Copeland: Should a state ever consider negotiating with terrorist organizations? And if so, under what circumstances?

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6 June, 2014
By: Daryl Copeland

Former diplomat; research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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.​

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