‘Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.’ So said John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address as President in 1961. It is a sentiment that could have significant and positive repercussions today given the protracted conflicts that we see in the Middle East in particular and the increasing rise of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
This position paper will focus on the lessons that may be learned from past conflicts and countries living in negative peace. It will attempt to explain why it is time for states involved in current conflicts to sit at the negotiating table and jointly develop a framework for peace.
In the case of Palestine, arguably the world’s most protracted conflict, Abu-Nimer and Kaufman (2006) argue that basic rights of Palestinians are violated on a daily basis. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the ‘other’; in this case, the Israelis who are equally in fear of Palestinian suicide attacks so both the perceived and actual security of both sides is continuously violated. Peace and understanding has no hope of succeeding in such as atmosphere of mistrust and a vicious cycle of violence. Any future political agreement must tackle these issues in a more effective, pragmatic way. As human needs of identity, security and access to political power are at the core of protracted communal conflicts, Abu-Nimer and Kaufman support a human rights framework combined with the Dual Concern Model whereby a party must consider the rights and needs of the ‘other’. “Addressing the psychological dimension of protracted social conflict is key to its resolution,” argue Abu-Nimer and Kaufman.
It is a subject that Powell (2014), chief broker of the Northern Ireland peace deal, is familiar with, and a principle he has applied in practice. He stresses the need to speak with the enemy, saying there can be no purely military solution to a political problem. Powell acknowledges the issue that, for many, talking to terrorists may give them legitimacy. A case in point is the world’s response to ISIS thus far is an emotional one, a human one of horror and disgust, and therefore the very notion of negotiating with ISIS, the act of reaching out, is abhorrent to most. However, it is impossible to generate any form of peace in Iraq and Syria, without negotiations forming part of the action plan. However, this is easier said than done. Both parties must be willing to lay out also to directly address the grievances of Sunnis who were marginalised for years by Baghdad. For some Sunnis therefore, ISIS is an improvement and there is simply no viable alternative currently (Collard 2015). Referring to peacebuilding in Afghanistan, Duffield (2007) argues that politics is now at the forefront of peacebuilding efforts. In the case of ISIS then, the political solution is to first understand it.
Yet still there are many civilians and politicians that recoil at the thought of negotiating with illegitimate groups that commit such horrific acts. While this is human nature, it is important to understand that ethically speaking, talking to terrorists may eventually help save lives. What politicians have done so far has had almost no effect. Surely it is worth trying a method that has proved instrumental in the past and one that could transform not only the political landscape of the Middle East, but also the lives of its people.
Unless this is done in a practical and immediate way, there will never be an end to the many conflicts we see today. We owe it to future generations to start talking.
Powell notes that actions such as setting false deadlines can cause already-fragile negotiations to fail in the past. Successful actions of focusing negotiations is to have the common goal of agreeing general principles or framework agreement. Having a skeleton agreement in place in Northern Ireland, while causing initial upset, actually helped to make the Good Friday agreement possible by including issues and demands and ruling out others.
Another key issue that often causes a barrier to negotiating is explaining to the public that the government is talking to terrorists. Given the current political climate and the fact that ISIS commits such atrocious acts and in the full glare of the world’s media, this would be a challenge today.
The move towards a real peace deal is when both sides can see a viable political way forward. There must also be a shift from the military faction to the political. Without the move from military to political, peace is not possible. With the conflict in Iraq and Syria still in the hands of the military, there is still a definite political element at play.
Abu-Nimer, M. and Kaufman, E. (2006) ‘Bridging Conflict and Transformation and Human Rights: Lessons from the Israeli-Palestinian Process’ in J. Mertus and J. Helsing [Eds] Human Rights & Conflict: Exploring the Links between Rights, Law and Peacebuilding, Washington: USIP, 277-307
Collard, R. (2015) ‘What We Have Learned Since ISIS Declared A Caliphate One Year Ago’, TIME magazine. Available at http://time.com/3933568/isis-caliphate-one-year/. Accessed on 20 June 2016
Duffield, M. (2007) Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kennedy, J.F. (1961) ‘Inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy’, available at https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/JFK-Quotations/Inaugural-Address.aspx
Powell, J. (2014) ‘How to talk to terrorists’, The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/07/-sp-how-to-talk-to-terrorists-isis-al-qaida. Accessed on 19 June 2016.
Powell, J. (2014) Talking to Terrorists: How to end armed conflicts, London: The Bodley Head