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Hotel Rwanda and the Guerrilla Negotiator

Hotel Rwanda should not be missed by anyone committed to the study and practice of negotiation and mediation of conflict. While in the docudrama genre along with “The Killing Fields” (1984), and “Schindler’s List (1993), this film is unusual in that it pays careful attention to the negotiation process in the most difficult of circumstances. The backdrop is the 1994 ethnic strife that took place in Rwanda when the ruling Hutu tribe slaughtered, mostly by the use of machetes, some 800,000 Tutsis over a 100 day period.

Virtually every frame illustrates the use of negotiation as a means of survival even in the face of vile and irrational human behavior and there is much to be gleaned from the gritty style of negotiation that is compelled in those circumstances. I term this real world approach “guerrilla negotiation,” where the negotiator can rely only on the resources available in the immediate conflict terrain. Borne out of necessity, not ideology, he or she operates solely by their own wits, earning credibility and trading on their ability to convey a personal sense of authenticity.

Don Cheadle, (Oceans 11 and 12), comes into his own as a serious actor in the lead role of Paul Rusesabagina, the mild mannered Hutu manager of an elegant European hotel in Rwanda’s capitol city of Kigali when the brutality began. His wife is Tutsi, and as the film makes clear, the tribal distinctions are little more than a vestige of the arbitrary labeling imposed by the previous Belgian Colonial rulers. The film does not gratuitously show the violence, but the dark pallor of the surrounding atrocities are always present, in part through the use of scenes recreated from actual newscast footage. That was the backdrop as Rusesabagina was forced to negotiate, literally for the lives of himself, his family, the residents of the hotel and the few others that found refuge in the hotel compound. While at once gripping and difficult to watch, the film is also strangely hopeful. The dialogue rings true and allows for belief that negotiation can be a viable means of dealing with even the most difficult circumstances. In the opening scenes, Rusesabagina comes across as little more than a subservient functionary of the hotel’s European corporate owners. He is a well heeled concierge, catering to the whims of the rich guests with the best food and bourbon available through trades and bribes within his well lubricated network of connections. Initially, he is in denial of the developing brutality and thinks himself to be insulated and protected by his contacts in high places and the good will of his employers. That trust quickly withers as the mayhem comes closer and he and his family are directly threatened. At one point, a gun is shoved into his hand and he is ordered to shoot his wife and children. His ability to negotiate the situation is the thin membrane of protection against that anguished outcome.

Rusesabagina cannot afford the luxury of choosing sides. He comes to the realization that he is on his own and without the prospect of outside intervention or resources. The United States—Clinton refers to his inaction as the biggest regret of his Presidency— the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France decided not to involve themselves in the internal affairs of Rwanda. He survives and manages to protect the others in his charge only by negotiating with all sides— the corrupt Hutu military General, the largely neutered and hamstrung United Nations “Peacekeeping” Officer (Nick Nolte), and the “wild-eyed” combatants, among others. He is a prime example of a Protean negotiator; he was successful because of his ability to shift approach and style depending on the circumstance and to use every negotiation strategy and technique available, including empathy where useful and deception when necessary. He worked one deal after another, cobbled together by his own wits. While his moral purpose of protecting others is clear, he understands that he cannot afford to be moralistic. His style is one of unabashed pragmatism to create the best zone of safety he could in the harshest of human conflict terrains.

Watching Rusesabagina effectively maneuver and manipulate the situation as best he could, makes much of our academic discussions about interests and needs, or Pollyannaish discussions about party empowerment and recognition, seem pale and irrelevant by comparison. It is telling that Paul Rusesabagina would not likely be “certified” as a mediator, nor would his style be in conformity with the Professional Standards of Practice set by most of the presently constituted professional dispute resolution organizations.

The most common and prevalent approaches to negotiation —e.g. principled-“interest/needs”, “transformative”, or collaborative—are useful in some situations, but may not be nearly as generally applicable as many believe. Especially in the face of harsh circumstances and the realities of power politics where trust and reason are in short supply, the notions of “win/win” seem naïve at best, and copies of Getting to Yes are more likely to be used for kindling

As I walked out of the movie, I tried to picture dealing with the the Hutu General, who has just driven through the gate of the hotel to round up and execute the Tutsi’s being harbored inside, by “empowerment and recognition. Or, to imagine engaging him in a reasoned dialogue based on principles of problem solving? Should he have advised the General that he is unwilling to negotiate unless he is first willing to take a pledge to be collaborative? In fact, some might even question if it is ethical for him to negotiate with someone who is known to be violent, abusive, and not likely to act in “good faith”?

Rusesabagina is strongly reminiscent of another “guerrilla” negotiator, Terry Waite, who negotiated with Colonel Omar Khaddafi for the release of two Anglican Priests held hostage. (See “Terry Waite: A Study in Authenticity,”, 2001) Effectively the same question—should one negotiate with terrorists?—was at issue. Those of us who are professional negotiators and mediators are sometimes left to wonder if all of the ethical and professional requirements with which we have carefully saddled conflict management practice haven’t seriously compromised and neutralized our ability to be effective. (See, “Swindlers, Dealmakers and Mediators: A Short History of Ethics in Negotiation Practice,”, 2003.)

Admittedly, the circumstances of the Rwandan Genocide are extreme and the negotiation approach is necessarily skewed. At the same time, it is important to recognize that many daily conflicts that people encounter, while less severe, are still viewed by the people involved as “life threatening”. If negotiation is to make sense to them, then they must be able to see how it will help them survive. This movie is one of the first that dares to show what negotiation has been about historically; practiced in the clinches where it makes a real difference in peoples’ lives. Negotiation is thus elevated to a worthy and noble art form. More typically, Hollywood movies have portrayed one who negotiates as at best a feckless appeaser, if not an unprincipled traitor. (See Braveheart, (1995), or High Noon (1952). In this film, the “hero” is a quiet natured fellow who displays a steeled authenticity in the face clear and present danger.

The best negotiators sense how to turn disadvantage and adversity to their advantage. They are less concerned about models than with effective results. Just like a guerrilla fighter, the guerrilla negotiator is forced to rely on stealth, speed and finesse and cannot depend on outside authority, force or support in her work. Ironically, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, made a comment about preparation in the current the Iraq War, for which he was taken to task, that is asperhaps even more applicable to negotiation. He said, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had or need…,” which translates for negotiators to: “you come to negotiations with the wits you have not the power and authority you wish you had.” In difficult conflict negotiations, you seldom encounter the person you would like to deal with or have the circumstances you prefer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rusesabagina demonstrates the real nature of authenticity in negotiation and mediation practice. Compassion and principles are clearly motivating forces, but not necessarily shown “on-stage”. Rusesabagina wasn’t as entirely honest as some ‘professionals’ might require. His double dealing sometimes lapsed into outright manipulation and deception. Nor does he make any pretense of being neutral and understands that if people are to be shifted, that must happen with their own reasons, not persuaded by his. He needs to make a deal; peoples’ lives hang in the balance. To do that, he has to be taken seriously by all sides. All he has to trade is his authenticity. There is an honesty to his authenticity, but it is not necessarily the same thing as being honest.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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