The 10 Year Cycle: Peace Agreements and Conflict Resolution

Denika Blacklock Karim

It is quite tiresome to read commentaries that discuss ‘conflict resolution’ in the context of the content of a peace agreement. Although not an expert in the field of conflict resolution, I have fairly good knowledge of what ‘resolving’ a conflict entails, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who wants to bang her head against her desk (or table at the local café, if I’m being honest) in frustration at this conflation of peace agreements with resolving conflict. In fact, in my experience working in post-conflict environments, the gaps in the content of peace agreements made resolving the root causes of the conflict more difficult, not easier. This is not to say that peace agreements are not an integral component of the conflict management process – they are critical to bringing about an end to violence, but they rarely resolve conflict in and of themselves.

Why? Conflict results in divisions in society which are wider than those that previously existed and are at the root of the conflict to begin with. Thus, resolving and transforming conflict necessitates not only bringing an end to violence, and working to bridge these societal divides, but it also means examining and addressing the initial societal divides and root cause to the conflict.

This essay looks at three cases: Bosnia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia[1], and Aceh, Indonesia. Each had highly publicized peace agreements that have been deemed successful by commentators, politicians and practitioners alike. However, the perpetuation of societal division and the root causes of the conflict indicate that these ‘successful’ agreements lack a very significant component.

Conflict Management versus Conflict Resolution

Contemporary theories of conflict management tend to revolve around large-scale inter-ethnic conflicts because most of the well-known conflicts that emerged in the immediate post-Cold War era were indeed ethnic conflicts. Secondly, and as a direct result, conflict management theories tend to view conflict through a majority-minority lens, which has thus formed the basis of the ‘conflict management’ framework applied across conflicts, countries, groups and cultures.

Based on experiences in the 1990s, conflict management practice has built up around a general consensus that to secure peace, it is necessary to demobilize combatants and restore social order. According to Collier, et al, achieving this goal necessitated five steps: 1) securing a negotiated settlement; 2) the relatively light presence of peacekeeping troops; 3) encouraging a constitution based on democracy and some degree of decentralized power; 4) support for governance and policy reform; and 5) elections to gain acceptance and legitimacy for the settlement in the wider public[2]. They argue that this process has been a ‘highly successful strategy, yielding resolutions to several wars’[3]. (emphasis added). However, they also argue that post-conflict societies face two distinct challenges: 1) economic recovery and 2) conflict risk reduction.

However, a weakness in conflict management and resolution theory is that it is based on studies that over-emphasize the early stages of conflict transformation (i.e. leading up to a peace agreement) at the expense of assessing and responding to the rapidly changing dynamics during the transition from a negative behavioural peace to a positive structural peace[4]. Because peace agreements are very public and tend to receive significant media attention, one could be lead to believe that peace agreements denote a resolution of the root causes of a conflict, potentially (one could cynically say ‘generally’) creating unreasonable expectations that peace will now reign.

In the words of Lederach, ‘Agreements that end a conflict are hard to find. Most peace accords are not solutions in content but are proposed negotiated processes, which, if followed, will change the expression of the conflict and provide avenues for redefining relationships’[5]. Moreover, Collier et al note that significant empirical evidence emerging from quantitative studies on the causes of civil war indicate that the root causes are one or more of the following: low per capita income, slow economic growth, and large exports of natural resources[6]. They concurrently note that post-conflict environments are generally characterized as periods of power struggle between conflict protagonists (or even within protagonist groups) in which economic and social policy is not prioritized,[7] and post-conflict risks which are addressed primarily through a political lens[8].

Given that peace agreements themselves can lead to the increased politicization of society (see below), and become the defining element of post-conflict politics, why don’t peace agreements do more to ensure that the root causes of conflict are addressed? Can peace agreements be considered successful if this critical element is missing and languishes unresolved?

Peace Agreements in Focus

Anecdotal evidence from a number of countries indicates that the peace agreements have come to be the defining factor in the political landscape, sustaining conflict-era identities and reinforcing divisions in society. With peace agreements setting the stage for the post-conflict political landscape, their content is critically important. The main components of the peace agreements of five high profile conflicts[9] in Southeast Europe and Asia include:

  • New (or amended) Constitution
  • Elections
  • Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants (DDR)
  • Reform of the police/security sector
  • Return and reintegration of refugees and IDPs
  • Assertion of a ‘multi-ethnic’ society
  • Reserved parliamentary seats of ethnic groups/rebel factions
  • Proportional hiring for government positions
  • Internal boundary revisions
  • Local government and decentralization
  • Religious and cultural heritage and symbols

The Dayton Peace Accords (21 November 1995) ended the violence in Bosnia after nearly four years of inter-ethnic atrocities involving Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The conflict emerged as a result of a complex web of historical, ethnic, territorial and power-sharing issues following the declaration of independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Yugoslavia in 1991. The peace agreement focused on defining Bosnia as two entities (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska), with an accompanying constitution that described the intricate power-sharing process, including a three member Presidency, the urgent need to undertake DDR and reintegrate refugees and IDPs, and define the role of the High Representative as the international monitoring instrument. The only concession to economic and social rehabilitation and growth was the agreement to establish a public corporation to rehabilitate transportation infrastructure.

The Ohrid Framework Agreement (13 August 2001) sought to end the violent conflict between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians which emerged as a result of long-held grievances of the minority Albanian community relating to disenfranchisement and unequal economic opportunities. It was specific in its assertion that ‘the development of local self-government is essential […] for promoting respect for the identity of communities.’ A large focus of the Agreement was on the accommodation of the ethnic minority Albanian community, with decentralized governance including enhanced local competencies, boundary revisions based on a census to be undertaken, language and education rights, and the equitable representation in central and local government bodies. There was no accommodation of economic and social well-being within the Agreement, with the exception of a provision within Annex C of the Agreement on the international financing of rehabilitation and reconstruction projects.

The Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on 15 August 2005 following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which devastated the province of Aceh in Indonesia. The conflict in Aceh had been on-going through many phases over 29 years, with GAM seeking the independence of Aceh from Indonesia due to the central government’s exploitation of Aceh’s significant oil and gas resources, leading to the economic stagnation and cultural repression of the province. The MoU focused on the autonomy of Aceh within the Republic of Indonesia, to be guaranteed in a “Law on the Governing of Aceh”. Further, Aceh was granted the right to create Aceh-based political parties (the only province in Indonesia with this right). The MoU also included clauses on elections (and election monitors), rule of law and human rights, DDR and amnesty, security, an international monitoring mission and a dispute settlement mechanism. The only reference to the development of the economy was that Aceh had the right to raise revenue through external loans, and that the provincial government would now retain 70% of oil and gas revenues, which is 5-10 times more than the revenue retained by other provinces. While receiving fair monetary compensation for Aceh’s oil and gas reserves was the main economic grievance of GAM, there was no stipulation in the MoU on how this increase in revenue should directly relate to improved economic development in the province.

The Reason Behind the ’10 year cycle’ in the Re-emergence of Conflict?

In early 2014, violent protests broke out in Bosnia, resulting from overwhelming public frustration with the stagnant economy, high unemployment and poor government services. It could easily have been construed as an ethnic issue (as so much of the public discord in Bosnia has over the years), but it is important to look deeper. The peace agreement put in place a framework for the country which ensured that any and all public issues would be dealt with through an ethnic lens. This has meant that every issue takes on nationalist/ethnic tones, and that there are no ‘technical issues’ in Bosnia[10]. As noted by Florian Bieber, the power-sharing arrangements have empowered elites that promote ethnic identity and have given little space for those political forces that offer different programs focusing cooperation based on socio-economic issues[11]. This has led to complete political and economic stagnation, as politicians continue to wrangle over the implementation of clauses in the peace agreement vis-à-vis EU accession processes, undertake obstructionist policies in pursuit of advantages for their own ethnic community. The peace agreement has sustained the hostility between the political actors who negotiated and agreed to it, meaning that the peace agreement has exclusive control over public life to the detriment of any issues that were not expressly included in its contents, such as mutually inclusive economic development and the improvement in social welfare for the purposes of inter-ethnic reconciliation and addressing root causes of the conflict. The current state of affairs has only exacerbated these issues, as evidenced by the outburst of public frustration and protests against a stagnant and divided government.

The Ohrid Framework Agreement in Macedonia was by and large implemented without much interruption. This was largely due to that fact that compliance with the agreement by Macedonia’s ethnic communities would unofficially be rewarded with Euro-Atlantic integration. However, when Macedonia failed to secure membership in NATO in April 2008, it became apparent that Euro-Atlantic integration was the main policy goal binding the two main ethnic communities together, and that the parties had failed to address pressing domestic issues on inter-ethnic reconciliation – issues that had remained dormant but were now again festering. The first aggressive affront to the concept of a multi-ethnic society was Prime Minister Gruevski’s national project, which focused almost exclusively on ethnic Macedonian history and heroes, alienating other communities, and running counter to the spirit of the Ohrid Agreement[12]. Secondly, language laws were resulting in increased segregation rather than integration and respect for other communities, as children were not being taught each other’s languages. Public administration was being politicized as the process of ‘achieving equitable representation’ was undertaken through staffing government posts with party rank and file, not qualified candidates[13]. This lack of professionalism has meant that appropriate and concerted responses to economic crises and downturns are absent, and non-partisan economic and service delivery strategies and development programmes fail to bring meaningful change to the lives of ordinary citizens. The Ohrid Agreement did bring an end to violence, and result in a manageable power-sharing arrangement in the country, but failed to address root issues of the conflict, including fair and equitable economic and social development in the country.

Nine years on from the signing of the Helsinki MoU, the situation in Aceh, Indonesia, is questionable. The failure of the MoU to stipulate issues such as how post-conflict aid and reintegration assistance would be delivered, and who would identify the beneficiaries of this aid, has resulted in the capture of large amounts of post-conflict aid by factions of GAM[14]. Secondly, as the MoU was signed between the Government of Indonesia and GAM, which has transformed itself into Partai Aceh, Partai Aceh/GAM has come to have undue influence over politics and society in Aceh, not least because of an assumption of a moral ‘right’ given its position as a party to the MoU. Partai Aceh has increasingly controlled government and politics, through corruption[15], election intimidation and the threat of violence. They use the MoU as their frame of reference, despite the fact that a Law on Governing Aceh (LoGA) was passed in 2007 and serves as the MoU’s implementing legislation. Partai Aceh lacks any coherent political strategy other than to remain in power and ensure the MoU is not violated. It has done very little to stimulate local economic development, manage the transition from a post-disaster economy to a ‘regular’ economy; under its watch, the quality of health care and education have slipped, and gains in environmental protection and anti-corruption under the previous Governor, Irwandi Yusuf, have been ignored. As noted by International Crisis Group, many Acehnese increasingly realize that the new rulers are not much different than the old ones[16]. This sentiment does not bode well for continuing peace in Aceh given that the needs of broader society are not perceived as being given high priority. In light of the fact that Partai Aceh treats the MoU as the highest ‘law’ despite the fact that it is not in itself a law, indeed the Law on Governing Aceh (2007) was passed to implement the MoU, the inclusion of clauses which would have mandated rights-based economic development and service delivery would have committed the government to implementing these initiatives, and minimized the development losses that have occurred under its watch, compared to the anticipated development gains foreseen in the MoU (the LoGA has clauses to this effect, but the emphasis on the MoU as the highest law has meant an absence of priority on socio and economic development issues).

A New Approach to Assessing the ‘Success’ of Peace Agreements?

The cases above do much to point out that peace agreements are critical for bringing an end to the violent stage of conflict, but that sustained peace necessitates addressing and resolving the root causes of that conflict. In most cases, peace agreements to not explicitly do this, to date largely because peace agreements tend to be rushed processes which take advantage of certain momentum in the conflict management cycle. As such, the root causes of a conflict are left to lay dormant and begin to aggrevate as the memories of violence slowly dim, and the ‘dividends’ of peace and luster of post-conflict aid begin to wear off. Unless specifically mandated within a peace agreement, there is nothing binding the parties to the conflict to indeed resolve the conflict. There may be illusions and references to the need to address economic policy and social welfare, but without a specified time frame and identification of responsible parties (as with the drafting of new constitutions and legislative agendas, or implementation of post-conflict elections), those in power tend to be more concerned about gaining as much as possible (individually and for their own community) than with tackling complex and sensitive issues that rarely have win-win outcomes. This problem was explicitly highlighted by Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, when she noted ‘In many of the conflict zones in which we work, there has been a manifest failure by political leaders to be inclusive in their protection of their people, and to realize that state sovereignty is a responsibility, rather than one of the spoils of being in power’[17].

Therefore, it is not difficult to see why conflict tends to reemerge within five to ten years of a peace agreement. If this conclusion is applied to other conflicts, including high-profile conflicts on-going in Central Africa Republic and South Sudan, it lends insight into why, after so many years of civil war and international interventions, conflict continues to emerge.

While peace agreements are far from a panacea, unless they become more than tools to bring about a (temporary) cessation of violence and actively and productively address – or at least highlight and give priority to – the root causes of conflict in a society, they are doomed to become one stage in a vicious cycle: violence, peace agreement, elections, power struggle…. repeat.


[1] For the purposes of this essay, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be referred to ‘Macedonia’ for simplicity.

[2] Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler and Mans Soderbom (2006) Post-Conflict Risks. Oxford: Centre for the Study of African Economies, Department of Economics, Oxford University, p. 3-4

[3] Collier et al, p. 3

[4] Dudouet, Veronique. (November 2006) Transitions from Violence to Peace: Revisiting Analysis and Intervention in Conflict Transformation. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre on Constructive Conflict Management. Report No. 15, p. 9

[5] Lederach, J.P. (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 46

[6] Collier et al, p. 4

[7] Collier et al, p. 4

[8] Collier et al, p. 5

[9] Dayton Peace Accords (Bosnia, 1995), Ohrid Framework Agreement (Macedonia, 2001), Ahtisaari Status Proposal (Kosovo, 2007-2008), Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (Aceh, Indonesia, 2005), Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Nepal, 2006)

[10] International Crisis Group. Bosnia’s Incomplete Transition: Between Dayton and Europe. Europe Report No. 198, 9 March 2009, p. 2

[11] Bieber, Florian (2014). Interview with Theory in Practice on 9 June 2014.

[12] International Crisis Group. Macedonia: Ten Years After the Conflict. Europe Report No. 212, 11 August 2011, p. 2

[13] Ibid p. 10

[14] International Crisis Group. Aceh: So Far, So Good. Asia Briefing No. 44, 13 Dec 2005, p. 5

[15] International Crisis Group. Aceh: So Far, So Good. Asia Briefing No. 44, 13 Dec 2005, p. 7; Aceh: Post-Conflict Complications. Asia Report No. 139, 4 October 2007, p. 1, and Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections. Asia Briefing No. 123, 15 June 2011, p. 7

[16] International Crisis Group. Aceh: Post-Conflict Complications. Asia Report No. 139, 4 October 2007, p. 15

[17] Amos, Valerie. Remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Sorensen Lecture Series, New York, 13 January 2015 (accessed 16 January 2015)

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