Summary of "Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements"

Summary of

Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements

By Stephen John Stedman

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Stedman, Stephen John, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2002.


Much of the research on conflict resolution in the 1980s focused on the conditions and tools for getting various parties in civil wars to sign a peace agreement. The underlying assumption was that "...successful negotiation signaled an irreversible reduction in conflict." The contemporary examples of Rwanda, Angola and Liberia have demonstrated that this assumption is false. Rather, as Steadman puts it: "When combatants in civil wars sign a peace agreement, there is potential for progress...But the potential for harm is also great: fear and predation are potent threats to peace..." Thus, the implementation of peace agreements is of utmost importance as "...appropriate strategies and adequate resources can help counter these threats." Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements seeks to understand why peace agreements succeed or fail through their implementation.

For the purposes of this book, peace implementation is defined as "...the process of carrying out a specific peace agreement. It focuses on the narrow, relatively short-term get warring parties to comply with their written commitments to peace." The book analyzes both the strategies and specific tasks of peace implementation, and uses contemporary case studies (circa 1980-2000) to add empirical support to the assertions it makes. Its meta-level assertion is that civil war contexts differ in at least two important ways: the difficulties of the environment, and the willingness of international actors to provide resources and troops. Further, these two variables are reliably predictable before a peace operation begins. Thus, there should be no "one size fits all" approach to peace implementation. Rather, the type and intensity of the conflict, as well as the external environment, should determine implementation strategy.

The Difficulties of Environment

According to the authors of this book, the worse the environment, the less likely peace is to succeed. While much of past conflict resolution theory tended to treat all civil wars as more or less alike, contemporary empirical examples clearly demonstrate this is not the case. Some civil war contexts have been highly amenable to peace, such as the Guatemalan Civil War (1992-1998) (chapter 15) in which violence ended before peace talks began. El Salvador (chapter 14) is often held up as a classic example of successful strategy, but this book argues that its success was due largely to the relatively amenable environment. On the other hand, 25,000 U.S. marines were unable to stop the violence in Somalia.

The difficulty of an environment is thought to depend on three variables: spoilers, neighboring states that oppose peace, and valuable spoils. Spoilers are "...leaders or factions hostile to a peace agreement and willing to use violence to undermine it." The degree to which spoilers are effective will depend on their numbers (both the number of distinct spoilers as well as the size of each spoiler), their commitment, and their resources. Lots of strong, committed and well-resourced spoilers are thought to create a negative environment, while a few weak uncommitted spoilers are thought to not drastically affect the implementation process.

Unfriendly neighboring states are similarly problematic in their numbers, commitment and resources. Again, a lot of highly committed, well-resourced and unfriendly neighbors make for a difficult environment, while a few, uncommitted and poorly resourced unfriendly neighbors have little effect. While neighboring states may directly interfere in peace, they also often supply or harbor spoilers. On the other hand, neighbors friendly to the peace process can be a positive infulence not only directly, but also indirectly, by denying spoilers resources or refuge.

Valuable spoils or easily marketed commodities can also make environments difficult. Commodities such as gold, diamonds, oil, timber and the like can provide an economic wedge between parties, exacerbating problems. They also increase the likelihood of third-party war profiteering. While potentially a major benefit to a peaceful society, such commodities often make for a difficult environment during the implementation of peace.

Some environments are highly hostile to peace, while others are relatively amenable to it. The relative difficulty of a particular environment can be predicted by analyzing the nature of its spoilers, neighbors, and valuable spoils. This is important because more difficult environments will require more external resources, troops and commitment. While environments differ, so too does international commitment, addressed in the next section.

Incentive Compatibility

"Incentive compatibility" is an economics term, which states that "...strategies must be in the self-interest of critical actors in order to be implemented." Essentially, it is thought that actors will not act directly against their perceived self-interest. This principle applies to both the internal as well as the external actors in peace implementation. While internal parties will have clear concerns of direct self-interest, external parties may not.

Thus, when environments become more difficult, international parities without direct self-interest are likely to either withdraw or scale back their efforts. As Stedman puts it, "throughout the 1990s, the signing of a peace agreement was sufficient to trigger international involvement to implement that agreement, but nowhere near sufficient to trigger international commitment to do the job right." Often this problem of waffling international commitment is subsumed under the arguments of political will: if only more political will could be mustered, then difficult cases would receive the attention and resources they need.

This book suggests that such an argument is misleading. That is, the concept of political will takes a relatively fixed variable (perception of vital security interests) and treats it as though it were easily manipulated. Stedman asserts that political will is a "...vexing analytical error that overstates the commitment of international actors to making peace in civil wars in countries of peripheral security importance."

Rather than a lack of will, Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements views a lack of international commitment as directly related to self-interest. When a conflict is of little strategic importance to either regional or great powers, international commitment will be light. There are numerous empirical examples of this, though the most dramatic is the Rwandan crisis (chapter 16), in which the international community pulled out, costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

On the other hand, when there are strong regional or world-wide interests (as in the Middle East because of oil), commitment is likely to be quite high -- though not always with good results. For example, Syria was able to stop the violence in Lebanon, though largely at the cost of human rights, democracy and national reconciliation (chapter 19). In Liberia, the Nigerian-led ECOMOG (chapter 20) became a combatant, and eventually negotiated a peace that resembled the likely outcome had there been no intervention.

But international commitment is not an "all or nothing" phenomenon. Limited commitment can be enough to end violence, as was the case in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge (chapter 17), when limited coercive strategies were successfully implemented. Further, international commitment may change over time, as was the case in Nicaragua (chapter 13), when the Cold War ended and a new regime was installed in Washington which was more amenable to resource commitment in "peripheral states."

While a heavy international commitment does not guarantee success, a complete lack of commitment virtually guarantees failure. Thus the authors suggest, "when selecting what peace agreements the UN should implement, great or regional power interest should be treated as a hard constraint." That is, when regional and great powers lack interest in a conflict, there should be no attempts at international implementation (except in only the least difficult environments), as necessary resources and attention are not likely to be provided.

Tailoring Implementation Strategy

Implementation strategies must reflect both the needs of the environment, and the realistic expectations of international commitment. Difficult environments require more resources, troops and commitment, but not all difficult environments provide the necessary incentives to international powers to adequately commit. This raises two fundamental strategic decisions: which cases to implement; and when implementing, what mix of confidence building and coercion to use.

This book argues that, despite moral misgivings, the international community should not aid every peace implementation. Rather, the international community should aid implementation only when enough resources, troops, and commitment can be realistically expected to be supplied to meet the needs of the environment. This means that highly amenable environments with few difficulties will be implemented, while more difficult and hostile environments would only be implemented when regional or great power interests (and thus commitments) are high.

When the international community has decided that implementation is necessary and likely to succeed, a proper strategic mix must be applied. "Traditional peacekeeping" -- with its underling emphasis on confidence building -- is likely to be effective in environments with few "difficulties." However, in extremely "difficult" environments, a degree of coercion is often necessary. Finding the proper strategic mix will depend on evaluating the difficulties (spoilers, neighbors, spoils), on their attributes (few-many, reconciled-hostile, coherent-fragmented), their motivations and their intent.

In the process of developing a proper strategic mix, it is essential that all interested parties provide input. This helps to ensure that implementation strategies remain coordinated. An implementation strategy, no matter how well conceived, cannot be successful if the international community does not buy into it collectively. Further, the strategy must be clear and coherent, as it is impossible to coordinate an incoherent strategy. Bosnia (chapter 18) reminds us of the importance of a proper mix of strategy with coordination and coherence. Many of the shortcomings in Bosnia can be linked to uncoordinated and competing theories of conflict resolution, as well as an initially incoherent political strategy.

Prioritizing Sub-goals in Implementation Strategies

According to the book, the primary goals of peace implementation should be the cessation of violence and the development of a self-sustaining peace. To make this a reality, an implementation process must address and realize a multitude of sub-goals. Such goals include (though are certainly not limited to): repatriation, elections, human rights guarantees, political reform, demobilization, security sector reform, and national reconciliation. Scholars have demonstrated the need for each of these sub-goals, but the literature has been scarce on determining the relative necessity of each. That is, which sub-goals are most important?

Due to limited resources, this is a vital question to ask. In most cases, there are not enough resources to pursue all the relevant sub-goals; and in all cases, sub-goals cannot be pursued with limited resources. Thus, there is a need to prioritize these sub-goals. According to the book, priority should be given to demobilization of soldiers and the demilitarization of politics (transforming warring parties into political parties). This does two things: First, it ceases violence (at least between the warring parties); and second, it provides a political alternative to "life with the gun" (which provides the capacity for self-sustaining peace). Indeed, these two sub-goals (soldier demobilization and party demilitarization) are thought to be so important that, "[w]ithout achieving these two critical sub-goals, civil wars cannot be brought to an end, and important normative goals -- such as the creation and consolidation of democracy and the protection of human rights -- have little chance of success."

Additionally, the book introduces two low-cost "secondary" sub-goals that are invaluable in the long term. The first of these is security-sector reform, with a focus on police and judicial reform. Without such reform, "extremist" organizations may provide these basic protections (or a similar form of protection) in competition with the state. This undermines state authority and will likely lead to future conflict. The second low-cost, long-term sub-goal is building capacity on the local level for human rights and reconciliation through civil-society organizations (CSOs), such as local women's rights organizations and labor movements. Such CSOs are able to inject normative goals in the proper cultural context from the bottom up. While neither of these two "secondary" sub-goals is essential to the cessation of violence, both have demonstrated that they substantially increase the likelyhood of a sustainable peace over the long term.


A signed peace agreement does not guarantee peace. On the contrary, failed peace implementation can lead to more deaths than the conflict the agreement was meant to end (as was the case in the two worst humanitarian disasters of the 1990s -- Angola in '93 and Rwanda in '94). Thus, the successful implementation of peace agreements is essential to securing a sustained peace. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements has "...sought to understand the success and failure of international attempts to implement peace agreements in civil wars."

According to the book, the key to successful peace implementation is understanding the uniqueness of each civil war context. Civil wars are thought to differ greatly in both the difficulties of their environment (spoilers, neighbors and spoils), and in their international incentive compatibility (the international commitment to providing resources and troops for implementation --directly tied to perceived national security interests). Once the unique context of a civil war is well understood, a strategic mix of confidence building and coercion should be developed with realistic expectations as to international resource commitments.

This strategic mix should prioritize the sub-goals of soldier demobilization and political demilitarization. This has the dual effect of violence cessation and building a capacity for a non-violent life "without the gun." Further, adequate resources permitting, the strategic mix should address the secondary sub-goals of security sector reform (focusing on police and judicial reform) and local capacity building for human rights and national reconciliation. These "secondary" sub-goals will help to ensure a long-term, self-sustained peace.

Essentially, Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements, provides a framework from which to rationally determine when implementation can reasonably be expected to be successful, as well as how to go about implementation when it is. According to Stedman, such rationalization in the 1990s would have never allowed a mission in Somalia (which was a highly difficult environment that also lacked interest compatibility), but would have provided an effective intervention in Rwanda (which was a less difficult environment that simply lacked interest compatibility, largely due to the U.S. experience in Somalia). The result might have been the successful prevention of hundreds of thousands of deaths in Rwanda, and the rational but cold-hearted decision to not intervene in the loss of thousands of lives in Somalia.