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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

Mediating at the end of a gun-barrel

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

I have always been fascinated by high-pressure negotiations. As a kid I Ioved that scene from the film “The Enforcer”. Robbers at a liquor store are holding a shopkeeper and three of his customers hostage. Asked by the robbers for a car with a Police radio, San Francisco Police Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) volunteers his own car. Harry then revs up his car, backs-up to give himself a long run up, and then drives the car at full speed right through the store's plate glass window. If only dealing with hostage takers was so easy in real life.

I am also drawn to understand how the skills of real hostage negotiators can be applied to civil mediation. Because quite often people in conflict do take metaphorical ‘hostages’ - even if these hostages more often intangible or tangible assets, rather than human. And even though these ‘hostage takers’ rarely carry firearms, they are often in a position to wield economic, political or other means of force to further their objectives with impunity.

So, I read the United Nations’ Guide to Humanitarian Agencies who have to negotiate with armed groups ( These guidelines are illuminating and can teach us civil mediators a few things.

Potential to use force

If you are an aid agency trying to deliver urgent food and supplies to a civilian population in the middle of a civil war you need to ensure the safety of your staff and those you are trying to help. It’s no good if your workers get killed delivering food. And it is counter-productive if those you are trying to help are exposed to even more danger in getting the aid you are delivering.

In a workplace mediation involving allegations of sexual or racial harassment, and maybe involving a whistle-blower, the last thing that is needed is the blunt use of force. For an efficient mediation there needs to be a clear a clear agreement and understanding of the scope of confidentiality (before and after the mediation), and if there are any pre-conditions (such as no police involvement).

Group Dynamics and Fuzzy Logic

One characteristic of an ‘armed group’ (as defined by the UN) is that they ‘have a group identity, and act in pursuit of their objective as a group’. Individual members of any group will have their own agendas, but a group ‘shares a common history, aspirations, or objectives’. Members of an ’armed group’ will be strongly influenced by peer pressure, will be able to depersonalise victims, will have a degree of moral disengagement, and will usually be obedient to ‘group authority’.

In a community mediation you often have one or a small group of personalities who lead and speak for the rest of the group. It’s important for the mediator to ensure that s/he is dealing with the real leader(s): who understand the community and can enunciate their objectives. That leader also needs to be able to influence members of the group and perhaps even get them to abide by a decision that impacts the whole group. It’s also important to remember that groups, such as work-colleagues or community groups, may be more morally disengaged, and more pliable than individual members. So, a strong but mendacious leader may be able to persuade a group to take positions that would, in normal one-to-one situations, be viewed as unreasonable by individual members of that same group.

Unconventional and informal structures

The UN Guidelines remind humanitarians that armed groups are usually unstructured, and not bound by the ‘normal’ rules relating to obligations, duties, and compliance with laws. And the rules that normally apply to enforcing accountability for the actions of members of the group, are harder to enforce. A guerrilla group does not operate in the same way as a disciplined professional army does – and even highly disciplined professional armies have individuals who don’t follow the ‘rules of war’ when bullets are flying around. Even if a guerrilla leader promises that “….there will be a ceasefire from dawn until dusk” on a certain day, his actual authority to enforce that ceasefire might be extremely limited.

It’s similar when dealing with mediations involving other types of groups – even corporations. Do the parties in the room really have the authority to deliver the deal that is being negotiated, and enforce its terms going forward?

Third Parties May have considerable power

In situations of civil unrest some of the armed groups involved may be getting direct or indirect support from the ‘host’ country’s government. So, UN Humanitarians are reminded to consider whether it will be necessary to get such third-party supporters on-side as well.

In a civil mediation it’s not uncommon for the parties in the room to be getting indirect or direct support from parties who aren’t in the room, such as insurers, litigation funders, bankers, regulators, etc. Mediators would do well to keep the UN Guidelines in mind when the parties are agreeing who should, and should not, be in the room.

Leaders and centres of power change

The UN Guidelines warn that when dealing with armed groups, and especially in highly dynamic conflict situations, group leaders may change arbitrarily and quickly, or the command structure of a group may break down altogether. Negotiators are warned to plan for this and to always have a back-up plan, in case the armed group splinters into several smaller groups.

Similarly, civil mediators need to be ready for parties’ representatives (or external advisers) to change without warning. It’s important to work as quickly as possible to secure a settlement that is authorised by the hierarchy of the parties and can be enforced.

So – be careful. It’s a jungle out there.

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