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  • Jonathan E. Pearl

"We do not negotiate with terrorists"



In mediation and negotiation, we often meet people who are vehemently opposed to any form of compromise with a counterparty, based on moral or quasi-moral grounds. Margaret Thatcher’s Government (1979-90) had an express policy that “we do not negotiate with terrorists”.

According to the textbooks, terrorists are those who (1) use violence (2) to get political change, and (3) through affecting a larger audience than its immediate target. And the “…no negotiation” strategy is based on the premise that to deal with terrorists will in some measure legitimise violence, give credibility to unreasonable or non-negotiable demands, and (worse of all) encourage others to do the same.

The ‘War on Terror’, has used some of the same rhetoric and has relied mainly on the use of overwhelming military force. In 2003 George W. Bush argued: ‘You’ve got to be strong, not weak. The only way to deal with these people is to bring them to justice. You can’t talk to them. You can’t negotiate with them.’ But you can’t win a war against a noun. Since the attacks of 9/11 – tens of thousands have been killed, and many more have been maimed, displaced, and scarred by the War on Terror, and yet there is no sign of when the war will be won.

I have seen the same ‘…you can’t negotiate with them’ argument adopted in corporate life, and especially in commercial litigation. Companies, their outside representatives, and the managers on the other side are demonised. I recall myself the collective hatred that Apple staff had for Microsoft in the early 1990s, when the two companies were locking horns in the marketplace and the Courts. Of course, the hatchet was eventually buried. Apple got a license to Windows, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became friends.

Many who oppose terrorists argue that, in order to win, the terrorists must be shunned. This was a line followed (at least publicly) by the UK Government in its dealings with the IRA, and its political arm Sinn Fein, in the 1980s. The shunning was so absurd that for a while the BBC was banned from broadcasting any interviews with the Sinn Fein leadership, unless their voices were dubbed by an actor.

All this is done in the hope that heaping moral opprobrium on top of cluster bombs will in some way make terrorism wither on the vine. But the ‘bullets and barbs’ strategy doesn’t work. Time and again countries who vowed never to bow to terrorism – UK, France, Spain, Colombia, and Turkey to name a few, actually negotiated with their sworn terrorist enemies. In fact, it is extremely rare to find a case where terrorists have been comprehensively defeated, and there has been no need for a peace treaty with them.

The Reagan administration negotiated with Hezbollah for the return of 5 US hostages by selling them weapons in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair – leading to several high-ranking resignations. And in 1993 Israel secretly negotiated the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organisation even while the PLO continued its terrorist campaign and refused to recognize Israel’s sovereignty.

We now know now that despite her protestations Maggie Thatcher’s Government did in fact negotiate with the IRA – albeit unsuccessfully. This backchannel even remained open after the IRA had fired mortar bombs into Downing Street. And when it was announced in the UK House of Commons in 1993 that the then government and the IRA had been talking secretly for several years, there was outrage – particularly within the government’s own ranks.

The maxim ‘never say never’ is one to follow religiously. I recall one particularly fraught M&A transaction where my company’s negotiation team walked away from the deal “for absolutely the last time” over some issue or another - only to return to the negotiation table again. I also remember how painful it was to swallow my pride when we returned to talking.


So, when is it appropriate to mediate with the most difficult, unreasonable, or seemingly intransigent parties?

The UK parliamentarian, Mo Mowlam MP, who was deeply involved in the Northern Ireland Peace process leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, argued that, “you don’t fight terrorism with weapons and bullets. You fight it by talking…..”

Although Mo Mowlam was right, she wasn’t listened to for a long time. It was more practical reasons that drove the UK government to talk to the armed IRA. One of the simplest and best reasons for engaging in dialogue with armed groups like the IRA is that it significantly improves the lives of the civilians who are caught up in the conflict. Any reduction in violence has an immediate positive impact on innocent bystanders who so often bear the brunt of armed civil strife. It’s not just that there are fewer bullets to dodge, but the access to basics like food, water, education, and human community also improve exponentially during a ceasefire. And civilians are often voters too.

Often Governments will insist that peace discussions cannot begin until all conflict ceases. But this insistence fails to recognise the unstructured nature of many terrorist groups. Even if the terrorists’ leadership want to deliver a complete ‘drop hands’, in most cases this is not practically deliverable because of their loose command structures. And there’s sometimes a disagreement about definitions. The IRA saw a ‘cease-fire’ as the ‘cessation of military activities’ – they didn’t consider that punishment beatings and, even ad hoc disciplinary killings, were within this definition. But others around the negotiation table saw it differently, and this led to Sinn Fein being banned from the Good Friday talks for a short period after the IRA were implicated in the murder of two local men.

Not only are terrorist groups almost always unstructured, and liable to split, often there is as much enmity between such armed groups as there is between the terrorists collectively and the enemy government. So, it is common that intermediaries need to talk to several groups simultaneously. In the case of the notoriously un-structured Al-Qaeda advocates of peace are genuinely asking themselves: “who can speak for them….and who should I talk to?” Although it has also been noted that the very unstructured nature of Al-Qaeda, and the lack of a ‘single point of entry’, means that the possibilities for starting negotiations are actually much greater than with more traditional terrorist groups like, say, the IRA. And some take the view that the hardliners in Al-Qaeda will never compromise anyway, so it makes sense to talk to any moderate factions who will talk.

Even if the mediator cannot speak to all the parties simultaneously the fact that some negotiations are taking place can be an incentive for groups who are currently not engaged in talks to try to get a seat at the table. The fear of missing out is a strong driver.

Terrorists often believe that violence is the only answer to their situation. They believe that violence is not just tactical, it is pretty much the only tactic that remains available. But terrorist groups are not heterogenous – they contain a range of individuals, some of whom hold more extreme views than others. So, where a government holds the line of refusing to talk, this silence can strengthen the resolve of hardliners within the terrorists - thus artificially prolonging the conflict. On the other hand, talking to terrorists can have the opposite effect. The very act of engaging in dialogue – and thereby giving some legitimacy to hardliners – can actually contribute to softening of attitudes generally within the terrorist group.

The act of talking to terrorists – and doing so publicly – as in the case of the Northern Ireland Good Friday talks, also has the effect of gradually legitimising the terrorist enemy in the eyes of the wider civilian population. It paves the way for the healing of the wider community as a whole.

It is true that negotiating with terrorists can indeed lead to their legitimisation, but this very legitimisation may offer terrorists a chance to transform into nonviolent actors and lead ultimately to an end to the conflict itself. The Sinn Fein politicians whose voices were dubbed by the BBC in the 1970s are now respected elder statesmen, who have been photographed publicly shaking hands with the Queen of England.

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