‘Talking to terrorists’: myth no. 6

Myth number 6: that it is only governments or diplomats that do the talking. The role of local people in reaching out to armed groups to encourage prospects for peace is regularly overlooked.

Zahbia Yousuf
25 September 2015

In the Washington Post last year Michael Semple (former Deputy to the European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan) presented five myths on 'talking to terrorists'. He might have added a sixth: that it is only governments or diplomats that do the talking. Conciliation Resources’ new Accord Insight publication puts a spotlight on how communities engage armed actors, with examples from Syria, Colombia, Northern Ireland and northern Uganda.

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Henriette Useni Kabake, government administrator of Lulingu, South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, hosts a meeting alongside traditional leaders and leaders from the Raia Mutombioki armed group / Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi 2014.

There is compelling evidence to support the case to sit down and talk to armed groups. Between 1975 and 2011, 196 out of 216 peace agreements signed were between states and non-state actors. Jonathan Powell’s recent book Talking to Terrorists illustrates the complexities of engagement as well as arguing for the need to reach out to such groups early on. It points to historical experience that tells us that there can be no purely military solution to a political problem, as well as recognising the tendency of governments to reject any option of contact when confronted with a new armed group.

Accounts like Powell’s are full of stories of ‘peacemakers’ – those who took political risks to bring armed groups out of the shadows and persuade them to swap violent means for non-violent ones. Yet, these descriptions can overlook the wide range of on-going and constructive contacts with an armed group – that do not only focus on political negotiations.

In reality there are a multitude of interactions that take place with non-state armed groups before, and often well in advance of, ‘official’ contacts. And these often happen at the local level. The relationship between local populations and armed groups is much more complex than commonly portrayed. In areas where state institutions are absent, functional arrangements can emerge between populations and the non-state actors that fill the space. Such structures often involve traditional, community, business, as well as armed, actors. They can include extensive governance structures encompassing service provision, security forces, and financial and legal regulations, such as those managed by Hamas in Gaza. Or they may involve loose pacts to negotiate and regulate movement and trade such as those at the Somali-Kenyan border. Elsewhere, for example the Falls Road area of Belfast (a stronghold for the IRA), an armed group may provide political and social authority, and security for long periods of time, with more or less continual support from the community.

In this way, local populations are not always passive, simply coerced into accepting the presence of armed actors. Conversely, armed groups do not simply exploit and abuse the communities in areas in which they operate. And at times, communities will try to assert influence over the actions of an armed group. Findings from Conciliation Resources’ research suggests that ensuring physical safety and protection of livelihoods are key reasons populations may decide to reach out to armed groups – for example, to convince a group to reduce the threat of violence against the community, to ensure access to water, roads and food.

And a community’s attempt to resist or survive violence can also shape armed groups’ broader strategies and agendas. In Colombia, the community of Micoahumado was eventually able to convince the National Liberation Army (ELN) to demine the town and surrounding roads despite the strategic disadvantage to the group. In Northern Ireland, civil society actors suggested alternative non-violent forms of community justice to the Republican Movement, which in turn opened up space to reflect on broader issues of security and policing in the emerging peace talks. In northern Uganda in the late 1990s/early 2000s, local religious leaders developed a threefold approach. They met with high-level commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the bush to encourage them to: reduce attacks on civilians; allow for the return of combatants (many of whom were abductees); and think about how the group could enter into negotiations with the Ugandan Government. They began to facilitate talks between the Government and the group, and worked with the community to sensitise it to returnees; prompting a possible demobilisation route for combatants.

Local populations will often use pre-existing ties such as ethnic, family and kinship links to gain access and assert influence. As a result, and in contrast to external mediators, they benefit from being able to gain a close understanding of an armed group’s dynamics and motivations during the early, and often the most violent, stages of a conflict – allowing them to talk to armed actors when no-one else is.

They are more likely to adopt cultural and customary norms to appeal to armed groups as well as demonstrate sensitivity to the groups’ concerns about reputation, employing more flexible understandings of international normative principles such as human rights and neutrality. Community leaders in northern Uganda rooted international justice amnesty frameworks in Acholi traditions of forgiveness.

However, these interactions are fragile, and it is important not to overlook the risks local actors take to resist or challenge conflict. During intense fighting, local efforts to reduce violence and promote dialogue may be seen as contrary to the efforts of warring sides to gain military advantage. Armed groups do indeed often have a blatant disregard for civilian security, or worse, deliberately target populations. Local populations also face security threats from the state, which often views communities close to armed groups as complicit. And active contact by a community with an armed group can exacerbate perceptions of association. It is often government restrictions, including proscription regimes and counter-insurgency tactics, that are more disruptive and threatening to communities than the behaviour of armed groups - in Micoahumado, a whole generation of community leaders was forced to leave the village after accusations by state security forces of siding with the ELN.

These factors highlight the need to expand ideas about when and how to engage with armed groups, and so ensure better recognition and support to the multiple efforts involved in supporting an armed group’s transition to non-violence. Conventional approaches typically involve law enforcement and security measures, and in a few cases after many years, pursuing diplomatic talks, as in the case of the IRA and more recently the Taliban. Such an approach conflates ‘talking’ with ‘negotiating’ and assumes that reaching out implies ‘legitimising’ a group’s actions or agenda. It overlooks the on-going relationships that communities often have with armed groups which can influence the groups’ behaviour, and the multiple reasons why engagement may be desirable.

At present, in Iraq, informal arrangements between Islamic State and tribal factions in different regions are regularly evolving and dissolving, based on ethnic, cultural, religious affiliation, to ensure security, economic benefit or political advantage. For communities it may be irrelevant whether a group threatening their security is an internationally assigned ‘terrorist’ or whether the insecurity they face is from the ‘legitimate’ state’s use of force or ‘illegitimate’ non-state violence. They talk to armed groups often because they need to, and often because a particular group is a governance reality.

Many contemporary conflicts result from a breakdown in state legitimacy and governance, amplified by the marginalisation of certain groups and the capture of resources by particular elites. The way in which different actors fill various political and social spaces during conflicts, how communities adapt and respond, and how new relationships are forged, has important implications for governance, reconciliation, and state-society relations in peacebuilding endeavours.

Syrian contributors to the new Accord Insight publication conclude that in the absence of progress in a formal negotiation process it is important not to lose sight of the small but significant initiatives taking place at the local level, and their impact and implications for future solutions to the conflict.

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