Why do many ceasefires and peace agreements in civil wars fail? How and why do some groups actively seek to ‘spoil’ the peace process? This article from Conflict, Security and Development examines the concept of spoilers as a threat to security. It argues that imposed or ill-conceived peace processes can encourage spoiling. The presence of spoilers, however, does not necessarily indicate that a peace process is doomed to failure.
Consolidating conflict settlements and dealing with threats to peace building are critical challenges for the international community. This involves a better understanding of the phenomena of spoilers: groups and tactics that actively seek to hinder, delay or undermine conflict settlement through various means for a variety of motives. Potential spoilers include rebel groups, insurgents, diasporas, governments and other entities.
Understanding the tactics, motivations and funding of spoilers is important. Key factors include the following:
- Parties labelled as spoilers may have rational objections to terms and conditions of the peace process. Their reasonable demands may translate into spoiling from the other side’s perspective.
- The nature and dynamics of conflict may indicate the potential for spoilers. Characterising a conflict as a struggle over natural resources or territorial recognition, for example, may influence the nature and dynamics of spoiling. In addition, some actors, such as war criminals and private military services, may have a vested interest in the continuation of conflict.
- The tactics of spoiling may demonstrate asymmetric power relations. A group with weak power can exert leverage and disruption through atrocities and terror. Control of legal and political representation may also be incentives to engage in spoiling.
- The presence of external peace facilitators may condition the tactics and motives of spoiling. The momentum of major peace processes can even encourage spoiling. Third parties may give concessions to spoilers in order to prevent the failure of third party efforts.
- Spoiling may be symptomatic of ‘new wars’ characterised by state failure, competition over resources, civilian casualties and displacement. The dynamics of spoiling may also be shaped by the ‘war on terror’. Many states have clamped down on funding and external support for spoilers and labelled them as terrorists.
The concept of spoilers suggests that people are either ‘for’ or ‘against’ conflict settlement. Most evidence shows that peace processes are not so simple. In some ways, spoiling is part of the peace process. It should not be taken as a sign that the peace process is under threat and in some cases, may even indicate progression.
- Peace processes themselves may not be equitable or just. Parties labelled as spoilers may not be seeking to destroy the peace process, but rather to improve it and make it more fair.
- The nature of the peace process is critical to its chance of success. It should be consensual, locally owned and supported by international and regional organisations. The peace process should not be imposed upon an unwilling or disengaged public.
- It should not be assumed that all armed conflict can be resolved by accommodating conflicting interests and finding consensus amongst parties willing to compromise. Some groups have clear incentives for the continuation of conflict or contesting the nature of peace.
- Third parties bring incentives for spoiling in terms of resources, recognition and favouritism. A lack of co-ordination amongst international actors can complicate the picture and provide opportunities for manipulation. Spoilers can be productive though – those aiming to mould rather than destroy peace processes can engage third parties for longer periods of time. Thorough negotiations and longer-term external engagement may ultimately avoid a return to large-scale violence.