Ripeness for Peace - A Useful Concept for Negotiating an End to Civil Wars?
Civil wars have been the predominant form of armed conflict since 1945, with four to five times more civil wars than state-on-state conflicts, accounting for some 68% of conflict-related deaths (Gleditch et al, 2015). Civil conflicts, contrary to state-on-state conflicts, are often considered messier and longer-lasting affairs, frequently subjected to complex inter-communal dynamics or with multiple competing factions, bases of power and shifting allegiances (Tonge, 2014). Nevertheless, some optimism emerged post-Cold War that we would enter an era of greater peace – with an increasing number of civil conflicts ending via peace agreements. Of the 108 conflicts occurring in 1989, 75 of them had ended by 1998, out of which 21 via mutual peace agreements, 30 via ceasefires without the full implementation of a peace agreement, and 24 through victory of one set of combatants (Erikson et al, 2003). Accordingly, theorists and policymakers have devoted an increasing amount of time to identify how and when civil wars can be brought to a negotiated end.
William Zartman´s (1993; 1995; 2001) seminal works attempting to identify the moment that a civil conflict is most open to reaching a negotiated settlement, known as the “Ripeness for Peace”, have provided some of the most influential theoretical contributions (Preston, 2004). This article will first examine the conceptual framework of the Ripeness for Peace. There will then be a short case study of the war in Bosnia, to illustrate the concept's application. Finally, the article will outline the main weaknesses of this theoretical framework. It will be argued that, despite the influence of the theory, it retains little practical or predictive power in assisting policymakers seeking to bring civil conflicts to a negotiated end.
The Ripeness For Peace
Most studies looking at the negotiated settlements to civil conflicts have tended to examine the specific measures contained within a peace agreement, for example the ethnic-power sharing arrangements implemented in Lebanon or Northern Ireland (Tonge, 2014). Instead, William Zartman (2001) argues that identifying the correct moment to begin engaging in peace negotiations in the first place is just as important in dictating a successful negotiated outcome. Zartman (2001) argues this Ripe Moment depends on two primary considerations. The first element is known as the Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS), which describes a situation when both sides of a conflict perceive the costs of attaining a military victory to be unacceptably high if not impossible (Zartman, 2001). Accordingly, both parties will attempt to seek alternative ways out of the conflict, including giving concessions as part of a negotiated settlement. This element assumes that both sides are operating on a rational and constantly shifting cost/benefit analysis towards their role in the conflict (Zartman, 1993). The second element Zartman (2001) terms the Way Out, in which both parties must perceive there to be a workable exit from conflict through a negotiated settlement. The Way Out is relevant as even if both parties perceive themselves to be involved in a Mutually Hurting Stalemate, they will not engage in negotiations if they feel their opponents will not meaningfully engage in reciprocal concessions.
For both sides to perceive a Way Out as a result of a MHS, Zartman (1993) posits there must be a symmetry of power between the combatants, even if the sources of that power differ. Should there be an asymmetry of power, for example with a stronger but less committed government faction fighting a weaker but more committed rebel faction, then the condition of a MHS can actually hinder the perception of a Way Out. This is because a government faction will often have other priorities aside from the conflict, whereas for rebel factions the conflict is often their entire purpose and motivation (Zartman, 1993). This leaves little room for negotiation as rebels have nothing to give up aside from rebellion, whereas the government does not want to legitimise the rebellion, making a MHS a comfortable condition in which the respective positions harden.
Consequently, both elements depend primarily on the perception of the respective combatants towards the state of the conflict, rather than definitive empirical conditions (Zartman, 2001). As civil conflicts are often asymmetrical in nature, the point at which the respective sides perceive losses to be unacceptable may differ (Zartman, 1993). Even if what appears to be the condition of MHS can be empirically observed, for example both sides suffering high casualties with limited gains, a MHS still has not yet occurred if one side still believes themselves to have a realistic path to victory (Zartman, 1993). Likewise, even if one side appears to have a clear path to victory, an MHS can still occur if both sides believe the costs of victory to be unacceptably high. Finally, although a Ripe Moment is necessary to lead to negotiations, it is not in itself sufficient. Ripe moments can come and go, but they must be recognised and seized upon by the combatants to fulfil the conditions of a successful peaceful settlement (Zartman, 2001). Accordingly, Zartman (2001) states that careful research and intelligence studies into both the objective and subjective elements of a conflict are needed to properly identify a ripe moment.
By 1999 the concept of the Ripeness for Peace, particularly the Mutually Hurting Stalemate, had become widely accepted in policymaking circles (Miall et al, 1999). This coincided with the successful implementation of numerous peace agreements of previously intractable or else particularly violent civil conflicts, such as the 1989 Ta´if Agreement ending the bloody 14-year-long Lebanese Civil War, the 1995 Dayton Agreement ending the brutal Bosnian War, and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending 30 years of sustained violence in Northern Ireland. This sparked hopes that perhaps theorists and policymakers had finally begun to better understand and implement the mechanisms for ending endemic civil violence.
The Bosnian War: Unripe and Ripe Moments for Peace
The Bosnian War was fought between 1992 and 1995 between three main ethnic groups, the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats, and resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people, with half of the countries' 4.3 million people displaced, and instances of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide (Tonge, 2014). This conflict contained one failed peace agreement with the 1993 Owen-Vance Plan, that can be used to illustrate an Unripe Moment for peace, with negotiations attempted prematurely and hence doomed to fail. The conflict was then ended by the successful implementation of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, which can used to illustrate a Ripe Moment.
Using Zartman´s theoretical framework, the failed Owen-Vance plan of 1993 can be illustrated as an unripe moment for peace. In 1993 the conflicts battlelines were still shifting with all three ethnic groups still believing they could make lasting territorial gains (Tonge, 2014). This meant none of the warring parties was perceiving a Mutually Hurting Stalemate. Furthermore, all sides were still deeply mistrustful of each other’s intentions. Bosnian Serbs believed it was the intention of Bosniaks to create a fundamentalist Islamic State, while a temporary united front between Croats and Bosniaks had collapsed amongst mutual recriminations (Ibid.). Accordingly, none of the sides perceived a Way Out, believing negotiation to be fruitless. Consequently, this plan failed to gain sufficient support from any of the combatants to cease the fighting or engage in meaningful negotiations. Within this context, according to the Ripeness for Peace framework, the details of the Owen-Vance plan are unimportant, as the timing of the plan meant it was doomed to failure. Indeed, the war would rumble on and was yet to witness the peak of its bloodshed, with Serbian forces in particular making large gains.
By contrast, 1995 saw the implementation of the successful Dayton Agreement, which brought the intense violence to an end, with this agreement forming the basis of Bosnia´s political system to this day. This can be illustrated as a Ripe Moment following the development of a perceived Mutually Hurting Stalemate and a Way Out. First, in 1994, the Bosniaks and the Croats had agreed to a formal truce and the creation of a jointly administered Bosniak-Croat republic – with this united front increasing the pressure on the hitherto superior Serb forces (Tonge, 2014). Simultaneously, international diplomatic pressure and spiralling economic costs in Serbia had caused Serbia to withdraw its assistance to the Bosnian Serbs, leaving them isolated (Ibid.). Consequently, Serb forces began to lose territories in the West and Northwest to the Croats and Bosniaks. The beginning of a NATO bombing mission against Serb forces in 1995 convinced Bosnian Serbs of the need to negotiate (Ibid.). By this stage of the war, all sides had suffered traumatic losses with around 70,000 Bosniaks, 25,000 Serbs and 5,000 Croats dead, and hundreds of thousands ethnically cleansed (Grieg, 2001). Such losses combined with changing battlefield fortunes created the perception of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate. Furthermore, the Bosniak-Croat truce and greater international involvement in calling for peace negotiations including from the leaders of Croatia and Serbia, meant the perception of a Way Out was forged amongst all three combatants (Tonge, 2014).
As can be seen, the assessment of this moment as being ripe depends on a multitude of factors affecting perception, including military strength, territorial situation, number of losses, shifting alliances, and an altered international diplomatic and economic landscape. The Dayton Agreement, occurring at a Ripe Moment for Peace, was successful in producing a lasting end to the war, with a 2015 Bosniak terrorist attack on a Serb police station killing two people being the deadliest incidence of inter-ethnic violence since 1995 (Bennet, 2016). Regardless of the contents of the Dayton Agreement, this would lend Zartman´s thesis some credence that the negotiation was successful due to timing. Similarly, the Owen-Vance plan was doomed to fail due to its ill-timing with all sides feeling they could still achieve victory. Nevertheless, the Ripeness for Peace has plenty of detractors.
A Useful Concept?
Despite the prominence of the Ripeness for Peace in theory and policy, it is questionable just how useful the concept is as a theoretical framework. Perhaps the strongest argument against it is that a ripe moment can only really be identified in hindsight, should a peace negotiation prove to be a success resulting in a lasting settlement of the conflict (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Should a peace settlement fail, and the conflict return to violence, it can simply be argued that the moment was not ripe enough for peace. This poses a tautological problem, in which all successes and failures can be retroactively claimed to be explained by a moment being ripe or not ripe (Tonge, 2014). Although useful in analysing why peace negotiations were successful, this nevertheless limits the ability of the framework to predict when a ripe moment will occur, making it of limited practical use for those attempting to bring a conflict to a negotiated end (Connolly & Doyle, 2018).
Tonge et al (2011) illustrate this tautological problem by positing several Ripe Moments in Northern Ireland throughout its thirty-year conflict that failed to end in successful negotiations. By analysing the 1973 military stalemate that preceded the unsuccessful Sunningdale Agreement, and likewise the conflict fatigue preceding the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement that also failed to end the Troubles, they argue these to have represented Ripe Moments (Ibid.). However, it was not until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that the conflict ended, with this moment posited by proponents of Zartman as a Ripe Moment for Peace. Yet, despite conditions in the conflict being broadly similar in 1985 as in 1998, and a stalemate in the conflict apparent in 1973, with the benefit of hindsight these two moments can be simply dismissed as Unripe. This brings into question just how useful the concept is to policymakers and observers of ongoing conflicts who do not have the benefit of hindsight in their analysis.
Furthermore, the concept of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate is difficult to refine and so broad as to give little value (Preston, 2004). In this even Zartman (1993) himself contradicts his own hypothesis in highlighting the effects of power symmetry when he states that MHS´s are rare in internal conflicts anyway, and contrary to opening the way to negotiations, when they occur they can also lead to further polarisation and hardening of a conflict and can even become a comfortable status quo for the respective combatants. As such, not even the key driver of the Ripeness for Peace in the form of a MHS can provide any real predictive powers, with conflicts needing to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Finally, the idea that a MHS depends on the warring parties sharing the same perception as each other is again overly broad, with civil conflicts often containing multiple warring parties and splinter groups, and it being a rare occurrence that all sides share the same thoughts at the same moment (Tonge, 2014). In addition, by focusing purely on the respective combatants, the Mutually Hurting Stalemate largely ignores the role of other non-military factions who may have a role in negotiating peace.
Preston (2004) concludes that Zartman´s chief prediction that combatants prefer not to make peace when victory is in sight, instead doing so only when victory is deemed too difficult, is hardly a surprising conclusion. Nevertheless, the overriding influence of Zartman´s Ripeness for Peace has still led Preston and other theorists to expand on Zartman´s ideas to pinpoint more specific conditions that lead to the Ripeness for Peace. Preston (2004) introduces the concept of a Turning Point in which a decisive event leads to the stronger side weakening and the weaker side strengthening, thus leading to an MHS. Meanwhile, Greig (2001) posits Ripeness as a continuum rather than a set point, with less ripe moments less likely to lead to peace, and furthermore focuses on the internal dynamics of the respective combatants in affecting perceptions. Clearly then, despite some of the glaring theoretical holes, Zartman´s theory continues to provide a basis for other theories attempting to understand civil conflicts.
The Ripeness for Peace has been highly influential amongst theoretical and policymaking circles in the post-Cold War period. In positing the conditions of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate and a Way Out, the Ripeness for Peace provides some focus for observers of civil conflicts hoping to bring about negotiated settlements. Yet whilst this concept has its uses in retrospectively analysing civil conflicts after they have already been successfully ended through a negotiated settlement, it is severely limited in its predictive power as a theoretical framework. The central concept of the Mutually Hurting Stalemate is too broad, with too many exceptions, and the central thesis that combatants seek negotiations when they perceive victory to be too costly is hardly a novel idea. With this in mind, the persisting influence of the Ripeness for Peace in analysing conflicts is perhaps surprising. Nevertheless, as a basis for subsequent theories seeking more specific conditions to enhance its predictive power, the Ripeness for Peace retains some use.
Bennet, C. (2016) Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace, Hurst & Company.
Connolly, E & Doyle, J (2018) Ripe moments for Exiting Political Violence: an Analysis of the Northern Ireland Case, Irish Studies in International Affairs: Reflections on the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process, 147-162.
Eriksson, M., Wallensteen P & Sollenberg M. (2003) Armed Conflict, 1989-2002, Journal of Peace Research, 40:5, 593-607.
Gleditsch, N., Melander, E. & Urdal, H. (2015) Introduction – Patterns of Armed Conflict Since 1945, in: Mason, D. & Mitchell S. M. , eds., What Do We Know About Civil War?, Rowman & Littlefield, 15-32.
Greig, M. (2001) Moments of Opportunity: Recognizing Conditions of Ripeness for International Mediation between Enduring Rivals, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45:6, 691-718.
Licklider, R. (1993) Stopping the Killing: How Civil Wars End, New York University Press.
Miall, H., Rowbotham, O., & Woodhouse, T. (1999) Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Polity Press.
Preston, M. (2004) Stalemate and the Termination of Civil War: Rhodesia Reassessed, Journal of Peace Research, 41:1, 65-83.
Tonge, J. (2014) Comparative Peace Processes, Cambridge Polity.
Tonge, J., Shirlow P. & McAuley, J (2011) So Why Did the Guns Fall Silent? How Interplay, Not Stalemate, Explains the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Irish Political Studies, 26:1, 1-18.
Wagner, R. (1993) The Causes of Peace, in Licklider, R., ed., Stopping the Killing: How Civil Wars End, New York University Press, 235-268.
Zartman, W. (1993) The Unfinished Agenda: Negotiating Internal Conflicts, in Licklider, R., ed., Stopping the Killing: How Civil Wars End, New York University Press, 20-34.
Zartman, W.. (1995) Elusive Peace: Negotiation an End to Civil Wars, The Brookings Institution.
Zartman, W. (2001) The Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments, The Global Review of Ethnopolitics, 1:1, 8-18.
Cover Photo: Longstreat, D. (1995) Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, left, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, centre, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, right, initial the peace agreement after 21 days of talks in Dayton, Ohio, November 21, 1995 [Photograph]. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/20/dayton-25-years
Figure 1: Omar, F. (2021) Somali soldiers supporting opposition leaders are seen in the streets of the Yaqshid district of Mogadishu, Somalia, on April 25, 2021 [Photograph]. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://abcnews.go.com/International/somalias-unrest-continues-us-prepared-tools/story?id=77336749
Figure 2: AP Phtot (1981). British troops clash with demonstrators in a Catholic dominated area of Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the period known as 'The Troubles'. [Photograph]. Associated Press, Retrieved from: https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/14/northern-ireland-uk-plans-to-end-prosecutions-for-historical-troubles-crimes
Figure 3: Barrak, J. (1989) People come together following the Taif agreement on 4 November 1989 in Beirut, Lebanon. [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20201022-remembering-the-taif-accord/
Figure 4: Persson, M. (1992) A Bosnian special forces soldier returns fire in downtown Sarajevo as he and civilians come under fire from Serbian snipers, on April 6, 1992. The Serbs were shooting from the roof of a hotel at a peace demonstration of some of 30,000 people as fighting between Bosnian and Serb fighters escalated in the capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina. [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2012/04/20-years-since-the-bosnian-war/100278/
Figure 5: Miller, E. (1995) President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia (L), President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (C) and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia sign the Dayton Agreement peace accord, 21 November 1995. [Photograph]. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/from-the-archive-blog/2020/nov/18/the-dayton-accords-a-peace-agreement-for-bosnia-archive-1995
Figure 6: Vizcaino, J. (2016). Members of the 51st Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) patrol in the remote mountains of Colombia, Aug. 16, 2016. [Photograph]. Reuters, Retrieved from: https://www.voanews.com/a/as-colombias-farc-disarms-rebels-enlisted-to-fight-deforestation-/3897125.html
Figure 7: Russian Foreign MinistryTASS (2021). An extended trilateral meeting (Russia, China, Pakistan, the United States, and Qatar) to discuss the Afghan peace talks. [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from: https://theglobalobservatory.org/2021/03/exclusion-womens-voices-afghan-peace-talks-remains-norm/