The Complexities of Engaging with Armed Groups

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Date: 
March 27, 2012

The decision to talk with an armed group about finding non-violent solutions comes with significant dilemmas and risks for mediators.  The safety of the mediators involved is an obvious risk, but there are also legal consequences for individuals or groups that run afoul of broad laws that prohibit most contact with members of a listed terrorist group. Despite these concerns, many humanitarian groups and conflict mediators believe that the best way to bring violent conflict to an end is by addressing the instability’s root causes and to not exclude any major party from the peace process. In Engaging with armed groups, Teresa Whitfield draws on experience and case studies to explain the potential benefits and challenges to mediation practitioners considering engagement with a listed terrorist group, and says no one-size-fits-all formula exists for deciding whether to engage or not.

Despite the primacy of terrorist lists and their related sanctions prohibiting contact to listed terrorist groups by the U.S. and the UN in their counterterrorism efforts, Whitfield says this approach is short-sighted. “Armed groups are characterized by their great diversity as well as the varied degree of threat which they represent to the state…. Such diversity accentuates the need to be wary of oversimplification or of relying too easily on general principles.”
 
A better way to make decisions regarding whether and how to engage with a listed group, she says, should be “rooted in detailed analysis of the armed group as well as the broader context within which it is active.”  This includes correctly identifying the main stakeholders, understanding the legitimate grievances, and the willingness to try non-military options. “While military pressure, or other actions by security forces, may be necessary to counter it, in almost all cases a lasting resolution to the conflict will depend on some form of political accommodation or agreement,” Whitfield says.
 
The report is from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a mediation organization dedicated to helping improve the global response to armed conflict.