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Negotiating with Killers: Expert Insights on Resolving Deadly Conflicts Browse

Managing Spoilers


To forge a durable peace, key political stakeholders must be committed to the process. How can one best respond to parties that seek to disrupt the transition to peace?

Stephen Stedman uses the term “spoilers” to describe leaders and parties who use violence to undermine a negotiated peace. He lists three categories of spoilers to peace processes: limited, greedy, and total spoilers. These categories are fluid, and individuals or groups can inhabit more than one of these category over the course of a conflict. Their ability to spoil depends upon their power to influence political conditions on the ground, whether or not they are participating in negotiations. They can also operate inside or outside a peace process; sometimes they do both at once.

Total spoilers are irreconcilably opposed to any compromise peace; any commitment to peace by a total spoiler is tactical. Limited spoilers can conceivably be included in the peace processes, if their limited nonnegotiable demands can be accommodated by other parties to the conflict. Greedy spoilers can be accommodated in peace processes if their limited goals are met and high costs constrain them from making added demands.

The interests of limited spoilers might be accommodated in a peace process, and a greedy spoiler might be bought off and/or deterred from escalating their demands. But Stedman argues that any negotiated agreement with total spoilers is likely to unravel, so it is best to avoid engaging in negotiations with them. However, even if total spoilers are excluded from negotiations, it may be necessary to take active steps to prevent them from derailing the whole peace process.

But some negotiators reject Stedman’s notion of the “total spoiler.”

[SANDRA MELONE] [Well,] it’s certainly our natural propensity to demonize the other -- it feels easier.

Sandra Melone is Executive Director of Search for Common Ground which promotes conflict transformation and collaborative problem-solving. She has extensive experience in conflict transformation projects in Burundi and other countries. She notes that parties to a conflict often draw absolute moral distinctions between themselves and their foes, seeing their own conduct as beyond reproach, while viewing the conduct of their enemies as aggressive and deceptive.

And that fuels directly into sacrificing our ultimate ability to be able to engage effectively and to be able to engage with the impartiality that’s needed…. By differentiating one group from the other and saying we can engage with X group but not with Y group, we fail very often to bring into the fold of the process of reconciliation and resolution of conflict parties who are actually key to resolving said conflict, and they then become spoilers, alienated and antagonistic to a process that ought to include them rather than exclude them.

Conflicts are often volatile: today’s “total spoiler” may be tomorrow’s “greedy spoiler.” Diplomats dealing with these conflicts need as complete and accurate information as possible.

Careful study of the personality and background of individual leaders can also yield important clues about their receptiveness to a negotiated peace. Ambassador to Angola Donald Steinberg observes that “total spoilers” are often more isolated than limited spoilers – whether physically, culturally, or by their ideological zeal. He compares his 1995 encounter with the leaders of two African insurgencies, Afonso Dhlakama of the RENAMO insurgency in Mozambique, and Jonas Savimbi of UNITA in Angola. Both had committed massive atrocities during their respective conflicts- and both went on to sign peace deals with their respective national governments:

To me the difference between the two, was when we walked in to visit Dhlakama in Maputo, he was in his villa. He walked us through the villa very proudly. He even sent his driver in a Mercedes out to pick us up.

He was delighted to show us all the little electronic gizmos that he had received from the international community, and we all said, “There is no way this man is moving back to the bush.”

I later went to visit Savimbi in Andulo in a bombed out building. We had just visited the villa that had been built for him in the capital of Luanda, which was even more luxurious than the one in Maputo. Savimbi announced that he would not come to Luanda, that the peace process was not advanced enough. He had no interest in those material advantages.

Steinberg says that Jonas Savimbi’s physical isolation and bunker mentality made it more difficult to engage him in productive conversations. In 1998, Savimbi resumed UNITA’s war against the government of Angola, and he continued the rebellion until he was killed in combat in 2002.

In addition to studying the combatants in a conflict, it is equally important that the mediator examine his or her own emotions and attitudes toward one’s interlocutors. Prudence Bushnell served as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala, and as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. She met repeatedly with African leaders including Charles Taylor of Liberia and Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda.

You have to know yourself well enough to be able to manage yourself, so that your attention is not on whether you’re feeling frightened, or whether you’re feeling mad, or whether you’re feeling revulsion; your attention is completely focused on the interlocutor and on the present, and on what it is you want to accomplish…. You have to be completely focused, and the work that’s been done on emotional intelligence I think would be very useful for people to look at...

Ambassador Bushnell notes that the perpetrators of atrocities often have charismatic qualities:

It is all about them, and it is so much about them that they are willing to kill in order to have their way, or their worldview, prevail...

Everything is a show... Now it’s fine to say … Charles Taylor has the capability of being very charming. Osama bin Laden has the capability of speaking very gently and holding his tongue, but that’s neither here nor there, it’s like saying your eyes are brown. But to say it in this appreciative tone is something that to me feeds right into what these killers want to do, which is to influence you...

Being taken in by a killer means that you are ceding your power to the killer, essentially, which is exactly what the killer wants ...

Donald Steinberg agrees:

Let me say we haven’t even talked about the notion that you as a negotiator are walking into a room and you’re well aware that the person on the other side of the table has no compunction about taking you out.

I also want to say something I hope doesn’t get misinterpreted. There is a fascination that you as an observer and a participant have with someone on the other side of the table who is willing to kill people to achieve his results...

The notion that this person is willing to violate all social norms for some belief or even some personal ambition really fascinates you. Indeed, there is almost a form of respect even with the abhorrence that you feel for this. You have to resist that urge.

Beyond staying aware of the impact of one’s own attitudes and emotions in the negotiating environment, an external mediator must take into account the perspectives and equities of each of the parties. Ambassador Joyce Leader was Deputy Chief of Mission in Embassy Kigali on the eve of the Rwandan genocide of 1994:

Along with … the issue of the local actors and how we look at them and the impact that we have on them, I think it is also interesting and important to turn the tables and think about how they are looking at us.

While we are trying to manage them, our very presence is causing them to have to manage us, if they want to achieve their goals. They have to be conscious of what our goals and expectations are. That means that they have to use our framework, our approach and see how within that they are going to be able to make it work for them.

Sandra Melone points out that mediators must be alert to the roles of outside actors in either spoiling or helping to move a peace process forward:

We can’t omit to analyze and to clearly express the role of not just local actors, but also of the international community.

I think often we look way too locally and don’t actually state clearly the spoilers who are actually on an international level and who directly or indirectly, willingly or non-willingly, honestly or not honestly, are actually fueling killers.

To better understand other parties’ motivations in a conflict, it may be useful to engage in role-playing exercises, where participants assume the role of the various parties and attempt to view the conflict from their perspectives. Such scenario gaming can provide insights into the interests and political strategies of competing factions, and help negotiators better anticipate and prepare for potential pitfalls in a peace process.

Negotiators should also reflect upon their own attitudes and emotions and how they influence the negotiating environment. This means frequent self-examination of what one does, why one does it, and how well it is working. Negotiating with killers provokes intense reactions. Being constantly aware of one’s own attitudes regarding a conflict can help the negotiator maintain objectivity.