Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Why not negotiate with terrorists?

Negotiated settlements seem an ideal way of ending violent conflicts. Their principal virtue is the ability to deliver peace through non-violence, rather than the costly military defeat of one of the belligerents. Provided there is a context wherein no party to the conflict is able to impose demands on the others, negotiations will also necessitate that the combatants take seriously each other’s grievances and work towards remedying them. The potential benefits of negotiations are thus considerable. Yet at least as far as negotiations between states and violent non-state actors are concerned, talking with terrorists can come at considerable cost.

In research that Isabelle Duyvesteyn and I conducted several years ago, we highlighted several obstacles to successful negotiations between states and terrorist or insurgent groups. To begin with, negotiations are seldom the first choice for the warring parties. Instead, governments as well as their opponents will attempt to gain a clear victory, one that will allow them to one-sidedly impose their demands and maximize their gains. Only when it has dawned on all sides that a military solution is out of reach or too costly, will negotiations become an attractive alternative. As the Northern Irish peace process has shown, the onset of such war-weariness can take decades.

Even when negotiations are initiated, groups like the IRA, ETA and FARC have shown that a willingness to talk may be little more than a ruse designed to gain time to prepare a new offensive or to recover from recent setbacks. A third problem with negotiations is that terrorist or insurgent groups are seldom homogenous organizations; negotiations and their concomitant need to compromise can incur strong push-back from hardliners intent on undermining any chance of a negotiated settlement. During the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s, for instance, Hamas unleashed a campaign of violence to undermine Fatah’s ability to successfully conclude a deal. The same historical episode illustrated that what Stephen Stedman calls ‘spoilers’ are not unique to non-state actors. In 1995 an ultra-orthodox Jew assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Rabin for his willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Even when an accord is reached its effects may be minimal. As the 2012 Human Security Report indicates, one third of all peace agreements, and almost 40% of ceasefires, are breached within five years. As Karl Derouen et al. have found, ‘[n]egotiated settlements in civil wars are often little more than short inter-regnums where little is accomplished, and each side believes it can gain more in the second round.’ This leads to the final, and perhaps most unpalatable, paradox of negotiations between states and violent non-state actors; namely, that one side’s military victory may offer better prospects for lasting peace. As Monica Toft argues, ‘wars ended by negotiated settlement are two times more likely to reignite than those ended by military victory’.

This is not a call for one-sided military solutions to armed conflicts. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that the ability of military force to achieve lasting political gains in the context of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations is decidedly limited. Conversely, it is clear that negotiations can work to bring about durable conflict resolution; 1998’s Good Friday Agreement essentially signaled an end to decades of politically motivated armed violence in Northern Ireland. The point is that negotiations, despite their obvious potential benefits, are not always the preferred means for achieving conflict resolution and that their utility should be reappraised in this light.

Read the full article on the ‘Paradoxes of Negotiating with Terrorist and Insurgent Organizations’.

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