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.

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