Don’t Call for a Cease-Fire! They Only Lead to More Death and Destruction.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 17 2014 5:30 AM

Why Cease-Fires Make It Worse

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

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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.

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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.