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Negotiating with Killers: Expert Insights on Resolving Deadly Conflicts Browse

Deciding When Not to Negotiate


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience was created with the mission to “alert the national conscience, influence policymakers, and stimulate worldwide action to confront and work to halt genocide and related crimes against humanity.” In 2004, the Committee on Conscience established the Academy for Genocide Prevention to help foreign policy professionals better recognize and respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocities.

In September 2005, the Academy, in joint sponsorship with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. National Intelligence Council, convened a two-day seminar in Warrenton, Virginia which focused on the topic “Negotiating with Killers.” Participants included academic theorists along with current and former officials of the U.S. government, the United Nations, and international NGOs who have worked in conflict zones around the world. Together they discussed the diplomatic challenges of responding to genocide and mass atrocities.

The audio program you are about to hear draws from discussions in the seminar and follow-up interviews with several of the participants. While there are no easy answers to the practical challenges confronting diplomats who negotiate with killers, the experts presented here offer their insights into the strategies they have used as third-party mediators in such instances, to provide foreign policy professionals with practical advice when they are confronted with similar situations in their own work.

By engaging in negotiations, one may confer legitimacy on war criminals, but by refusing to negotiate, one may consign innocent civilians to suffering or death. An ill-considered negotiating strategy may also backfire by empowering the killers and perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Professor Chester Crocker of Georgetown University served as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the U.S. State Department from 1981 to 1989, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the United States Institute of Peace from 1982 to 2004. While at the State Department, Crocker was the principal diplomatic architect and mediator in the prolonged negotiations among Angola, Cuba, and South Africa that led to Namibia’s transition to independence and the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola.

Crocker notes that it can be difficult to draw a clear line between atrocities and other forms of mass violence. He points out the need to clarify the nature of the conflict and the parties involved before deciding how to engage in efforts to resolve it:

In most of these conflicts, there are two parties engaging in violence that affects directly civilians…. I spent, in the African experience, eight and a half years of my life where I lost all my hair, negotiating with people on all sides: Cubans, Angolans, South Africans, Russians, you name it. I wouldn’t want to live under any of them. I consider them all to have been on the other side. Not that I equated them in a moral sense, but that they were all tough guys, they all lived by the gun. And they were all quite prepared to use the gun, and did so with frequency.

Before we enter into the process we’re trying to do a very thorough conflict analysis of where is this case, where is this conflict, and is it one that lends itself to the possibility of a worthy compromise that would be in our interest and would be good for the people of the country concerned, would represent the best possible course forward.

Crocker believes that policymakers must avoid any preconceived notions about the desirability of engaging in negotiations:

Let’s decide where this case is on the spectrum; how ripe is it, ... what are the equities, what are the issues, who are the parties… It may be that you would look at some cases and say, they’re not good for mediation, they don’t lend themselves to mediation, and what’s called for is a strong arm, or a coercive threat of some kind.

Professor Stephen Stedman teaches at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He served from 2003 to 2005 as Research Director for the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. Stedman elaborates on Crocker’s point:

So you want to create really good agreements. You want to have very transparent processes that will bring them in. But, if in the end you have leaders and parties that simply show that they are incapable of accepting something less than complete power, then it is absolute folly to continue down the path of negotiations. At that point it is incumbent upon “international actors” to make a stand in terms of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of these characters.

As an extreme case, Stedman cites U.S. policy debates over Rwanda in May 1994, a month into the genocide, when Hutu extremists had already massacred several hundred thousand Tutsis.

The most absurd example I remember was during the genocide in Rwanda when there were several people urging a return to negotiations…. My reply was, “Well, what would the génocidaires have had to have done at this point to convince you that they don’t want a negotiated settlement?”

Melanie Greenberg is President of the Cypress Fund for Peace and Security and has assisted conflict resolution processes in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Northern Ireland. She cautions that perpetrators of atrocities often possess a sophisticated understanding of how to play the international system in order to maximize their own advantage:

“They can often use the negotiating process to play for time; it can be a fig leaf to cover up events that are going on on the ground.”

Choosing whether or not to negotiate is always a strategic decision. Parties to a conflict choose to negotiate only if they believe that it is in their best interest. Gabriella Blum, former senior legal adviser to the Israeli Defense Forces, has co-authored a study on “When Not To Negotiate.” She emphasizes that negotiation must be understood as simply one tool of statecraft among others:

The negotiations always take place in the shadow of more coercive opportunities and options. Everybody who sits in the room understands it. That also necessarily shapes your preferences, your interests, and your positions.

Blum and her co-author, Robert Mnookin, point out that choosing negotiation is not a neutral or risk-free course of action. Negotiations cost both money and diplomatic resources. A participant’s own credibility can be undermined if he or she appears to be appeasing perpetrators of war crimes or atrocities on the other side. Finally, certain conflicts might be better resolved by other courses of action than negotiation. But Mnookin and Blum ultimately conclude that the benefits of negotiating outweigh the disadvantages, and stress that parties in a conflict should choose to negotiate with one another unless there are clear reasons not to do so:

... A lot of times parties, especially in conflict and especially when these conflicts are more personal and more bitter, will tend to exaggerate the cost of negotiations and limit their benefits or underestimate their benefits. Because there is this bias in how we estimate the cost of negotiation in conflict situations, we suggest, okay, why don’t we start from a rebuttable presumption, a rebuttable presumption in favor of negotiation? So to place the bar higher, and then if you decide to refuse to negotiate, you will have to really make sure that you are sufficiently right in making that decision.

Even if the decision is made not to begin formal negotiations, it can be useful to establish informal channels of communication with one or more parties to a conflict. Andrea Bartoli helped negotiate an end to the civil war in Mozambique in 1992 and is the founding Director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. He draws a distinction between what he calls the pre-negotiation stage, which involves open listening to all interlocutors, and the negotiations themselves, which require a mutual agreement to try and resolve a conflict.

It’s important to realize that talking and listening is not negotiating; that negotiating is a much more formal engaging, committing exercise…These channels of communication are key, and do not necessarily mean that we are giving up the shop simply because we are talking to people.

For Bartoli, the very act of listening can help build trust in the mediator and lay a foundation for communication among enemies.

Even if you are a killer, even if you are the “Khmer Rouge of Africa,” you will probably appreciate somebody talking to you respectfully and listening to you respectfully, giving you an audience and just being able to listen. You get less mad, less crazy, less violent if you just have a channel where you can talk...

I think that the process is fundamentally establishing mechanisms of communication.

Should we do this with [a] killer? Absolutely. I think that we should try to do it all the time… I think that the more we can keep them close, I think the better it is for everybody, for them and for us...

Violence is in the end just a way for people to express themselves. If you don’t listen to me, I get violent. If you listen to me, the chances of me being violent are a little less.

But some negotiators believe there are limits to listening openly to the perpetrators of atrocities. Donald Steinberg is Vice-President for Multilateral Affairs at the International Crisis Group. From 1995 to 1998, he served as U.S. ambassador to Angola, where he worked for the implementation of a peace agreement between the Angolan government and the UNITA rebel movement.

I think there is a continuum here between parties that are still legitimate interlocutors and others that have delegitimized themselves, that have by their actions indicated that they’re not freedom fighters; they are terrorists. They are killers who have, essentially, given themselves a red card and taken themselves out of the game entirely.

On the extreme of the other side are political movements that need to be negotiated with, and indeed there is a continuum between them... I would definitely draw the line to the side of Lord’s Resistance Army and say this is not a group that you can negotiate with. This is not a group that should be brought into the process; it’s a group that should be defeated.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah strikes a middle ground between the views of Bartoli and Steinberg. In the early Nineties, he played a critical role in stabilizing Burundi while neighboring Rwanda descended into genocide.

For me, dealing with extremists is not an easy exercise, politically and ethically. You know, morally it is not easy. Because on one hand, you know they have red hands, because they have killed, and they start killing in their own group to intimidate and impose themselves as leaders. And then they move to what they perceive as [the] enemy in the other camp. So you have to deal with this kind of people, butchers. At the same time, because they have been killing, intimidating, they have imposed themselves as leaders and they represent something. So you have at one point to deal with them...

My personal opinion is you make them feel the heat; you try discretely to fight them, by intimidation, defamation, trying to isolate them. I tried to do that in Burundi, I had my own media, clandestine, which is not allowed by [the] UN but I did it. And if really you see they are resistant, you have to discuss with them...

What I don’t agree with is this idea that you end up by negotiating with the extremists, so do it right now. I think you take time to see what they represent. If really they represent something, they are consistent, persistent; shamelessly we have no other choice than to discuss with them. But if it is a bluff I think you try to show muscles and see.

[ANDREA BARTOLI] The more formal your engagement is, the less room you have to just engage, to just listen, to just talk.

Andrea Bartoli:

There is a clear constraint that comes from being formally committed to the process…. If you are the U.S. government, most probably you do not want necessarily to speak with people or to listen to people just for the fun of it; but if you know that somebody is speaking with somebody, why shouldn’t you gather intelligence and be connected with people who know something about it? … Negotiating with killers is particularly difficult, needs to be done with great care; you probably want to have a little division of labor in which, you know, everybody does a little piece.