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Is Now The Right Time for A Ceasefire in Libya?

On Friday, rebels fighting Colonel Moammar Gaddafi announced that they would accept a United Nations-requested ceasefire, if Gaddafi ends sieges of rebel-held cities and allows peaceful protests. Libyan opposition leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil made the proposal at a joint press conference with United Nations envoy Abdelilah Al-Khatib, who spent two days meeting separately with representatives from both sides in hopes of reaching a ceasefire. Gaddafi's government rejected the offer, but UN diplomats have continued to seek a ceasefire. This begs the question: does the timing of the ceasefire affect its chances of success?

The answer doesn't bode well for a swift end in Libya. In a 2007 article in the journal International Negotiation, Sylvie Mahieu (then a master's candidate at SAIS, now a project manager at World Bank), writes that "mediators eager to solve the conflict and limit the overall amount of damage are best advised to interrupt the fighting during the negotiation process, after the belligerents have attained a broad consensus on how to deal with the political issues at the root of the conflict," rather than pursue a ceasefire before the sides have agreed to a basic framework for negotiations. Mahieu points out that ceasefires before parties have agreed to negotiations often lead to "frozen conflicts," such as the long standoff between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, or to combatants using the ceasefire to regroup, such as in the First Liberian Civil War, when rebels led by Charles Taylor used the ceasefire as breathing space to rearm. Pre-negotiation ceasefires, however, are more likely to work if the belligerents are stuck in "mutually hurting stalemate...a costly deadlock that they could not escape by escalating the conflict," as in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

By contrast, says Mahieu, in the Niger civil war of 1990-95, the government and rebels had a broad agreement before beginning a ceasefire, which held until a peace agreement was reached. Similarly, the Dayton Agreement that finally ended the Bosnian War was only reached after foreign ministers representing the various ethnic groups had met in New York and Paris to agree to a basic framework for peace. "Moral principles rightly teach us that every single life is important and deserves to be saved when possible," writes Mahieu, but "the loss of lives[s]...a process of building, once and for all, a solid and lasting peace."

For more research on what’s in the news, check out the rest of TNR’s newest blog, The Study.