pdf Mediation Practice Series. Engaging with Armed Groups – Dilemmas & Options for Mediators Popular

Author: Teresa Whitfield
Institution: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue
Publication Date: 2010
Keywords: Peace Processes; Conflict, Afghanistan; MENA
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This Paper addresses engagement by those working towards peace processes which involve formal interaction between elders. The focus is on the dilemmas, challenges and risks involved in a mediator’s early contacts with an armed group and subsequent engagement as interlocutor, message-carrier, adviser and facilitator.  Brief conclusions are included.  The Paper benefits from case studies including coping with pre-conditions on Hamas and as regards the International Criminal Court and the Lords Resistance Army in conflict at the peace table.  This Paper is particularly useful for those working on support to peace processes, including within the Afghanistan context and the Middle East Peace Process. 

Key Issues:
The Paper sets out the arguments for engagement which are rooted in principle and pragmatism. They include the belief that engaging armed groups is the preferred means to bring it to an end because military options against insurgents on their own rarely succeed in creating conditions that will foster sustainable peace, as well as the need to ensure that those armed actors who have primary roles in pursuing the conflict do not spoil any settlement from which they are left out.  At the same time, engagement with an armed group is laden with implications and reasons not to engage cannot be dismissed lightly.  This includes what is increasingly termed ‘the Sri Lanka option’ i.e a tough military response, the refusal to countenance a political solution and instead a conscious decision to wage war to destroy an armed group.  This approach may set a dangerous precedent not only for its violation of the most basic laws of war, but also for its failure to address most drivers of Sri Lanka’s conflict and its contribution to new sources of resentment.  The specific case of Afghanistan calls for a graduated approach to sustained engagement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, if not by the US then by others trusted by the US, the Afghan Government and the Taliban. In the absence of clarity on a desired end state for Afghanistan, more limited goals could include improved understanding of the Taliban and deepening engagement on humanitarian issues.
Key challenges to a mediator’s job include interlocutors and decision-making i.e. ensuring that the prospective interlocutor is an effective armed group, with good command and control and clear procedures or a charismatic leader with recognised authority, such as John Garang of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army/Movement. However, this is frequently not the case where, for example, as concerns the Lords Resistance Army it is unclear that those currently negotiating at Juba represent or at least report directly to the LRA leaders.  Absence of a clear or realistic agenda also presents obstacles to negotiations. Rigid pre-conditions may become an obstacle as parties move into ‘talks about talks’. Frequently, such obstacles touch upon the armed group’s primary source of leverage upon the process (its arms) or the core issue in contention.
The Paper sets out the range of options facing mediators which generally involve three distinct steps: establishing a confidential channel to exchange messages and information and build trust; beginning negotiations, perhaps in secret talks, and establishing the idea of a compromise in order to allow the parties to articulate their real, achievable goals, and a public process towards a lasting agreement, involving an increasingly broad and complex array of other actors.

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