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A cease-fire is an agreement that regulates the cessation of all military activity for a given length of time in a given area. It may be declared unilaterally, or it may be negotiated between parties to a conflict.
The term armistice is sometimes used, although it has a slightly different meaning: an armistice is a military convention, the primary purpose of which is to suspend hostilities over the whole theater of war, usually for an indefinite period of time. An armistice or a cease-fire does not represent an end to hostilities, only a truce (a temporary suspension of hostilities). Furthermore, they do not reflect a juridical end to the state of war. In this respect, they must not be confused with peace agreements, which do reflect an end to a conflict. Humanitarian law requires that “whenever circumstances permit, an armistice or a suspension of fire shall be arranged, or local arrangements made, to permit the removal, exchange and transport of those who are wounded or sick as a result of combat” (GCI Art. 15). However, the principal aim of a cease-fire is not to enable humanitarian actions. It is a military decision that responds to strategic objectives: gathering forces, evaluating the opponent’s authority and chain of command, or carrying out negotiations.
There is always a risk that relief operations negotiated in the context of a cease-fire may be used as a “bargaining chip” by the parties to the conflict, so as to obtain political or military compromises or to test the good faith of the adverse party or its ability to control its own troops or a given territory. Relief organizations must be aware of this risk and evaluate the danger that they may incur in the field because of this. Humanitarian assistance must not be conditional.
For additional information: Fortna, Virginia. Peace Time, Cease-Fire Agreement, and the Durability of Peace . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.