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Can Intergovernmental Organizations Help Prevent Civil War?

Can Intergovernmental Organizations Help Prevent Civil War?


In a new book, evidence is presented on how intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) can help prevent civil wars. IGOs can be costly to violent governments and rebels. They can impose sanctions or withdrawal from the region, bringing staff, resources, and other benefits with them. IGOs can also reward peace, providing resources/benefits if violence doesn’t escalate.

In the News:

“The leverage of highly structured IGOs in member countries has a notable influence on the costs and benefits that governments and rebels face in early phases of political unrest and violence. When highly structured IGOs are engaged in a country, both governments and rebels can expect clear costs from escalating violence: it will lead to a disengagement of these IGOs and withdrawal of their staff, resources, and other benefits. Yet, highly structured IGOs also carry the promise of rewards for keeping the peace by providing substantial resources and benefits conditional on the absence of further violence. This puts highly structured IGOs in a unique position to credibly condition benefits on conflict prevention. Their self-interest in successful institutional performance requires that they avoid engagement in contexts of high fragility and violence. This means that when highly structured IGOs are engaged in a country, governments and rebels in pre-civil war bargaining are acutely aware of the high material costs of violence. In turn, this provides a crucial commitment device to settle conflicts before they escalate.”

“In Indonesia, a crisis originated when the East Timorese opposition demanded independence in the late 1990s. After an initially violent response by the Indonesian government, highly structured IGOs – most notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank – threatened and imposed sanctions on the regime. The regime responded by yielding to the pressure of calls for East Timor’s independence. In the end, both sides reached a settlement and avoided full-scale civil war. As promised, highly structured IGOs then resumed their activity in the respective countries.”

Insight from Peace Science:

  • Sanctions can lead countries to diplomatic negotiations, which in turn contribute to future cooperation.
  • Sanctioning regimes convey strength and solidarity through shared condemnation.
  • Moderate sanctions lower the chance of war, but weak or overly destructive sanctions can increase the chance of war.


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