IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects


I was surprised to find, after a quick search of my posts, that I had not yet written about “ripeness.”  This is an idea that is very prominent in policy circles in the U.S. and is most closely associated with William Zartman:

“While most studies on the peaceful settlement of disputes focus on the substance of the negotiations, the timing of the negations is also key. Parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so — when alternative, usually unilateral, means of achieving a satisfactory result are blocked and the parties feel that they are in an uncomfortable and costly predicament. At that “ripe” moment, they seek or are amenable to proposals that offer a way out…The concept of a ripe moment centers on the parties’ perception of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS) — a situation in which neither side can win, yet continuing the conflict will be very harmful to each…”

Now at first glance this seems to make a lot of sense.  After all, if a third party is looking to start a peace process it only seems reasonable to pick a time when the parties to the conflict might be receptive to the idea of talking instead of fighting.  However, this argument downplays or even overlooks the fact that we are talking about violent conflict situations:  people are dying, landmines are being planted, child soldiers are being recruited and pumped with drugs to become wanton killers, women are being raped, etc… All this is going on while you (ie the so-called international community) is waiting for “ripeness” to appear.  I would contrast the “ripeness” approach (which is probably more relevant to “conflict management” than to “peace making”) with the idea that the first thing you must do is stop the violence.  I have no doubt that this is what the people on the ground, caught in the hell of violence want.  Waiting for “ripeness” might not make quite so much sense to them.

Now, I am trained as a political scientist, and I know that politics is (as Metternich, I think once said) the “art of the possible”.  So, the supporters of “ripeness” would respond to my critique by saying that in many contexts trying to get the leaders of opposing factions to the table is the only practical way to ultimately stop the conflict.  That is true if you are dealing with an international community that only has limited commitment to really doing anything about all the horrors I mentioned above.  Otherwise, it is clear that, given the commitment, the resources are there to stop most of the horrors that go on.  So, to me “ripeness” always seemed  to be the approach of policymakers with limited commitment to really stopping violence.  I’m not saying these policymakers are “bad” or “weak”.  Probably the people they represent don’t want their soldiers dying in far away places about which they know very little.

I would say that there is a steep learning curve here for everybody.  Violence tends to reproduce violence, and while waiting for “ripeness” may be all you are capable of now, it will not produce comprehensive solutions since the consequences of continuing violence will arrive, in one form or another, in postconflict society.  So, even if waiting for ripeness is all you can do now, it would be stupid to not start thinking about creating more and better means to stop violence in conflict situations (or even, dare I say, find ways to prevent it from starting in the first place).

PS.  If you are thinking:  “ok, but what about sovereignty (another concern of my students–see previous post)”, this is not such a big problem.  The Security Council can intervene anywhere it decides there exists a threat to international peace and security (read the Charter 🙂 ).  So, even if there is what appears to be a purely domestic conflict, if that conflict produces negative consequences for surrounding countries (like hordes of refugees–which is almost always the case), international intervention can be authorized.  Bottom line:  the legal means exist.  The problem is creating the political “means”.


May 31, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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