Dissertation: The strategic role of ceasefires in civil wars
The impact of a ceasefire shifts over the course of a conflict, as conflict party leaders learn more about each other’s military and political aspirations and adapt their use of ceasefires accordingly. That’s the key message of the dissertation of Valerie Sticher, PhD-candidate at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. She will defend her thesis online on Tuesday May 11th. ‘I hope that despite the physical distance, we can have a lively and interesting discussion.’
Update May 11: Valerie received her doctorate cum laude!
Sticher is Swiss and is living in Zürich with her partner and their two-year old son. She started to work on her dissertation Ceasefires as Bargaining Instruments in Intrastate Conflicts: Ceasefire Objectives and Their Effects on Peace Negotiations, in 2016. ‘I was half-way through it when our son was born. When he was a few months old, I used to go for long walks with him, and when he fell asleep in the sling, I would go to a café and continue working on my thesis. I loved it! Of course, that was before the pandemic, when cafés were still open.’
Field experience in the ‘real’ world
Before going into the research, it is good to know more about her background. How does someone decides to research ceasefires? Valerie: ‘When I got my MA in Political Science in 2007, all I wanted to do was go out in the ‘real’ world and get some field experience. So after a short stint in the private sector, I joined the UN Peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste, first working in election support and later in the Political Affairs section. Some years after returning to Switzerland, I joined the peace mediation support team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich. This was precisely the type of work I was looking for: it allowed me to work on armed conflicts and travel to interesting places, while being based in Switzerland.’
‘I found this topic fascinating and tried to read up on the role ceasefires play in intrastate peace processes. I quickly realized that the existing research did not answer some key questions I had.’
No answer on key questions
It was part of her work at the Centre for Security Studies in mediation support that got her involved in research on ceasefires. ‘I found this topic fascinating and tried to read up on the role ceasefires play in intrastate peace processes. I quickly realized that the existing research did not answer some key questions I had. For example, we know that conflict parties sometimes use ceasefires for military purposes, for example, to re-arm and re-organize. At other times, they use ceasefires to demonstrate strength or to create a conducive environment for peace negotiations. But how do these different uses of ceasefires relate to the incentives and constraints of conflict party leaders? What are the conditions that make a ceasefire successful? And when and why do ceasefires undermine conflict ripeness, and when do they foster progress towards conflict settlement? I could not find satisfying answers to these questions, but felt that we needed to address them, if we want to understand the role of ceasefires in civil wars and devise effective third-party strategies to support peace negotiations. This was my primary motivation to start my PhD research.’
Perfect match in Leiden
She started to select a host institution and had several criteria in mind. Valerie wanted to continue working part-time in peace mediation support, so she was looking for an institute that would allow her to do most of her research remotely. ‘I was also looking for a university with an excellent international profile, and for supervisors who had expertise that is relevant for my research project. By chance, I came across the profiles of Assistant Professor Siniša Vuković and Professor Madeleine Hosli from FGGA. I had already done my Master’s program at Leiden University and it all looked like a great match. I was delighted when Siniša and Madeleine agreed to supervise me.’ The cooperation worked out well. ‘My intuition turned out to be right: my supervisors were very supportive and enthusiastic about my research. This makes all the difference. I also had fantastic support from Professor Andreas Wenger and my colleagues at the Center for Security Studies, with whom I collaborated on various projects related to ceasefires.’
‘Ceasefires are much more difficult to manage than fighting, as they are declared in advance and create opportunities for spoiling behaviour. As a consequence, their impact is more nuanced and more multifaceted than that of fighting.’
More nuanced and multifaceted
Ceasefires are not the opposite of fighting. That is a key takeout message of the dissertation. Valerie explains: ‘They are much more difficult to manage than fighting, as they are declared in advance and create opportunities for spoiling behaviour. As a consequence, their impact is more nuanced and more multifaceted than that of fighting. I argue that conflict party leaders use ceasefires in line with their reading of the wider military and political context, which shifts over the course of a conflict. Because of this shifting role of ceasefires, one and the same third party engagement may have different effects at various moments of a conflict. Third parties interested in promoting conflict settlement should adapt their strategies accordingly. In the earlier phases of a conflict, it is often more helpful to have limited arrangements in place, rather than overly ambitious agreements. In the later stages, third parties may help conflict parties design and implement ceasefires that are resilient to non-strategic violations, but third party enforcement may undermine key functions of a ceasefire that help conflict parties move towards a negotiated settlement.
Valerie is defending her thesis online. ‘Under the current travel restrictions, I would have had to self-quarantine upon arrival in the Netherlands, and none of my friends and family could have been present. At first, I was a bit gutted that I would not be able to defend in person. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so it’s really not a big deal. I hope that despite the physical distance, we can have a lively and interesting discussion. And I look forward to the apero with family and close friends afterwards!’
You can follow the dissertation via this livestream.