How Much Agreement Is Enough in a Multiparty Negotiation?

My 9-year-old daughter has her multiplication facts down cold. She can give a fast answer to any problem from 0 x 0 to 10 x 10. She is very proud of herself. Or actually, she was, until I came home the other evening from “Curriculum Night” at her school and told her the teachers now expect the kids to know up to 12 x 12. My daughter was upset, frustrated… and most of all indignant: it felt to her that the rules changed in the middle of the game, or at least like this new rule was popping up out of nowhere.

The same thing can happen when the rules change–or were never clear in the first place–about what is “agreement” in a multiparty negotiation. People plunge ahead in the quest for agreement, usually not defining what will happen in the fairly likely event that some, but not all, of the parties reach agreement.

In 1996, during Chad’s struggle with multiple armed insurgencies, president Omar Bongo of Gabon did Chad a favor: he hosted a highly inclusive “roundtable” in the Gabonese town of Franceville. This dialogue included the government, an array of armed groups, and representatives of political parties and civil society. The event ended in disappointment: the government signed a ceasefire agreement with only two of the many armed groups. Judging by his statements to the media, Bongo was offended that the armed groups wanted Chad’s president Deby (Bongo’s guest) to step down. Representatives of the armed groups, however, told reporters that their position (Deby’s departure) was not a precondition to continuing talks. Seems an opportunity was lost. Chad’s long cycle of insurgencies and separate, bilateral agreements continued for two more decades.

Similarly, in 2015, the government of Myanmar and an assortment of armed groups negotiated towards the “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA). Trouble is, it was only signed by 8 of the 15 armed groups present. This was partly because they were running out of time: then-president Thein Sein was eager to get a deal before he left office. The country is now struggling with three simultaneous peace tracks–NCA signatories are engaged in a political dialogue towards a federal system; some non-signatories are negotiating the terms under which they’d sign on to the ceasefire; other non-signatories are continuing to fight. Commentators agree that peace is a long way off.

What might have helped in each case was agreement in advance on how to determine how much agreement is enough. One option is to aim for a consensus agreement–one that all parties can accept and will support. But it’s always important to define IN ADVANCE what will happen if consensus cannot be reached. Will there be no action? Will the issue be referred to some decision maker? Or is there some “sufficient consensus” that will allow a signed agreement document? “Sufficient consensus” was used in both the South African and Northern Ireland peace processes. In South Africa it was left in the hands of the chairman to determine if sufficient consensus had been reached. In Northern Ireland, there was a detailed definition, with the upshot being that an agreement could go forward if the two biggest parties (the Social Democratic Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party) reached agreement. In both cases, some of the smaller parties were dissatisfied, but at least all foresaw this might be the outcome. There was some fallout (the Inkatha Freedom Party engaged in some further violence in South Africa, for example), but it could have been worse, and in each case the peace process did move forward.

The point is to avoid creating a new source of indignation–a new issue to fight about. If participants thought they were coming to try to achieve full agreement of all parties, and then just a few reach agreement and dismiss the concerns of the others, that feels like creating new rules in the middle of the game.


Presentation at the Korbel School

I gave a talk at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, at the invitation of the university’s Conflict Resolution Institute. The talk, based on my doctoral research, was titled “Inclusivity and Peace Negotiations: Engaging Armed Groups and Civil Society” and featured Prof. Tim Sisk as discussant. The Institute’s newsletter just came out with a nice write-up by student Rowan Mundhenk–thanks Rowan! Thanks also to Prof. Tamra d’Estree for the invitation.

Consultation in Burma/Myanmar

I had the enormous good fortune to conduct training and consultation with some groups involved in the country’s ongoing peace process in Myanmar/Burma. This was at the invitation of U.S. Institute of Peace’s Burma office, headed by Vanessa Johanson and colleagues Kyi Kyi Sein and Ye Htut (pictured). Learned a lot and am hoping to go back!


Recording of webinar: Engaging Civil Society in Peacemaking

Yesterday I conducted a webinar, “Engaging Civil Society in Peacemaking” hosted by the International Section of the Association for Conflict Resolution. Below is a recording in case you missed it. The full recording is 53 minutes; my actual talk runs approx. from minutes 3-28. The questions were great so listen to those too if you have time. Thanks Giuseppe Leone and Kyra Buchko of ACR!

Radio interview

I was recently interviewed on a local radio show for businesses about mediation & facilitation–listen to my two short (10-min.) segments here: /C_C_7-18_03.mp3

Please join me for a free 1-hr. webinar “Engaging Civil Society in Peacemaking” sponsored by the Association for Conflict Resolution’s International Section
Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 1:00pm Eastern Time (10:00am Pacific Time | 11:00am Mountain Time | 6:00pm London/UK Time).

Click here for more details and to register.

Listen to me on the radio

I’m excited to announce I’ll be live on the radio in the 4:00 pm MDT hour Tuesday (July 18) on 1690 am Denver and also livestreamed. I’ll be talking about mediation and facilitation in business for the show “Connect and Collaborate,” the voice of the Colorado Business Roundtable, hosted by Paul Kullman and Tammy Schmidt. It’s part of the Money Talk series. I’ll also post a recording when it’s over. Hope you’ll listen!

The Surprising Link between Terrorism and Civil War

Where you were on September 11, 2001? (I bet you remember the day as vividly as I do.) I slept late that morning, having been up on and off all night with my then-six-week-old baby. The first weird thing I encountered was a voice mail from my father assuring me that my brother, who worked in Washington, DC, was OK, though he’d begun a long walk home from the office (?!?). Then my husband called from work and said, “Do you know what just happened?!” and proceeded to describe the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was in a daze, but I turned on the TV and saw the images that we’ve all seen hundreds of times since. It was surreal — it seemed like a movie. It took me some time to absorb that this had really happened and to feel all those things one feels after a terrorist attack: shock, pain, sadness, anger, rage, fear, helplessness, hopelessness. We feel them all over again, especially when another attack happens in the US, or in Europe — the kinds of places many of us might visit on business or vacation.

It’s not your imagination: terrorism is up in recent years. Check out this graph from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) — it shows the number of terrorist incidents worldwide 1970-2015. Notice, in particular, the dramatic rise from 2004 to 2014 (and let’s hope the decrease of 2014-2015 continues).

Now for what might be a surprise. Even with this steep increase, terrorism is not replacing war as the major form of political violence: In 2015, about 80% of fatalities from organized violence were in “state-based conflicts” meaning where at least one party to the conflict was a national government (see Melander, Petterson & Themner 2016, “Organized Violence 1989-2015,” Journal of Peace Research and this graph) — so basically war.

And terrorism is most certainly not concentrated in places like France, Belgium, the UK or the US. In 2015, “More than 55% of all [terrorist] attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria), and 74% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Pakistan)” according to the State Department and START. Notice those lists of countries. What do they have in common? While some have raging civil wars, ALL of them have internal armed conflict between one or more rebel groups and the state, producing at least 25 battle-related deaths per year.

So let’s put this together: Terrorism is up, but most most deaths from organized violence come from bad, old-fashioned war (or the lower-intensity versions thereof). And most terrorism comes from the very countries experiencing that kind of violent conflict. It may seem to us like terrorism is random, or “they hate our freedom” or whatever, but for the most part, terrorists are fighting for the same kinds of causes that rebel groups are — and/or they’re exploiting the chaos and power vacuums created by armed conflicts.

My point is this: While counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism are important fields, they shouldn’t take the place of efforts to prevent and end civil wars. In fact, ending civil wars will probably help end terrorism. The need for peacemaking has not gone away.


Should Extremists Be Included in Peace Negotiations?

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of including all major armed rebel groups in peace negotiations. Conveniently, my self-imposed 600(ish)-word limit gave me an excuse to avoid a very difficult question: what if one of those rebel groups (or the only rebel group) is extremist? By that I mean a group that either holds an extremist ideology or uses extreme tactics, including terrorism. The two often go together. This is not an idle question: the Afghan government and its US backers are attempting to negotiate with the Taliban; the Peruvian government declined several offers to negotiate with the Sendero Luminoso; the Philippine government has consistently chosen not to negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf Group; the government of Nepal reached a peace accord with Maoist rebels; the Syrian peace talks have been dogged by questions of which rebel groups are “terrorists.”

I don’t have an easy answer here, but I have identified a small number of key considerations. First, let me back up. There are those who argue one should never negotiate with terrorists, on the grounds that governments should not reward extremists by granting them a seat at the negotiating table. But we all know it happens anyway, sometimes in secret back channels, sometimes openly. Jonathan Powell argues that a government will inevitably end up negotiating with an extremist group if that group has a significant political following. Bill Zartman argues that negotiating with terrorists won’t encourage further terrorism as long as the government makes no substantive concessions. Blum and Heymann caution against negotiating (ransoms etc.) to end terrorist incidents but are more amenable to negotiations to change “the larger political relationship” with the terrorist group.

One case I have studied in detail is that of the Philippine government and the Abu Sayyaf Group. This group has used beheadings, kidnappings, and other delightful tactics to advance its Islamist and secessionist cause. However, the group doesn’t have a huge political following or popular appeal–fighters are sheltered mainly by fellow clan members. The Philippine government has managed to minimize, though not eliminate, the group through military and police measures. My tentative conclusion is a corollary to Powell’s: if a group has minimal public support, it can be safely left out of a peace process and instead managed through security measures.

Meanwhile, it should be noted, other extremist groups in other places have moderated their tactics and/or ideologies through the process of negotiation (and maybe through the maturing of their leaders and the fatigue of their fighters). For example, both the IRA in Northern Ireland and the PLO in the Middle East renounced terrorism as initial back-channel contacts moved into front-channel negotiations. Both evolved through negotiations into political movements, as have Colombia’s FARC, Nepal’s Maoists, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and many other erstwhile extremists.

Here, then, are what I see as key considerations in determining whether extremists should be invited to the negotiating table:

  • What is the group’s following? Are they the widely accepted face of a large political movement, or are they viewed within their own community as fringe?
  • If the group does represent a large political movement, are there other groups that represent the same movement?
  • Has the group indicated any interest in engaging in the peace process? This would most likely come through quiet back channels.
  • If so, might the group be open to renouncing its extreme tactics in exchange for a place at the table?

Unfortunately, it’s very hard to negotiate an end to civil wars or violent uprisings without talking with those who are carrying the weapons. While this may to some extent reward violence, it has the potential to create a stable peace.

How to Ruin a Peace Process: Exclude a Rebel Group

A friend of mine belongs to a dinner club. You know the kind: there are maybe 8-10 members, and they take turns hosting a fancy, home-cooked dinner. My friend travels often, and she’s recently gotten frustrated because the decision making–on who’s hosting when, on what the rules are–always seem to be made without her. (She returns messages quickly so her dinner club friends could easily consult her, she argues, but this doesn’t happen.) She was particularly annoyed when the December dinner included a “secret Santa” exchange in which the expected gift expenditure was, in her opinion, way too high. She enjoys the social aspect of her dinner club (and who doesn’t love a good meal?!), but she feels like kind of an outsider to it, so she’s thinking of withdrawing and doing her socializing (and dining and gift giving) elsewhere.

It’s not all that different with armed rebel groups. It is well established that armed groups that are excluded from peace negotiations are far more likely to be “spoilers”–to continue fighting undeterred or even escalating their military activity while the negotiating parties go about trying to make peace. The principle is similar: if you’re left out of a decision making process, you don’t have the opportunity to influence the decisions made, and you don’t feel the process is yours anyway, so you look for other ways to meet your goals. Rebel groups, by definition, have political goals. If they’re not inside the peace negotiations, they don’t have the opportunity to advance those goals, and they lack any buy-in to the peace process, so they seek to achieve their goals in some other way–that is, continuing to fight.

One example took place in the Philippines in the 1990s. Then-president Fidel Ramos was wise enough to create a National Unification Commission (NUC) to manage the peace process with the Moro (Muslim) independence movement. At that time, there were two major Moro rebel groups: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The NUC held exploratory talks with both groups and recommended that the government negotiate with both. The government decided to start negotiations with only the MNLF at first, and the MILF later. This was despite the fact that it was all about the same issue–the political status of the majority-Muslim part of the Philippines. The MNLF and the government concluded a peace agreement in 1996. Negotiations between the government and the excluded group, the MILF, began nearly as soon as the ink was dry, and it took nearly two more decades for that process to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement.

Both the MNLF and the MILF originally wanted independence from the Philippines. In the 1996 peace agreement, the MNLF agreed to autonomy instead. The excluded MILF, however, announced its rejection of the peace deal, recommitted to independence, and fought on, even gaining military strength while the government was busy with the MNLF. During their own negotiations with the government, the MILF, too, eventually agreed to autonomy. But the government’s approach of dealing with just one rebel group at a time, far from making the process more simple and tractable, seems to have only prolonged and complicated this long-running armed conflict.

It may seem easier to have only two parties in a negotiation (and perhaps, to a government leader, less threatening), but the approach of negotiating with only one rebel group at a time does not make settlement of a civil war easier or more successful. Better to enlarge the table and bring all the armed groups together.