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Negotiating with Terrorists: Choosing Your Bargaining Partners

I do try not to stray into foreign affairs.  Heck, negotiating with (not always rational) attorneys is difficult enough!  Yet, occasionally, I mention negotiation in the context of international relations, as in my recent post — Al Qaeda, Understanding the Bean-Counter Next Door — which I knew might get some irritable comments.

Many (like Christopher Annunziata of the CKA Mediation and Arbitration Blog) will question my sanity or my patriotism (a word so “spun” by current political realities that it has nearly lost its meaning /*) if I say without citation to some legitimate authority that governments can and do negotiate with terrorists. /**

Therefore, I’m providing my readers with an excerpt from a Foreign Affairs article — Negotiating with Terrorists — by Peter R. Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

Before moving on to the excerpt, I want to share an experience with you.  While studying at the Straus Institute I took part in a mock mediation among principals of Hamas, Israel and the PLO.  The first thing the mediator said was, “there’s a party missing from this meeting.”  He pulled an empty chair into the circle and said, “the children of Hamas, Israel and the PLO are missing.  This chair serves as a reminder to everyone that any agreement we reach must serve the interests of the children and that our failure to reach agreement will harm them.”

It was a powerful moment and although the mediation was “mock,” everyone assumed their roles with great stridency as to the virtue of their respective positions.  When the discussion started to wheel out of control, as it did many times during the day, all the mediator had to do was to put his hand on the “childrens'” chair to restore collaborative purpose.

Excerpt from Peter Neumann’s article Negotiating with Terrorists below.  If this topic interests you, also see attorney Adir Waldman’s book Arbitrating Armed Conflict here.

The argument against negotiating with terrorists is simple: Democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it. Negotiations give legitimacy to terrorists and their methods and undermine actors who have pursued political change through peaceful means. Talks can destabilize the negotiating governments’ political systems, undercut international efforts to outlaw terrorism, and set a dangerous precedent.

Yet in practice, democratic governments often negotiate with terrorists. The British government maintained a secret back channel to the Irish Republican Army even after the IRA had launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that nearly eliminated the entire British cabinet in 1991. In 1988, the Spanish government sat down with the separatist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (known by its Basque acronym ETA) only six months after the group had killed 21 shoppers in a supermarket bombing. Even the government of Israel — which is not known to be soft on terrorism — has strayed from the supposed ban: in 1993, it secretly negotiated the Oslo accords even though the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued its terrorist campaign and refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

When it comes to negotiating with terrorists, there is a clear disconnect between what governments profess and what they actually do. But the rigidity of the “no negotiations” stance has prevented any systematic exploration of how best to conduct such negotiations. How can a democratic government talk to terrorists without jeopardizing the integrity of its political system? What kinds of terrorists are susceptible to negotiations? When should negotiations be opened?

The key objective for any government contemplating negotiations with terrorists is not simply to end violence but to do so in a way that minimizes the risk of setting dangerous precedents and destabilizing its political system. Given this dual goal, a number of conditions must be met in order for talks to have even a chance of success. Assuming that negotiations are appropriate in all cases would be no more valid a theory than one that assumes they never are.

The first and most obvious question for any government considering negotiations is whether the terrorists it faces can make good negotiating partners. Bruce Hoffman, of Georgetown University; William Zartman, of Johns Hopkins University; and other experts believe that terrorists’ stated aims and ideology should be the decisive factor in determining whether they might be willing to compromise. Hence, these experts draw a distinction between nihilistic terrorists, who have “absolute” or even “apocalyptic” goals (often religiously inspired) and for whom violence has become a perverted form of self-realization, and more “traditional” terrorists, who are believed to be “instrumental” or “political” in their aspirations and so have the potential to become constructive interlocutors.

This distinction between supposedly rational terrorists and irrational ones, however, is often in the eye of the beholder. If the IRA and ETA appear to be more rational than, say, al Qaeda, it is because their goals — nationalism and separatism — have a long …

The remainder of this article will unfortunately cost you $5.95 here (emphases my own).


**/  If you use the simplest definition of “patriotism”  — pride in one’s own country — I, like 90% of Americans, am extremely “patriotic.”  I am proud of our Constitutional form of government, the American Enlightenment from which it drew its wisdom, and the rule of law.  I am particularly proud of the Bill of Rights, a document guaranteeing the liberties of the minority against the potential tyrannies of the majority.  My own favorite amendments are the First, the Fourth through Eighth, the Thirteenth through Fifteenth, and, of course, the Nineteenth.

I’m proud to be descended from immigrants, both externally — England, Sweden, Ireland, Scotland — and internally — an escape from the Dust Bowl to California. I’m proud of our unique social and economic mobility though not blinded to the fact that many are stuck in a cycle of poverty from which they have not been able to escape.  I’m proud of the public education system that provided me with the ability to go to University and Law School at a very minimal cost.  

I am proud to be a part of a culture and political system that values and protects dissent and supports a “free marketplace of ideas” as the best  means of distinguishing between the better and the worse; the good and the bad, the moderate and the radical, the useful and the not so much.

There is also much about America of which I am not proud.  Just as there is much in myself that does not stir pride.  Because we are all dual natured, our political, social, and economic systems naturally follow — greedy as well as generous; empowering as well as stifling; peaceful as well as war-mongering; forgiving as well as retributive.  In a democracy that encourages dissent, my criticims of American institutions and activities should never be taken for a lack of patriotism.  In fact, I consider it my patriotic duty to engage in the political process with the intention of making what is good better and diminishing that which is bad.

**/  Here’s a useful wikipedia definition of terrorism:

As terrorism ultimately involves the use or threat of violence with the aim of creating fear not only to the victims but among a wide audience, it is fear which distinguishes terrorism from both conventional and guerrilla warfare. While both conventional military forces may engage in psychological warfare and guerrilla forces may engage in acts of terror and other forms of propaganda, they both aim at military victory. Terrorism on the other hand aims to achieve political or other goals, when direct military victory is not possible. This has resulted in some social scientists referring to guerrilla warfare as the “weapon of the weak” and terrorism as the “weapon of the weakest.”


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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