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Concept file Dossier : Conflict Transformation

Grenoble, May 2009

The peace process: how to change the dynamics of conflict?

Internal and external impulses for change.

Conflicts will persist as long as the parties involved think that they have something to gain from their continuation. This benefit can be the achieving of a goal over which the conflict is initiated but also the economic and social benefits that violence engenders; for example the status and power afforded to a leader in a conflict, or economic benefits to groups such as soldiers and those who control the market. For these people the end of a conflict can entail a loss of livelihood, as well as the danger of prosecution for acts committed during an armed conflict.

However a conflict is dynamic and changing, not just a linear progression towards winning or losing. Different factors can come into play that push conflicting parties towards the negotiating table; leading to a ‘ripe moment’. In the simplest terms the cost of continuing a conflict must start to outweigh the potential benefits for those involved. This can be either through the conflict becoming protracted and/or deadlocked (reaching a hurting stalemate) or through a trigger that shifts the goals and context of a conflict. We refer to the factors leading to a shift in the dynamics of the conflict as ‘impulses for change’.

These impulses for change are wide-ranging, and can be split into two categories: internal or external to the conflict. The use of the word ‘change’ does not indicate a progression towards a peaceful solution, but a shift in the dynamic of the conflict, which can be negative as well as positive. However, in the context of this paper we will be focusing on how these changes can bring the conflict parties to the negotiating table.

Internal impulses for change:

  • Change in the internal situation of a conflict/country leading to a change in attitude of leaders and population, and potentially force a restructuring of leadership.

This can be seen in the socio-economic problems in South Africa where the conjunction of the political system based on discrimination, the social situation (growth of the population and the resulting high proportion of young people) and the economic reality of industrialization and high unemployment rates, exacerbated the conflict situation. This led to the electorate desiring more progressive politics and left the political leaders with no choice but to act accordingly.

  • It is sometimes possible for a single charismatic figure to have a significant influence on the train of events. Examples would be de Klerk in South Africa, Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, and King Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Mikhail Gorbachev: The Soviet Union has been in a period of transition since Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in March 1985. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union abandoned its confrontational style of world politics and became the driving force in improving East-West relations. He showed himself to be a great communicator and visionary in addressing problems at home and abroad. His « new thinking » approach in world affairs generated great optimism that « peaceful coexistence » between the superpowers is an attainable goal. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who presented himself as a rational actor, rather than one led entirely by communist ideology. He discussed world problems openly with other leaders and candidly recognized shortcomings within the Soviet system. He introduced liberalization to the Russian people with glasnost and perestroika. These changes led to dramatic political and economic changes within the Soviet Union. Other changes, which truly revolutionized world opinion toward the Soviets were the progress in arms negotiations, and Gorbachev’s willingness to question and challenge Marxist/Leninist ideology. Gorbachev’s leadership style and ability to convince the world that his nation was sincere in its efforts to ensure world peace were unprecedented.

  • Protracted situation of stalemate pushing parties towards political rather than violent means of ending conflict, and strengthening the support for peace within the constituencies of the warring parties.

One of the impulses for change leading to the 1992 peace agreement in El Salvador ending the civil war between the government and the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) guerilla movement was the prolonged military stalemate. The conflict parties were equal militarily; this stalemate combined with and contributed to a desire for peace in the Salvadorian population meant there was pressure for negotiations to take place. This intensified after November 1989 when guerilla fighting affected residential areas of San Salvador. With the end of the Cold War both sides lost their super-power backing; which maintained the balance of power between the parties, whilst the changes in the international context made negotiations the best way out of the conflict.

External impulses for change:

  • Negotiations to end a conflict can originate in diaspora communities who can take on a mediating role. These actors are external to the conflict, but with an in-depth knowledge of the issues involved.

An example here is the ‘Rome Group’ constituted by expatriate Afghans including the former king, and with links to the now President Hamid Karzaï. Afghanistan had been in a state of war since the 1978 coup until the Taliban brought a semblance of peace in 1996. Their authority did not however cover the whole country, and fighting continued. In parallel to this, from about 1998 a certain number of Afghan political actors met in order to try to create peace accords. These actors represented two groups: supporters of the former king; and moderate elements of the United Islamic Front (the Northern Alliance), in conflict with the Taliban since 1996. These actors were referred to as the ‘Rome Group’, and their discussions centered around returning peace to Afghanistan, and how to organize a Loya Djirga, (form of political consultation based on the traditional assembly of leaders) that would be a step forwards in this process. This diplomatic activity included the exiled king, members of the exiled Afghan elite, representatives of the Taliban, and representatives of the United Islamic Front. This process was brought to a halt by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent military intervention in Afghanistan.

  • A change in the balance of power through the end of external support to a conflict party. The best example of this is the end of the Cold War, which had consequences for a number of conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

  • The recognition by an external power of a conflict party.

An example of this would be the UN backing the East Timorese in gaining their independence from Indonesia in 2002 to become the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Especially after the 1991 Dili Massacre of about 250 pro-independence protestors by Indonesian police and military there was an increase of international pressure on the Indonesian government, finally leading to a UN sponsored agreement and a referendum on independence in August 1999.

  • International intervention, where the behavior of a conflict party leads to an external force being used, as for example in Afghanistan. This can also be viewed as coercive mediation. Some times the main factor pushing forwards a peace process can be from the outside, but without internal support this will rarely result in a stable peace. An example of this would be the Dayton Accords that officially ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995 (hyper link to case study in section 1.3). Convergence of internal and external factors

  • Convergence of internal and external impulses. Impulses for change coming exclusively from the outside (through intervention or pressure) will rarely lead to a durable peace in themselves; external factors such as the involvement of the diasporas or international pressure need to converge with interests of those internal to the conflict in order to have a chance of affecting the long term resolution of conflict. In contexts where there are both internal and external impulses for change that converge, the likelihood of a peace process being sustained is much higher; though this can be dependant on the nature of the external impulse (for example a short term intervention may not be positive in the long term).

Here are some examples of the conjunction of internal impulses for change with one or more external factors: change of relations with allies, end of financial support, or changes in the political situation of neighboring states; these can lead to a faster resolution of conflicts such as the stalemate in El Salvador, which could have continued much longer without the change in international context brought about by the end of the Cold War (the first negotiations took place in 1984, but the final peace agreements were only signed in 1992). Does this mean that the conflict had played out completely? Or ended through the opportunity created by a convergence of factors? The number of changes in different conflicts that took place after the end of the Cold War would seem to back the second of these two hypotheses.


  • This file is an adaptation of section 1.2 of the online course on « Post-conflict polictics: state and society relations ». For more information, see or contact Modus Operandi directly or