Cease-Fires Don’t Help

african warrior

Source: The News MX (John A. Stevenson Slate)

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.