Getting to lasting peace: Does mediation suffice to settle civil wars successfully?

Essay 2003 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security


Since the end of the Cold War the nature and perception of international conflict has changed significantly. Instead of inter-state war, intra-state conflicts now constitute the majority of current conflicts. “Global nuclear warfare is no longer the primary international security concern. It has been displaced by […] excessively violent and destructive intra-state or internal conflicts.”[1] And these conflicts, which would have been regarded as purely internal matters during the Cold War, are now seen as being of international concern. Civil wars which are normally regionalised, are often nevertheless deemed to be a threat to international peace and security. As a result, the international community has become more and more involved in the resolution of civil wars, often by mediating peace negotiations between the parties involved.

However, the resolution of civil war is one the most challenging tasks in Conflict Resolution. Only a minority of negotiations result in a lasting peace and only under exceptional circumstances[2] is this achieved without a third party mediating the negotiations.[3] Although many of the attempts to settle civil wars by mediation have failed, it is clear that the involvement of international mediators makes civil war negotiations more likely to succeed and in some cases indeed helps to find long-term solutions to the conflict.[4]

Nevertheless, mediation is certainly no miracle cure, and although mediation is a successful tool for reaching an agreement, it is no guarantee that this agreement is implemented in the long-term. Walter argues that getting the parties to agree on solutions for underlying disputes is not the most difficult task. More difficult and crucial, is the implementation of the terms of the treaty. It is

generally assumed that negotiations fail because a conflict is not ripe for resolution or because the combatants cannot agree on the terms for peace. [This assumption] does not consider that combatants may look down the road and realize that any terms they do accept may be unenforceable and therefore undesirable.[5]

Obviously, even the most convincing treaty is useless if it cannot be successfully implemented. Yet, the peace process frequently fails in the early stages of the implementation phase, because here the parties are most vulnerable and it is relatively easy to cheat, as monitoring the other party’s activities is not normally possible.

This essay will thus argue that although mediation is a crucial factor for civil war negotiations to be successful, it is by no means a guarantee for the implementation of the negotiated treaty and therefore does not always suffice to settle the conflict. Civil war parties can decide to go back to fighting even if they have found a mutually satisfying solution to their problem, if they believe that their security is not guaranteed during the implementation or distrust the other party to faithfully fulfil their part of the treaty. Walter suggests that this problem derives from a lack of ‘credible guarantees’, which the parties themselves cannot make. However, if a third party guarantees the security of the combatants and monitors and verifies the implementation of the treaty, the conflict is likely to transform into a lasting peace. The role of the guarantor is possibly best served by the UN, as they are internationally regarded as neutral and impartial.

Yet, before looking at this concept, which Walter calls ‘credible commitment theory’, in more detail, this essay will briefly outline the advantages mediation has for the negotiations itself, because even if mediation is ultimately no guarantee for successful implementation of a treaty, it is still the case that unmediated civil war negotiations are unlikely to reach an agreement at all.

It is clear, that mediation is nothing new, as “forms of conflict resolution in which a third party helps disputants resolve their conflicts and come to their own decision have probably been practiced since the existence of three or more people on earth.”[6] However, mediation is crucial for civil war negotiations for a number of reasons:

Firstly, “the myth of mediation holds that it is a process whose end is agreement.”[7] Although mediation certainly endeavours to get the parties to reach and agreement, it does far more than that. Mediation tries to create an environment of trust and seeks to establish a lasting working relationship between the parties. Conflicting parties rarely have a relationship characterised by trust. However, direct negotiations between parties that have not the least bit of trust in each other, can impossibly result in agreement.


[1] Kumar Rupesinghe, Civil Wars, Civil Peace: An Introduction to Conflict Resolution, Pluto Press, London, 1998, p. 2

[2] As for example in the negotiations to end the era of apartheid in South Africa. In this case, the conflict was resolved by the conflicting parties alone without major third party intervention or any mediation.

[3] Barbara F. Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil War, Princeton University Press, Oxford, 2002

[4] According to Walters’ quantitative analysis of civil war negotiations, “governments and rebels are 39 percent more likely to bargain successfully with the help of a mediator than on their own.” (Walter, p. 82)

[5] Walter, op.cit., p. 19

[6] Jay Folberg and Alison Taylor, Mediation: a Comprehensive Guide to Resolving Conflicts Without Litigation, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1984, p. 1

[7] Deborah M. Kolb, When Talk Works: Profiles of Mediators, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1994,
p. 466


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University of Kent – Brussls School of International Studies
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Getting Does Negotiation Mediation




Title: Getting to lasting peace: Does mediation suffice to settle civil wars successfully?