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Negotiating with Killers: Expert Insights on Resolving Deadly Conflicts Browse

Balancing the Demands of Peace and Justice


One of the most troubling dilemmas involved in negotiating with killers is whether to place the highest priority on securing peace or achieving justice. Perpetrators of war crimes and atrocities often demand amnesty from prosecution for these crimes as a condition for laying down arms. If an amnesty from war crimes prosecution helps speed an end to violence, can such a concession be justified? Or are there some crimes so heinous that they should never be forgiven? By allowing the perpetrators of atrocities to escape judicial accountability for their crimes, do we reinforce the “culture of impunity,” thereby signaling our silent acceptance of the cycle of violence in conflict-torn regions?

John Roth is Director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College. He reflects on the moral complexities that confront diplomats who deal with the perpetrators of atrocities:

Where, if at all, is the place for straightforward moral discourse in negotiation, naming it what it is, where mass murder is taking place or where killing has taken place and destroys lives of defenseless people?

Ambassador Donald Steinberg argues that the quest for justice is a moral imperative, whether or not it supports a lasting settlement of violent conflict. Negotiators who neglect the mandate to seek justice inevitably undermine future prospects for peace and the rule of law:

I am one of those people who firmly believes that “amnesty” means that men with guns forgive other men with guns for violence committed mostly against civilians and particularly women.

Professor Paul Williams at American University Law School is director of the Public International Law and Policy Group, which provides legal advice to countries in peace negotiations. He served on the Bosnian delegation at the Dayton peace talks of 1995 and on the Kosovar delegation at the Rambouillet talks in1999. Williams believes that justice is also a pragmatic requirement for a lasting peace:

I tend to argue justice first for practical reasons, that you will actually get a better peace agreement, you will get a better deal, if you are guided by justice or norms of justice as opposed to a purely pragmatic saving lives, getting the deal done, “getting to yes” type of approach.

Williams says that instead of taking effective coercive action against the aggressor, third-party states often pressure the victims of the aggression to accept agreements that enable the aggressors to achieve their primary objectives. He calls this diplomatic approach “coercive appeasement”:

[C]oercive appeasement begins when politically and militarily powerful third parties or states, such as the United States and the European Union, seek to resolve a conflict by accommodating the primary interests of a rogue regime despite the regime’s use of force and the commission of atrocities to achieve its objectives.

This is something that is very common among peacebuilders and peacemakers is, “Let’s engage in an approach of accommodation. It’s a legitimate approach.” It often slips into coercive appeasement.

Now, peacebuilders seldom intentionally set out to implement a strategic approach of coercive appeasement. Rather, it is frequently the case that tactical decisions along the way, taken in an ad hoc fashion, which are designed to achieve very short-term objectives, cumulatively come to frame and perpetuate this approach of coercive appeasement.

Williams recalls his experience as a State Department lawyer in the early 1990s, when he worked on policy toward the former Yugoslavia:

Now, by most professional and historical accounts, this approach was a failed one with the consequences that over 200,000 to 250,000 individuals were killed, thousands were raped, and millions were displaced.

The reluctance of the international community, in my view, to invoke a norm of justice as a viable alternative to this approach of coercive appeasement facilitated the ability of the Serbian regime to carry out the genocide in Bosnia and the attempted genocide in Kosovo.

Yet some observers argue that there can be no “one-size-fits-all” solution to balancing the demands of peace and justice. Nor can the perpetrators of atrocities always be sidelined from negotiations. Donald Steinberg says that

...they assume that because they put a low value on human life that others do the same. In movements that are dominated by a killer there tends to be a centralized power structure. It is almost impossible to negotiate with anyone else other than the leader involved. No one else in the movement will stick out his neck because it can literally be chopped off.

But negotiators in these situations also have opportunities to shift the focus from the killers and diminish their influence. Prudence Bushnell:

We should no longer put our emphasis on preventing conflict.... We should be putting our emphasis on promoting peace. And what happens if you do that, if you start looking through the prism of promoting peace versus preventing conflict? One of the things I think that happens, is that you take these killers out of the spotlight. As long as you are trying to prevent conflict, they are the main actors, because they’re the ones who are performing the conflict. If you then say, well, forget that, what we want to do is promote peace, you end up putting the spotlight on an entirely new group of people, and you end up taking those people to five-star hotels and feeding them good meals, and giving them resources and high-level attention.

As the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues from 1997 to 2001, David Scheffer confronted a cold logic in his dealings with perpetrators ranging from Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone:

Even in the presence of evil one may still make a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis as a negotiator about “how far can I proceed with this individual for the benefit of other objectives?”

We can deal with the issue of evil as long as we don’t let the benefit of negotiating with a war criminal overcome our recognition that he still embodies evil and we have to confront that evil at some point and achieve accountability.

Negotiating with Killers was made possible with generous support from the Everett Foundation and the Ford Foundation. To learn more about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience and its Academy for Genocide Prevention, visit our website at