|Negotiation (Source: Google Images)|
"Negotiations are the best way forward" -- EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
To negotiate is to open a communication channel through which the parties exchange information which helps either side gain a more complete picture of the disputed issues. During this process, both parties work together to gain something that is unavailable through unilateral action.
This is the general definition of negotiation in international relations. But when we look at world events, we can't resist asking ourselves whether politicians really get a complete picture of what is being disputed or if they work together at all.
According to Prof. Siniša Vuković, the main purpose of any negotiation activity is to "reduce the differences [that are core of the dispute] between the parties", followed by decreasing conflict escalation, help the parties reaching a stable and durable peace or promoting and protecting particular interests. I would certainly agree with professor Vuković that negotiations serve the purpose of reducing an escalation of tensions (for instance, if Israel and the Arabs of Palestine hadn't engaged in "peace" negotiations the situation on the ground would be much worse than already is - the Arabs would've probably carried out a second Holocaust in the Middle East [ME] by now); they also help promoting and protecting particular interests (for example, the ME peace process has served, over the years, to protect the interests of the West in the region many times in detriment to those of Israel's), however negotiating may not promote a stable and durable peace, particularly when the mediators involved in the negotiation process have an agenda that challenges the interests of the disputing parties.
Lady Ashton says that negotiations are the best option always. She is not entirely wrong, however although an option it may not always be the best one - what happens when negotiations cause even more violence?
Peter Neumann, in his piece "Negotiating with Terrorists", wrote that some cases reveal that "attempts to bring about negotiated settlements often provoke violent challenges both from the in-group (dissident factions of the terrorist group or reactionary elements of the government's security forces) and from outsiders (rival or splinter groups)" which most of the times cause the death of thousands of people, that is the very same outcome that negotiations are supposed to prevent.
Since the 70's, we have been watching the political universe changing its colours and shape: before the emersion of liberation movements, governments would negotiate with governments on equal standing; however, after the emersion of such non-state actors governments many times saw themselves forced to sit at the table and negotiate with them. Then came the 80's, 90's and the new century, when religiously inspired non-state actors started focusing on terror as their main tactic to force governments to comply with their demands.
Many scholars (e.g. Paul Wilkinson, Walter Laqueur and Martha Crenshaw) defend that negotiating with terrorists equals to legitimising their actions and rewarding them for making use of violence - so, in case of terrorism, how are negotiations the best way forward? They are not, because officially negotiating with such groups is the same as declaring in public that terrorists are in equal standing with governments, which they can't be; and that is why the state will often engage in back-door deals with terror groups as a way to mitigate the conflict between the two parties and avoid an utter catastrophe.
Nevertheless, in cases like Boko Haram, people are starting to wonder whether negotiations aren't a viable solution to end the growing violence in Nigeria.
When it comes to terrorism, negotiations may represent a further polylemma:
I. negotiating with terrorists is a predicament when there lacks an entity to whom a government can negotiate with.
II. Global Jihadist Groups will often operate in cell-like structures, many of whom are sleeping cells; meaning that there is no interest in presenting a unified front with a known spokesman to present solid demands and bargain. In such cases, negotiations are not viable and governments have no other option but to apply military force (and do so with minimum collateral damage).
III. Hybrid Terrorist Organisations (e.g. Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah) are a challenge: how to negotiate with a political organisation knowing that its aim is to blur the political lines (so that it is able to acquire weapons, recruit, train and act under the umbrella of a legitimate political entity)? So far, the protocol has been to support, fund and negotiate with Hybrid Terrorist Organisations in order to manage tensions (be it by either upholding the status quo or by controlling the use of limited force to give the impression that everybody is getting their way and thus preclude an all-out war).
Many see the negotiation process as a Holistic measure (i.e. focusing on the whole picture rather than in the analysis of separate parts forming the unit); however it may not be so, especially when during the negotiation activity violence proceeds (as it happened, for example, during the most recent peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government).
Negotiating is important but experience and history have shown us that it is not always the "best way forward" but simply an instrument to achieve an end.