Dealing with the devil

Should a state ever consider negotiating with terrorist organizations? And if so, under what circumstances? We asked some experts to weigh in on the debate.

By: /
5 June, 2014
Canadian Loonies, otherwise known as a one dollar coin, are displayed on top of an American currency in this posed photograph in Toronto, October 10, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA)

Jack Austin, former Senator from British Columbia

This is a question with a long history. Life was short and had little value outside of exceptional circumstances. Often, negotiations took place or not depending on the special standing of the person in question and their importance as an asset to the survival of the tribe or community of which they were a part. 

In our time, nation states have assets beyond any conceivable demand. The questions have moved toward the sanctity of life; the protection of the morale of the institutional group affected; and the danger of the encouraging groups to adopt the tactic of hostage taking.

There are obviously no absolutes in this matter for democratic societies. Many examples recently show negotiations have taken place, usually through third parties with denial by the state directly involved. With that said, Israel admitted to negotiations with Hamas to recover a soldier held hostage by freeing Israeli held prisoners. The United States, too, has just recovered a soldier held prisoner by the Taliban by freeing five of their Taliban prisoners. Several States have also paid ransom to Somali pirates to recover persons and property.

Once these negotiations are successfully concluded, the issue remains whether the offended State takes further aggressive action to defend its interests and to demonstrate to the terrorists the high cost of continuing their courses of action.

Jeremy Kinsman, former Ambassador to the European Union

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists” is a slogan without substance. States need to negotiate with anybody able to conclude a necessary outcome. They generally do, if under the radar or via intermediaries. Moreover, negotiation doesn’t mean validation of a cause or withdrawal of hostility to it. Nor is it just bargaining over the price to pay for hostages. Hostage negotiations need to have on the table the alternative of credible recourse to all-out force against the hostage-takers, including for repeat acts.

Circumstances are also different for each case. The Bergdahl case has virtually nothing to do with the past kidnapping of Fowler and Guay who were peaceful envoys of the UN Secretary-General. Would anybody suggest there should NOT have been negotiations to free the Canadians? The fact that our colleagues have their lives back and the kidnappers have been on the run ever since appears to be the best possible result.

Daryl Copeland, Former diplomat; author of Guerrilla Diplomacy

Negotiation is a hallmark of diplomacy and in a globalizing world in which development has become the basis for security, diplomacy holds more promise than defence as an international policy instrument.

Put another way, recourse to persuasion, influence and compromise should as a point of principle almost always be preferred to the use of coercion, compulsion and violence. The effective management of international relations in the 21st century requires no less.

How so?

The potential benefits of negotiation easily trump the excessive costs associated with construction of the national security state and pursuit of the Global War on Terror. Even if the post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy was delivering as advertised, the circumscription of civil and human rights, erosion of democracy, cyber-surveillance, invasion of privacy and the militarization of society that have ensued surely represent too high a price.

When an opportunity to engage in meaningful international political communication arises, why retreat into boilerplate assertions such as “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”? I would instead suggest a different point of departure. The questions should be put: why not privilege talking over fighting? Why shouldn’t we attempt to negotiate?

Clearly, because the term “terrorist” is so utterly fraught, ambiguously applied and highly contested, any decision to commence of negotiations would have to be taken on a case by case basis and assessed carefully.

That said, genuine dialogue and effective exchange enjoy a significant comparative advantage over competing international policy instruments, particularly in conditions of asymmetry. The application of armed force in the face of anger, resentment and alienation tends mainly to exacerbate such feelings. Negotiation alone can result in the identification of shared interests and the modification of behaviour on both sides of a political conversation.

This is the stuff not only of enlarged understanding, but, ultimately, of problem-solving, reconciliation and progress. Just ask the IRA, PLO, ANC, or any of the many other now mainstream groups once considered terrorists.

In short, the downside attached to an increased reliance upon negotiation is limited, while the scope for improving results is enormous.

The time to hit the reset button is long overdue.​

David Leyton-Brown, Professor of Political Science, York University

Yes states should at least be prepared to consider negotiations. Many previously terrorist organizations have subsequently became governmental authorities or part of the government structure.

Matthieu Aikins, Journalist and photographer

The Afghan Taliban, with whom negotiations were conducted, is not listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, UK, or European Union. It may be a violent, fundamentalist Islamist insurgency, but to characterize it as a classic terrorist group mischaracterizes its history and aims. The Bergdahl trade should instead be considered under the long tradition of negotiated prisoner-of-war exchanges during wartime.

Kris Kotarski, Researcher and journalist

Governments and military leaders have negotiated prisoner exchanges with their enemies since time immemorial. There is nothing strange or unusual about it, even if one applies the “Terrorist Organization” label to one’s enemy.

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