Academic journal article Global Governance

SRSG Mediation in Civil Wars: Revisiting the "Spoiler" Debate

Academic journal article Global Governance

SRSG Mediation in Civil Wars: Revisiting the "Spoiler" Debate

Article excerpt

In transitions from war to peace, mediators and other foreign interveners identify "spoilers" as one of the main threats to peace processes. Profiling would-be spoilers and developing appropriate typologies to prevent them from using violence has become prevailing wisdom at the United Nations and beyond. This article argues that the spoiler typology has limited utility as a tool to guide the action of mediators and help them devise winning strategies. It asserts that there are no fixed spoiler types; actors' propensity to use violence depends on conditions that affect their capability and their opportunity structure, It uses the twin notions of capability and opportunity to identify ripe situations for mediation and for peace implementation. It also utilizes these notions to reflect on the appropriateness of various strategies that the international community can use in its attempt to bring about peace to war-torn countries. The article suggests that it is not actors, but contexts, that need to be profiled. Furthermore, international custodians do not simply react to situations; they have a profound impact on shaping the opportunity structure of civil war actors, and their willingness to implement policies that increase the cost of violence goes a long way toward determining whether or not local actors will use violence. KEYWORDS: spoilers, violence, mediation, civil wars.

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EXPERIENCE HAS DEMONSTRATED THAT ONE OF THE GREATEST RISKS TO mediation comes from parties who believe that peace threatens their interests (e.g., their power or the benefit they derive from the war economy) and who then use violence to undermine the process. (1) This statement encapsulates current wisdom about the manner in which the international community, particularly UN-appointed mediators, should engage "spoilers." Should UN mediators engage actors who use violence to derail peace processes--like Jonas Savimbi or Radovan Karadzic--in their search for a negotiated solution? Based on the groundbreaking work of Stephen J. Stedman, the spoiler research program put forth two key policy implications for UN mediation in civil wars. Peace processes, it argued, hinge on: (1) a correct diagnosis of spoilers; and (2) an appropriate management strategy. Whereas some spoilers could be convinced, cajoled, or coerced into joining the peace process, others (dubbed "total spoilers") could not and should not be engaged with. The difference between total spoilers and other types of spoilers resides in the combination of two factors: (1) an unwavering attachment to "total goals," goals that are not open to compromise; and (2) a low sensitivity to costs and risks, translating into a high commitment to achieve those goals, no matter the sacrifices that lay ahead.

The spoiler debate is consequential because it goes to the heart of a key issue in any war-to-peace transition: the ability to identify actor types and to craft appropriate strategies to bring these actors on board. As Katia Papagianni remarks in her contribution to this special focus section, this is not only important for peacemaking; it also has consequences for peacebuilding. (2) Spoiling not only prevents the signing of a peace agreement; it can also derail the agreement's implementation. Therefore, mediation is not only needed to secure the parties' presence at the negotiating table; it remains relevant in smoothing out the wrinkles of implementation.

This article casts doubt on the utility of the spoiler typology as a tool to guide the action of mediators and help them devise winning strategies. In opposition to prevailing wisdom, I argue that there are no fixed spoiler types; actors' propensity to use violence depends on conditions that affect their capability and their opportunity structure. (3) I use the twin notions of capability and opportunity to identify situations ripe for mediation and for peace implementation. I also use the same notions to reflect on the appropriateness of various strategies that the international community can use in its attempt to bring about peace to war-torn countries. …

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