Talking with the bad guys

Knowledge brokering06 Dec 2010Ko Colijn

Baker was sticking out his neck, because his statement was also a response to the first North Korean nuclear test, seen by many as a brazen violation of international law. North Korea, which unabashedly withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, had been developing a secret nuclear programme all along, pulling the wool over the international community’s eyes for years. The North’s attack on the South’s island of Yeonpyeong on 23 November is reiterating the importance of the issue of talking to your enemy.

Baker believes the international community should be talking to other countries too, such as Iran and Syria. He comes from the school where ‘talking’ to hostile regimes does not constitute appeasement. On the contrary, the real issue is whether or not there is a reasonable expectation that negotiations can achieve something.

In the case of North Korea, it concerns talking to another state, which essentially means dealing with an equal partner. But in many other instances, the question is whether talking to random, armed groups is possible at all, whether it should be condoned or is it even a must?

The most recent example is Afghanistan, where both supporters and opponents of the war are exploring the possibility of ending it more quickly by striking a bargain with the Taliban. Could a similar approach yield results with the Basque separatist group ETA, the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, the Colombian revolutionary organization FARC or the Maoists in Nepal?

By all means, go for it, recommends Teresa Whitfield in a recently published study by the Swiss Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue entitled Engaging with armed groups: Dilemmas and options for mediators. She concludes that the benefits ultimately outweigh the risks, arguing that ‘[e]ngagement with armed groups carries with it a variety of challenges and risks. Yet, when managed carefully and responsibly, its potential benefits far outweigh the costs of not engaging – and letting the conflict take its toll on civilian victims. The variety of options for engagement militates against a rejection of initial contacts solely because the maximum demands of a group are unacceptable.’

Whitfield focuses primarily on third-party mediation, aware that sometimes direct negotiations between two belligerents is too much to ask. She examined several case studies of armed groups who explicitly challenged the authority of the state. These are not criminal organizations or gangs but politically motivated groups who feel they are engaging in legitimate resistance against the state.

These case studies include examples of mediation attempts in Indonesia (with the Free Aceh Movement), Sri Lanka (with the Tamil Tigers) and Nepal (with the Maoist resistance movement). The drawbacks of negotiating are well documented. The use of violence by non-state actors must not be rewarded by accepting them as discussion partners, which could easily have an adverse effect.

Democracies in particular find it difficult to deny that war pays off and that it is even the most effective trump card during negotiations for resolving conflict to your advantage. This is even more difficult to deny when ‘softer’ alternatives appear to work as well. This is why some governments are eager to draw encouragement from what already has been termed the ‘Sri Lanka option’, referring to the government’s tough military response against the Tamil Tigers following failed negotiations.

The benefits prevail, however. The imperative to protect local populations from ongoing violence outweighs the moral objection of engaging in dialogue with the devil. Moreover, this objection carries less weight the more sizeable a constituency an armed group has. It is also a way for governments to save face, since talking implies the absence of military clout.

However you look at it, it is useful – ultimately inevitable, according to Whitfield – to open up a channel of communication with an armed group. This sometimes engenders greater understanding of the armed group and its motives and capacities for engagement. It also gives mediators an opportunity to build trust with the armed group. And the most compelling argument to sit down and negotiate is that it works. Statistics support this.

The Human Security Brief 2007 observed that since the 1990s far more conflicts have ended or been stopped through negotiations than military decisions on the battlefield. It notes that ‘[f]or the first time there were greater numbers of negotiated settlements than there were victories. The numbers of negotiated settlements in the 1990s also increased in absolute terms – indeed, there were more than three times as many negotiated settlements in the 1990s as in any previous decade. This pattern appears to have continued into the new millennium , and has become even more pronounced. From 2000 to 2005, there were more than three times as many negotiated settlements as victories’. Talking makes sense, even if it sometimes takes place on the sidelines of the battlefield.