Measuring Peace: More than Merely the Absence of War

Politically Speaking
6 min readNov 19, 2021
Liberians celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in Accra on 18 August 2003, which ended their country’s 14-year civil war. UN Photo/Staton Winter

Can peace be measured? If peace is understood as more than just the absence of war, are there fundamental and common elements that define it across different types of conflict or other conditions? These are among the questions that occupy peace “practitioners” as they seek to make peace or help countries rebuild after violent conflict. We recently spoke to Richard Caplan, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, a student of international organizations and conflict management whose research has focused on ‘post-conflict’ peace- and state-building. His latest book, Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices and Politics, looks at the challenges of assessing progress towards achieving a consolidated peace.

Richard Caplan, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University. Photo courtesy: Richard Caplan

Can the quality of peace be measured?

Prof. Richard Caplan: Peace is commonly defined as the absence of armed conflict, and there are conventional measures of peace in this sense. But peace understood as ‘not war’ conflates the character of peace as varied as that which prevails in Sweden, for instance, with that of North Korea. Both countries today would qualify as states at peace by this minimal measure but the quality of peace in each case differs dramatically when one takes into consideration forms of violence other than armed conflict, such as torture, aggressive policing, or domestic violence.

The question is what characteristics are relevant to measuring peace beyond this minimal measure? Some would say peace exists only when there is mutual respect and fundamental good will within a society. Some go even further and say that peace only exists when all structural violence in a society has been eliminated — institutionalized discrimination, for instance. How far we go in defining peace has implications for how we measure the quality of peace. So, we first need to be clear about what we mean by peace. And who should make that determination — the UN Secretary-General? The Security Council? National governments? Local communities? There is a prior, normative question embedded in the question of what peace is.

How can we then know if the peace that has been established following a civil war is stable?

The short answer is that we can’t know for certain. There are no hard measures or indicators of a stable peace — in contrast, say, to the indicators of a prosperous economy (key macroeconomic fundamentals) or a healthy population (immunization rates, literacy rates), contentious though some of these indicators may be (e.g., growth in GDP as a measure of economic prosperity is much debated). It is possible, however, to ascertain the quality of a peace, and the vulnerability of that peace to conflict relapse, with higher levels of confidence. To do that we need more robust methods to assess the sustainability of a peace. I use the analogy of ‘stress tests’ that were put in place in some countries following the 2008 global financial crisis to ensure that their banks would be resilient enough to withstand further shocks. We need stress tests for peace as well.

A stress test for peace would require clarity about the nature of the peace that the UN or any other body is seeking to establish; an understanding of the requirements to achieve that peace; and a means of measuring progress towards achieving it. To give one historic example, when the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was drawing down from Sierra Leone, the UN Secretary-General identified specific benchmarks to guide the process. The benchmarks corresponded to requirements for peace as identified in the Lomé and Abuja peace agreements. One of the benchmarks was ‘building the capacity of the Sierra Leone police and army’. Monitoring included tests conducted by UNAMSIL in every district of Sierra Leone to assess the readiness and capacity of government security forces to maintain peace and security independently.

Are there some general requirements for a stable peace?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to generalize about the requirements for a stable peace. Scholars are not in agreement as to which factors matter or matter most for the maintenance of peace in even the narrowest sense of the term, although we know that the promotion of human rights, the rule of law, economic development, political inclusion, disarmament, and many other factors are relevant to peace stability. There is no single template for building a lasting peace. What is important is to understand the particular dynamics at work in a given conflict, including at the micro level, and to derive the requirements for peace from that understanding. None of this is easy: there may be competing interpretations of the nature of a conflict, and affected communities that are polarised may not share a common vision of peace.

What are practical steps that the UN could take or is already taking to better assess the peace in a country in order to realign its engagement?

There is growing recognition within the UN and other peace and security organizations about the importance of assessing the quality of the peace that they are endeavouring to build. Some good practices have emerged as a result. One is the use of benchmarking, an exercise which if designed properly can bring greater rigour to measuring the quality of peace. Benchmarking has been employed to good effect — in Sierra Leone, Burundi, and Liberia — although Security Council practice has not always been clear about the precise role of benchmarking. Benchmarking has been used across the UN system — by the Departments of Peace Operations (DPO) and Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), the Office of the High-Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), among others. In addition to Sierra Leone — the first peacekeeping operation to use benchmarks to guide its drawdown — the UN has used benchmarking in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan and Timor-Leste, to name many but not all of the relevant operations. Despite efforts to systematize practice, benchmarks have often been prepared without a common understanding of the process and with varying levels of engagement among the peacekeeping or political mission, the UN Country Team, the national authorities and other stakeholders. While benchmarking is meant to guide the transition process, the difficulty is that benchmarks will not always be met before the Security Council decides to reconfigure the UN presence.

More recently, the introduction of CPAS — the Comprehensive Planning and Performance Assessment System — is generating valuable data and analysis of conflict-specific dynamics to enable peacekeeping missions to take account of progress towards achieving mission objectives and to adjust course as required. CPAS represents a step change from the more ad hoc assessments of peace consolidation that have characterized past practice. Within CPAS, there are two assessment methods, one based on indicators and one based on self-assessment. This latter evaluation is more critical than one might think as it includes personnel from different components, some of whom may want to highlight weaknesses as well as strengths. Its main purpose is to foster critical reflection.

There is room for improvement, however. For one thing, I would like to see greater sharing of good practice among peacebuilding organizations — the UN, the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the African Union (AU), etc. — many of which are engaged in similar activities and face common challenges but almost never compare notes. I also have a cautious curiosity about the use of machine learning to improve conflict early warning for peacekeeping.

Your book, “Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices and Politics”, grew out of a collaboration with PBSO in 2007–2008. Have you assessed how your research has affected the work of that office? Or that of other actors in the peace and security arena?

There has been progress in measuring peace consolidation in the UN system and elsewhere but I can’t claim credit for it. I like to think that I have helped to support and reinforce positive trends in both thinking and practice. It is mutually beneficial for scholars and practitioners to collaborate in efforts to improve the work of peace and security organizations. I welcome more such opportunities.

Prof. Caplan is currently Principal Investigator of a research project assessing the consequences of UN peacekeeping withdrawal for host States (



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