Publication date: 
Oct 2013

You can’t make peace without talking to those doing the fighting. An obvious statement perhaps, but one that in practice presents various challenges. 

Governments and political actors are understandably averse; the choices around engagement with armed groups are complex, risky and highly political, and potentially unpopular with an electorate. 

But talking to an armed group in the interests of peace does not necessarily denote recognising their aims and means, nor is it a reward for violence.

And in many conflicts there are those who can and already do talk to armed groups in a range of constructive ways - to encourage return, to provide space for self-reflection and challenge, or to prepare them for constructive peace negotiations.

Governments need to explore a wider range of options for engagement with armed groups and to consider the following as guiding principles for doing so: 

Start from a position of engagement based on dialogue and consider the obstacles to engagement 

As we have seen in Northern Ireland, Iraq and now Afghanistan, despite an initial position against direct or indirect diplomatic contact with armed groups, in reality, and often after many years of conflict, governments almost always come round to engagement.  

We suggest that from the outset there should be an explicit presumption that it is politically and legally acceptable – and indeed useful – to engage with an armed group for the purposes of resolving violent conflict.

Such a position obviously requires taking calculated and managed risks, but our experience in diverse contexts such as the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict, Mindanao in the Philippines, and Colombia, suggests that the risks are worth taking in the interests of peace.

However, shifting the focus to engagement does require a reassessment of the obstacles to doing so, including proscription - the listing of armed groups as terrorist organisations. In our experience proscription is rarely integrated into wider efforts to promote long term peace. The lack of transparency in how groups are listed and delisted and on which lists they appear, and the failure to understand fully the impact of proscription on a conflict context, means that its broader conflict prevention benefits are negligible and at best short-term. 

Moreover, obstructing, and indeed criminalising, contact by third parties with proscribed armed groups diminishes the space for dialogue and for third-party mediators to operate. The effects of proscription can be at odds with its intended purpose; in fact it can weaken moderate elements in an armed group and can feed perceptions of exclusion among constituencies who may share a group’s aspirations if not their methods. 

Consider and employ a broader range of options to influence armed groups 

There is a range of modes and levels of engagement available to influence and transform armed groups. Much can happen below the radar – without in any way being construed as recognition or legitimisation of a group or its tactics  – which can prepare the ground for political settlements. 

Particular governments, groups and NGOs – local and international – may have influence on an armed group due to perceived political impartiality, access or relationships of trust. Low-level contacts between an armed group and civil society, community or religious leaders, for example, can test appetite for dialogue and negotiation, and help improve understanding of the dynamics and motivations of a group.

Regional governments also wield influence on armed groups; addressing and mediating the regional tensions which affect a conflict – such as the antagonism between Khartoum and Uganda in the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict – can in turn alter the course and strength of an armed group.

Providing non-state armed groups with space for self-reflection is rare, but essential. It helps them reassess their objectives and methods, and re-examine the root causes of conflict and the best way to address them. To this end, Conciliation Resources and others in the peacebuilding field seek to provide critical challenge and encourage armed groups to think more broadly and strategically about non-violent ways to achieve their aims.  

Develop and employ good practice in engaging armed groups

The internal dynamics of non-state armed groups are complex, and members may have differing and contradictory motives. Governments tend to lack in-house expertise in this area and, as a result, the official range of tools and options for engagement is limited.

Employing monetary incentives to encourage groups to turn away from violence is of questionable benefit as, rather than shifting positions, this can inspire cynicism and rent seeking in an armed group and offer a temporary fix rather than address an underlying issue. 

The adoption of internal ‘good practice’ to guide official government approaches to engaging armed groups is therefore essential. Decisions – be they to arm, proscribe or engage – must be based at the very least on a full understanding of the realities of the conflict dynamics and the range of perspectives of actors within a conflict system.

Finally, it should be recognised that the space for engagement at a higher political level has often been made possible by years of painstaking work by community organisations, activists and NGOs to maintain and build links and trust.

This should be recognised and supported by policymakers in specific cases as well as more generally, and be seen as a fundamental aspect of conflict transformation. 

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Dr Teresa Dumasy is Head of Policy and Learning at Conciliation Resources. This article was first published on Conflict & Security

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Learn more about Conciliation Resources' work on engaging armed groups: