Conflict phases

Life history of a conflict

Life history of a conflict

The following graphic illustrates the increasing and decreasing intensity of conflict over time. The shape of the bell curve reflects an “ideal type” life history—an actual history can move in different directions. This graphic is a useful way of demonstrating the escalation and de-escalation of a conflict, and the current state of play.

Durable peace

Peace at this level involves a high level of trust, reciprocity and cooperation within or between nations. Communication channels are open, cooperation across a wide range of issue areas is the norm, and non-violent ways for preventing, managing, or working toward the resolution of disputes and conflict are institutionalized. The potential for violent conflict to break out is minimal to non-existent.

e.g.: United States and Canada

Stable peace

Communication and cooperation takes place. Conflicts are still resolved in a nonviolent manner, though the conflicts at this stage are less predictable than at durable peace. Conflicts may exist, but they are latent (below the surface).

e.g.: Czech Republic and Slovakia

Unstable peace

There is a rising level of suspicion between parties. There may be low level or no violence. Conflicts that were formerly latent begin to emerge.

One example is the situation that developed in Latvia and Estonia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Both states adopted laws restricting the rights to citizenship of ethnic Russians, which could have led to both internal problems and tensions with Russia.


Hostility and violence escalate. At this level, the situation is very volatile and quick moving. Communication is strained or breaks down. Enlargement of the conflict may occur as other parties become involved. The conflict may appear to be over one issue, but parties may raise the stakes by adding or superimposing other issues onto the struggle. Polarization of the parties occurs, and those who may have been opposed to escalation of the conflict or neutral may move or be forced to take sides. The escalating conflict tends to be defined by one or both sides in black and white terms.

e.g.: Kosovo during 1998-99


Polarization continues, and parties enter a state of armed conflict. Militaries or armed groups take center stage, violence continues to escalate. Parties become locked into their struggles with no apparent way to back out of the conflict.

e.g.: The situation in Bosnia during 1992-95 is an example.

One important factor that exacerbates many, if not all types of violent conflict is the proliferation of gray (legal weapons sales) and black (illegal weapons sales) arms trafficking. In many cases, the easy availability of arms has encouraged nations, insurgents and non-state actors to use violence to resolve ethnic, political, economic or social differences.

Parties in conflict usually find it difficult to begin the process of de-escalation on their own. They often need to be forced by outside parties to accept a political settlement, or accept the assistance of one or more third parties to justify shifting from the positions they have taken to justify the cost in human and material terms of warfare.

Peace enforcement

Peace enforcement involves the deployment of military forces under appropriate international auspices to establish or maintain a ceasefire or other negotiated agreement, by force if necessary. e.g.:

  • Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia
  • Kosovo Force (KFOR) in Kosovo

Peacekeeping involves the use of military forces to separate combatants and control violence. It is used to create an environment conducive to peacemaking efforts.

The UN established the UNPREDEP peacekeeping mission in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1992 to deter threats against Macedonia (particularly from Milosevic’s Serbia), monitor the borders with Serbia and Albania, and report on developments along the borders that could affect the country’s stability.

In the OSCE area, Russia has undertaken peacekeeping missions on behalf of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Abkhazia and the South Ossetia region of Georgia, the Transdniestria region of Moldova, and on the Tajikistan border with Afghanistan.

Post-conflict peace building

Post-conflict peace building usually occurs after a settlement has been reached but can begin at any point along the conflict cycle. It includes both physical reconstruction and the restructuring of political and social relations that can contribute to a stable peace.

The most extensive OSCE efforts in institution building and democratization have taken place in Kosovo and Bosnia.


It is important to remember that conflicts may deviate from the cycle by repeating phases, depending on the specific situation and dynamics among the parties. Duration also varies, as some conflicts may stay at a particular phase or phases for an extended period of time. Although this model suggests that conflicts move from settlement to post-conflict peace-building, conflicts may stabilize with a truce or a low-level of violence. The process of seeking a resolution of the conflict may continue, but without results. There may also be several conflicts going on at the same time, each of which may be at a different stage of the cycle of conflict.