What’s Wrong With Negotiating With Terrorists?

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Harmonie Toros

Negotiating with terrorists? “Never!” has been the response of governments the world over. But as growing research in security and terrorism studies highlights the failures of relying exclusively on military and police responses, some are beginning to change their mind.

Looking at policy options beyond the counter-terrorism “straight-jacket” may offer considerable benefits, I argued in a report recently published by NATO’s Center of Excellence – Defense Against Terrorism.

Indeed, examining terrorist violence as part of a broader conflict opens up a wide range of policy options for governments currently struggling with this international phenomenon.

From attempting to prevent violence through conflict prevention, to peacemaking in negotiations, to post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation – the report points at concrete examples where an alternative approach has been successful.

The well-known case of Northern Ireland illustrates how nearly 30 years of violence was brought to an end through negotiations with the Irish Republican Army and opposing loyalist paramilitaries. Despite it being a fragile and imperfect agreement, few would disagree with the view that Northern Ireland is a very different place after nearly 20 years of power-sharing marred by very limited violence.

There, this history of relying on negotiations may have become increasingly important after the UK’s vote last month to leave the European Union. Indeed, a majority of those in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and some warn of the potential for increased tensions as republicans argue that the north should unify with the Republic of Ireland – their longtime goal – so as to remain EU members.

Maintaining a dialogue with all parties – and in particular with those linked to groups prone to using violence – will be key to ensure a smooth process whichever decision the people of Northern Ireland make.

Lesser known cases are also examined, such as that of the Italian region of South Tyrol where a German-speaking minority was quickly brought into a dialogue—despite bomb attacks—to reach an agreement before a further escalation of violence. In their conflict-prevention strategy, Italian prosecutors for example purposefully avoided charging suspects with treason so as not to anger their supporters.

Not taking a conflict resolution approach may also have costs.

Lists designating individuals or groups as “terrorists”—with all the legal and political consequences this can imply—can severely undermine peacemaking prospects by hampering or even criminalizing both direct talks with violent groups and the work of third party mediators.

Such a conflict-resolution approach is of course not without its drawbacks and difficulties. Negotiations can legitimize actors who have carried out horrific acts of violence as well as marginalize those who have been campaigning for the same goals non-violently.

And if the negotiations and agreements are not sold to the broader communities, they can lead to a serious backlash from local populations and a renewal of violence. In the report, I highlight how in the Philippines a deal reached after years of negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was “rejected by political leaders who were unwilling to accept the peace agreement reached by their very own negotiators.”

I conclude in the report that “peacebuilding requires the inclusion into the process of broad sections of society.”

More concretely, what role can international organizations play in supporting—or at least not hindering—these processes? The report looks at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular. Although it can most likely not intervene directly in negotiations with terrorist groups as its member states—which include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and most other European nations—are unlikely to allow an intergovernmental organization to override their foreign and security policies, it may still have a role.

A conflict resolution strategy can ensure that counter-terrorism policies avoid exacerbating underlying grievances or triggering a further escalation of violence. It can also ensure that policies commonly put forward after violence has died down – such as for the rehabilitation of former combatants – are also put forward in contexts marked by terrorist violence.

But most importantly, NATO, along with other international organizations and national governments have to ensure that their counter-terrorism strategies are not disconnected from their broader foreign policy and development objectives. Terrorism needs to be seen as a form of political violence – and as such, both its violence and its politics need to be addressed.

What does this mean concretely?

States and their law enforcement agencies need to think twice before they ban or shut down political forces that may have links to terrorists but do not themselves engage in violence. These may be precisely the intermediaries that are needed if a conflict resolution response is sought out.

The report concludes that “avenues for dialogue should be left open with all parties. This means that counterterrorism strategies should refrain from campaigns in which non-state armed actors are represented as being beyond negotiations.

The strategic advantages of listing an organization as “terrorist” (i.e. travel restrictions, sanctions, etc) should be weighed against the impact such listing has on the potential for future negotiations.

However unpalatable it may seem, an engagement with terrorists and their allies needs to be maintained as a policy option along with kinetic and legal counter-terrorist approaches for there to be a better chance at reducing domestic and international violence.

Harmonie Toros, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict Analysis at the
University of Kent in the United Kingdom. She has been researching the potential and drawbacks of negotiations in contexts of terrorism for the past 10 years and works with national governments and international organizations to examine how their policies can facilitate such negotiations. She welcomes comments from readers
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One thought on “What’s Wrong With Negotiating With Terrorists?

  1. I disagree that negotiating with the IRA produced the peace. Numerous IRA mistakes eventually mobilized the already-simmering dislike of them by the Catholic constituency.

    I feel that negotiating only legitimizes the terrorist and helps him/her achieve her goal.

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