the field of conflict studies that intrastate wars are different from interstate wars. The literature, however, is largely inconsistent when it comes to the study of civil wars, in that while some scholars analyse civil war as a whole, others prefer to analyse ethnic civil war in particular. This discrepancy may be caused by the prevalence of ethnic civil war over ideological civil war in the last decades. However, it can be argued that to a certain extent academic work on ethnic civil war in particular is still relevant for the purpose of answering to this particular essay question, as it focuses mainly on the end stage of civil war, and not its causes.

The need to study conflict resolution in terms of civil wars stems from the fact that those conflict resolution methods that are usually employed to end interstate wars do not seem to be as effective in solving civil conflict. Indeed, while most civil wars do not reach the negotiation stage, more than one third of all negotiations to end civil conflict fail. (Ulracher, 2011: 82) One of the more obvious explanations for this trend is that, in those situations where one or more armed groups are fighting against the government, the mere act by the latter of sitting at the negotiation table may give the ‘rebels’ a certain degree of legitimacy within the domestic political system at the loss of the government. (Park, 2015: 172)

However, the very definition of ‘civil war’ has been a matter of theoretical and quantitative debate for academics. Scholars have developed checklists in order to differentiate civil wars from other forms of internal conflict based on the number of deaths, for instance, or the active participation of the state in the hostilities. Sambanis (2004: 816) shows how those scholars who require the active participation of the national government for an intrastate war to be considered ‘civil’ end up excluding cases where an effective government has ceased to exist, like in the case of Somalia in 1991.

While a death threshold is a necessary tool to study the phenomenon of civil war,  Sambanis (2004: 823) points to the issue of the unreliable reporting and incomplete data which are typical in a situation of civil conflict.

There was a huge increase in the occurrence of intrastate wars relative to that of interstate wars between the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. (Porto, 2002: 3; Olson; Pearson, 2002: 421) This is a trend that has been observed time and time again by a variety of scholars, some of which have developed theories holding that a new type of wars has risen during the 1980s and 1990s which differs from the wars of the ‘old’ kind in terms of goals, methods, and the way they are financed (Kaldor, 2001: 6). Furthermore, Kaldor points out that in these ‘new’ wars civilians are deliberately targeted; a trend that was evident in the wars of the 1990s, when the ratio of military of civilian deaths was 1:8 (Ibid: 8)

Kaldor goes on to argue that the ‘new wars’ are about identity politics and they are intrastate in nature, with the effects of globalisation causing a “blurring of the distinction” between war, organised crime, and large-scale violations of human rights. Yet, she believes, they are not civil wars because they involve “a myriad of transnational connections”. (Kaldor, 2001: 2; 78) In other words, Kaldor thinks that modern intrastate armed conflicts cannot be defined civil wars because globalisation allows more actors to be involved in any one local conflict than ever before.

For the sake of this essay, however, ‘civil’ shall be any war which satisfies the following conditions set out by Licklider (1995: 683):

  1. Unwillingness by a group to live under the same political unit as another one.
  2. The de facto existence of multiple sovereignties.
  3. The occurrence of large-scale violence.

Nevertheless, this international aspect of modern civil wars is important and is a reason why civil wars tend to defy those approaches to conflict resolution that are based on power-bargaining and/or concession convergence. Indeed, Gleditsch (2007: 294) argues that it is “inappropriate to treat civil war as a fully domestic phenomenon, as participants and processes outside the boundaries of each individual state where conflict takes place can influence the risk of conflict”. Indeed, contemporary civil wars develop “within a new globalised war economy”, which help increase the magnitude of foreign economic interests in a given civil war. (Kaldor, 2001: 7; Porto, 2002: 5)  

Moreover, Gleditsch (2007: 294) believes that “there are strong reasons to suspect that the risk of civil war at the outset may be influenced by participants and processes outside the boundaries of the nation state.” In addition, Gleditsch’s research shows that “transnational ties related to ethnicity are likely to influence the ‘willingness’ of groups to mobilise for violent conflict or respond to government repression with violence”. (Ibid: 298) It follows from this line of reasoning that groups engaging into violence against their state’s government because of outside ethnic-related influence may not be willing to even sit at the bargaining table with a state, their primary objective likely being secession.

The issue of outside political influence in contemporary civil wars is exacerbated when warring groups fight under “little or no central authority”. (Porto, 2002: 5) Together with external economic involvement, the lack of authoritative central leadership means that these conflicts reach extremely high levels of complexity. (Ibid)

The lack of strong central leadership also brings the obvious issue of the accountability of faction leaders which engage in negotiation with the state or the rival faction/s. This is true for non-state armed groups as well as it can be for the states engaged in civil war. Indeed, Porto (2002: 24-27) points out that the vast majority of conflict occurs within countries “characterised by state weakness and state decay” which are often known as ‘failed states’. In fact, Porto (Ibid) asserts that civil war within a failed state may break out because of the lack of political legitimacy of said state as well as institutions of government able to exercise control over the totality of its population and territory.

Accountability is also crucial in the conflict resolution process of a civil war and it raises the concept of the ‘security dilemma’, borrowed from the realist theory of international relations by scholars such as Kaufman (1996) and Walter (1997). For example, Walter (1997: 335) argues that, in the context of a negotiation to end a civil war between two or more factions it is very difficult for individual groups to reach an agreement because “credible guarantees on the terms of the settlement are almost impossible to arrange by the combatants themselves”. Indeed, she writes that when negotiations fail they do so because civil war adversaries “cannot credibly promise to abide” by terms demanding combatants to “lay down weapons and begin to integrate their separate assets into a new united state [because] it becomes almost impossible to either enforce future cooperation or survive attack”. (Ibid: 336)

The absence of a higher power within the context of an internal conflict makes for an anarchic environment in which mutual or collective trust is hard to achieve without a third, external party guaranteeing compliance with demobilisation and disarmament terms. Walter (1997: 336) supports her claim by indicating that between 1940 and 1990 only 55 percent of civil wars ended in negotiated settlements. Those negotiations which called for an outside power to step in and guarantee a peace agreements were often the only ones to succeed. (Ibid) Indeed, the presence of an outside guarantor can make up for the lack of mechanisms to ensure the honoring of agreements and improve the likelihood of a peaceful settlement. (Ulracher, 2011: 83)

For instance, outside intervention was crucial in the successful negotiation that brought an end to civil war in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979, when the US, Great Britain, and South Africa worked together to put Ian Smith’s regime under international pressure to end the country’s white minority rule. Foreign countries including Great Britain and the surrounding African states had different ideas on who should dictate the terms of the settlement between those who had collaborated with Ian Smith in devising an enlarged cabinet and the Patriotic Front parties. African states openly supported the latter and encouraged continued guerrilla. Great Britain was asked to guarantee South African non-intervention and that the Patriotic Front would not be attacked after the cease-fire. (Olson; Pearson, 2002: 435)

While a great deal of attention has been given to the role that outside powers can exert on civil wars, their onset, and resolution, the negative effect that domestic politics may have on the occurrence and subsequent outcome of negotiations has often been neglected. Ulracher (2011: 81) reminds that in certain situations state leaders might be “vulnerable to removal or lack the power to make concessions or accept a settlement” therefore rendering peace difficult to achieve because of divisions within a given government. For example, in 2003 Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe managed to negotiate a durable cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers. This proved to be a disastrous move for Wickramasinghe, who was accused by Sri Lanka’s hardline President Chandrika Bandaranaike of being too soft on the Tigers. The President swiftly dismissed Parliament and called for new elections, which largely revolved around the Tamil issue and allowed the Sinhalese nationalist groups to improve their political position. (Ibid)

Ulracher’s quantitative research suggests that political constraints within a state’s government play an important role as a variable in the success or failure of negotiations once they take place, rather than deterring negotiation altogether. (2011: 89-93)

Negotiations at the close of civil wars do not always fail. When they do succeed, however, conflicts tend to re-escalate within a handful of years from settlement. (Licklider, 2011: 684-685) Licklider and Wagner (Ibid) argue that civil wars often re-escalate after settlement because, unlike in interstate war, at the end of a civil war people have to coexist in one state and the creation of a political system where former enemies can work together is inherently difficult. This is because “negotiated settlements are likely to create internal balance-of-power situations that make it difficult for the new government to work effectively.” (Ibid)

Negotiated settlements to civil wars are unlikely to last indefinitely unless the government can implement structural change “at the expense of vested interests.” (Licklider, 2011: 684-685; Rost, 2013: 472-474) Additionally, Licklider (Ibid) argues that negotiated settlements will likely result in “veto groups that will not surrender power for social change whose impact on them is uncertain” while military defeat will greatly cripple any chance of future conflict.  

In other cases, grievance may be a hindrance to the success of a peace agreement meaning that one or more groups do not want to engage into peaceful coexistence after civil violence. For example, when Ugandan President Milton Obote was overthrown by the military in 1985, the Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army took up arms against the new regime. Later that year negotiations for a power-sharing agreement commenced under the mediation of Kenya’s President Daniel Arap Moi and were largely influenced by the memories of past violent regimes. So much so, that the NRA demanded for the purge of former President Idi Amin loyalists in the army and those guilty of human rights abuses in the former governments. An abortive agreement calling for an end to the war and new elections was eventually signed in Nairobi in December 1985 but the fighting continued nevertheless. The NRA, who had been consolidating its military position throughout the country committed to a military victory driven by a sense of betrayal by the government who failed to respect the cease-fire agreement. (Olson; Pearson, 2002: 439)

Post-war coexistence becomes even harder where the civil conflict was fought along ethnic lines, with grievances threatening to cause new escalation and mistrust leading to security dilemmas. Indeed, Kaufman (1996: 136-139) believes that, contrary to ideological civil wars, individual loyalties are almost completely rigid in ethnic conflict. Thus, separation is the only viable way to obtain sustainable peace between ethnic groups formerly engaged in civil conflict. “Separation reduces both incentives and opportunity for further combat, and largely eliminates both reasons and chances for ethnic cleansing of civilians”. (Ibid) Partition is clearly not easily achievable, especially when the ethnic borders within a state are not clear cut, like in many areas of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Partition has been very rare since the Second World War, especially in countries where there are more than two ethnic groups, because states generally do not want to set secession precedents. (Gurses; Prost, 2013: 472)

In conclusion, civil wars tend to defy traditional approaches to ‘conflict resolution’ which are based on interstate wars because of a number of reasons that mostly derive from the lack of de jure legitimacy by one or more parties to the conflict and from the lack of a mechanism to ensure that agreements are respected by them. It has been argued in this essay that in certain civil war situations negotiations may never even start given that governments are normally inclined to avoid giving a sense of legitimacy to non-state, armed rebel groups by sitting at the negotiation table. Moreover, the Zimbabwe example stresses how international interests may negatively affect the resolution of a civil war, since the Country’s African neighbors would have had the Patriotic Front guerrilla war continue in order for the PF to gain a better position in new negotiations. A problem of accountability is also inherent to civil conflict resolution: there is no higher power to monitor compliance with the terms of an agreement unless an outside party steps in as guarantor. When there is no guarantor, security dilemmas between rival groups are likely to arise. Another issue which has been described in this essay is the lack of a central authority within many warring groups which also considerably affects accountability. Finally, it has been described how even governments may lack the cohesion necessary to reach or respect agreements with rebels, like for instance in Sri Lanka, when Prime Minister Wickramasinghe negotiated a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers and was ousted, giving way to a surge in Sinhalese nationalism.


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Gurses, Mehmet; Rost, Nicolas ‘Sustaining the Peace After Civil War’. Conflict Management and Peace Science, Vol. 30, No. 5 (2013), pp. 469-491.

Kaldor, Mary ‘New & Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era’. Polity Press (London, 2001).

Kaufman, Chaim ‘Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars’. International Security, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Spring, 1996), pp. 136-175.

Licklider, Roy ‘The Consequence of Negotiated Settlements in Civil Wars, 1945-1993’. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (September, 1995), pp. 681-690.

Olson, Marie; Pearson, S. Frederik ‘Civil War Characteristics, Mediators, and Resolution’. Conflict Resolution Quarterly’, Vol. 19, No. 4 (2002), pp. 431-446.

Park, Sunhee ‘Power and Civil War Termination Bargaining’. International Security Quarterly, 59 (2015) , pp. 172-183.

Shrede Gleditsch, Kristian  ‘Transnational Dimensions of Civil War’. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 44, No. 3 (May, 2007), pp. 293-309.

Ulracher, R. Brian ‘Political Constraints and Civil War Conflict Resolution’. Civil Wars, Vol. 13, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 81-98.
Walter, F. Barbara ‘The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement’. International Organisation, Vol. 51, No. 3 (June, 1997), pp. 335-364.

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