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Lessons Learned From Unsuccessful Conflict Intervention Strategies in South Sudan

Lessons Learned From Unsuccessful Conflict Intervention Strategies in South Sudan

Photo credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Ateng, M.A. (2018). Fragments of peace in South Sudan: A critical look at the intervention strategies of the South Sudan ethnopolitical conflict. Peace Studies Journal, 11(1), 25-43.

Talking Points

  • An approach to peacebuilding that focuses solely on elections, democracy, and power-sharing is not adequate and needs to be supplemented by reconciliation and relationship-building processes to facilitate a more sustainable peace.
  • Conflict intervention strategies informed by realist and liberal assumptions are not universally applicable; instead, conflict intervention strategies should be conceived on a case-by-case basis and should incorporate social-psychological perspectives.
  • “Positive sanctions,” offering complying parties actual or promised rewards, are most useful in the early stages of conflict and in inter-state conflicts. However, even if applied at a later stage, they can facilitate the removal of problematic actors and the transition to a stable government.


Multiple conflict intervention strategies have been attempted by the international community to end the six-year conflict in South Sudan, yet none of them have achieved lasting peace. The conflict intervention strategies implemented have largely ignored the social-psychological root causes of the conflict and thus have failed to bring about peace. The outbreak of armed conflict in South Sudan was characterized by economic and political marginalization with ethnic undertones. The final straw was when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (of the Dinka ethnic group) dismissed Vice President Riek Machar (of the Nuer ethnic group) in late 2013 on the assertion that Machar was plotting a coup, and violence quickly broke out. Both Kiir and Machar have relied upon their ethnic ties to stoke the conflict and assert their claims to power. Upon his ousting, Machar created the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition (SPLM-IO) to wage an armed campaign against the current government, also known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). A formal peace agreement was signed in April 2016 to create a Transitional Government of National Unity. However, four months later, violence broke out, and the transitional government dissolved. Leading up to the peace agreement, the international community had implemented a variety of conflict intervention strategies to foster peace, including sanctions, ceasefires, and peacekeeping operations.

Social Psychology “the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior in social situations.”

Baron, R. A., Byrne, D., & Suls, J. (1989). Attitudes: Evaluating the social world. Baron et al, Social Psychology. 3rd end. MA: Allyn and Bacon, 79-101.

In this article, the authors examine these conflict intervention strategies, including the peace agreement itself, in an attempt to understand why they have been unsuccessful. By examining the theoretical justifications for—and criticisms of—sanctions, ceasefires, peacekeeping operations, and peace agreements, the authors seek to identify critical aspects of the conflict that were overlooked. The authors argue that because these conflict intervention strategies were conceptualized using realist and liberal theories, they neglected to take into account the social-psychological perspective and were thus flawed when implemented in South Sudan. Realist and liberal frameworks emphasize the self-interested actions of state or political actors, therefore the conflict intervention strategies based on these frameworks emphasize institutional changes and power-sharing among political actors. The social-psychological perspective emphasizes and prioritizes love, justice, trust, mercy, reconciliation, relationship-building, and security rather than the motivation factors of each actor. According to the authors, the failure of conflict intervention strategies in South Sudan can be largely attributed to the international community’s assumption that their default strategies—based on realist and liberal theoretical foundations—are universally applicable. The international community also neglected to view the conflict from a social-psychological perspective and therefore did not address all the conflict factors.

Due to the collectivist culture of South Sudan, sanctions did not have the intended effect, as supporters stood behind their leaders instead of allowing them to be isolated. Similarly, ceasefires are considered essential for peace, yet they failed to impact any of the peace processes in a meaningful way and were routinely violated. Ceasefire agreements will not work if the incentives to engage in violence outweigh the cost of breaking the agreement, therefore conflict parties presumably saw strategic and political reasons for continued fighting. The authors also note that the consent of the parties is fundamental to the success of peacekeeping operations. In the case of South Sudan, the government did not support the peacekeeping effort and therefore obstructed their operations, hindering their success. Lastly, attempts at a peace agreement were ineffective because it was signed under duress, elite driven, and not based on the commitment of the parties. The international community threatened sanctions against any parties not signing the agreement, ignored concerns of the parties, and assumed peace would naturally follow a signed peace agreement, regardless of what was in the agreement itself.

In all the conflict intervention strategies examined, it is clear that the international community overlooked critical issues: identity, security, participation, recognition, and respect. The authors argue that political settlement, relationship-building, and reconciliation processes that draw on a psycho-sociological perspective would have a higher likelihood of sustaining peace. First, it is clear that the presence of Kiir and Machar in significant political positions during the shaping the country’s future is a significant obstacle to peace as they are likely to continue exacerbating ethnic divisions, and thus they should perhaps be offered amnesty upon condition of exile to countries of their choice. Securing peace and mitigating violence is the most important outcome for the people of Sudan. After their exit, a neutral transitional government should be established. Second, the authors clarify that conflict workers should focus on relationship-building throughout all levels of society. This can be achieved through the implementation of problem-solving workshops with middle-range actors. Lastly, the authors recommend a reconciliation process for all people of South Sudan, inspired by Lederach’s emphasis on “truth, peace, justice and mercy.” In short, more attention should be dedicated to building relationships and developing trust between all actors in society, especially when overcoming entrenched ethnic divides.

Contemporary Relevance

Although the authors specifically analyze the case of South Sudan, their recommendations are applicable to various conflicts unfolding around the world. Intractable conflicts in Yemen, Palestine, and Syria, as well as episodic outbreaks of violence in Nigeria, Mali, and the Central African Republic, could all benefit from conflict intervention strategies derived from a social-psychological perspective that are specific and appropriate to their respective contexts. On a related note, conflict intervention strategies should also embrace more of a bottom-up approach, which is better equipped to address the individual-level factors shaping conflict. Outside actors (usually tasked with designing conflict intervention strategies due to impartiality) or those removed from the grassroots do not possess an intimate understanding of a conflict’s social dynamics, whereas local actors are sensitive to these dynamics and can craft intervention strategies that address them. With this perspective, high-level approaches like peace agreements or ceasefires become more sustainable.

Practical Implications

Although this case study specifically refers to South Sudan, the key takeaways can be applied to other regional conflicts as well. In most cases, conflict intervention strategies are designed and implemented by the international community. The authors strongly assert that conflict intervention strategies should be culturally specific and designed in ways that are not, contrary to many assumptions of the international community, universally applicable to every conflict. Developing conflict intervention strategies based on the analysis and context of each conflict, rather than applying strategies based on blanket assumptions and the chorus of experts, can yield a higher rate of success. Furthermore, determining why specific conflict intervention strategies may have failed can prompt further analysis as to how to improve sanctions, ceasefire agreements, peacekeeping operations, and peace agreements. Understanding the conditions necessary for the success of specific approaches can be helpful when designing strategies. For example, the peacekeeping operation in South Sudan has proved to be unsuccessful without the consent of the parties. Therefore, peace practitioners should prioritize building that consent before implementing peacekeeping operations.

When designing conflict intervention strategies, peace practitioners should also be mindful to view specific strategies through a social-psychological lens, in addition to liberal and realist lenses. It is important to consider the individual-level grievances and underlying causes of a conflict when seeking to foster peace. Hastily conceived strategies based on what has worked previously but that fail to address underlying causes of conflict can have grave consequences for those living in conflict zones.

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