Input Papers

Conflict Relapse and the Sustainability of Post-Conflict Peace


Barbara Walter

Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies University of California, San Diego

Three disturbing patterns exist regarding civil wars and their recurrence. First, civil wars have a surprisingly high recidivism rate. Of the 103 countries that experienced some form of civil war between 1945-2009 (from minor to major conflict), only 44 avoided a subsequent return to civil war. That means that 57 percent of all countries that suffered from one civil war during this time period experienced at least one conflict thereafter. This confirms what Collier and Sambanis (2002) have called the “conflict trap;” once a country experiences one civil war, it is significantly more likely to experience additional episodes of violence.

Second, recurring civil wars have become the dominant form of armed conflict in the world today. In fact, since 2003 every civil war that has started has been a continuation of a previous civil war. Table 1 outlines the pattern of war occurrence by decade. It reveals that 57 percent of all conflicts initiated in the 1960s were the first conflict in their country. That number falls significantly each decade, to the point where 90 percent of conflicts initiated in the 21st century were in countries that had already experienced a civil war. This trend suggests that the problem of civil war is not a problem of preventing new conflicts from arising, but of permanently ending the ones that have already started.

Third, civil wars are increasingly concentrated in a few regions of the world. Prior to the end of the Cold War, civil wars were spread over almost every continent, in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Greece, Indonesia, Lebanon and Nicaragua. The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to many of these conflicts, especially those in Central America and Southeast Asia. The result is a greater number of civil wars concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. For renewed conflict, the concentration of civil wars is even more pronounced. Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for only 13% of all the countries experiencing renewed civil war in the 1960s. That figure increases steadily so that by first decade of the 21st century, fully 35% of all recurring civil war occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa. This suggests that civil wars are increasingly being ghettoized in the world's poorest and weakest states.

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