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 consensusĀ 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.


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