Skip to main content

Negotiating with Killers: Expert Insights on Resolving Deadly Conflicts Browse

Promoting Conflict Transformation


A key question that comes up in negotiating with killers is, how do we ensure that what results are not just resolutions on paper but a truly just and lasting peace?

Ambassador and former Congressman Howard Wolpe is Director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was President Clinton’s Special Envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes Region. He identifies a fundamental weakness in many negotiated settlements to civil wars:

We have a tendency to put a lot of pressure on the leaders in a conflict to come to the table, to sign agreements, but we do nothing to really work directly with their mindsets. There is no reason, therefore, to believe that the day after they have signed an agreement that they will see their conflict or each other any differently than the day before they signed that agreement, and so it is not surprising that within five years, most societies that have signed agreements are back at war.

Ambassador Wolpe believes that conflict resolution requires the competing factions to move beyond a zero-sum paradigm, in which they believe that their own success can come only at the expense of others:

Unless people can begin to see that their own self interest requires collaboration with others, I do not believe peace is sustainable in any society...

Chester Crocker agrees with Wolpe that any mediation effort can succeed only if it leads the competing factions to rethink the stakes of the conflict:

The purpose of a negotiation or I should say a mediation, is to put in front of the parties – and I want to underscore this parties plural – choices they would rather not face in order to confuse them, to complicate their agenda and to make them think through pathways that they’re not currently on and to actually come up with hard decisions. So you’re actually asking them to think outside their own boxes and that’s what you should be doing. And if you can succeed in doing it you may well transform along the way their calculus of risk-reward, their behavior patterns, and be able to do interesting things with them.

Melanie Greenberg notes that conflict transformation often requires not only formal state-to-state negotiations, but also “track two” work involving representatives of civil society and nongovernmental organizations:

There is a need for the leaders to realize that life can’t go on the way it is, that something has to change, in a way that’s easier to do at the second-track level, because you have time, you can have kind of creative exercises, you have ways of having people think about what the world will look like for their grandchildren. It’s much harder to do in a standard first-track mediation setting, where you’re concentrating on solely an outcome document.

In 2003, Ambassador Howard Wolpe created a training program in Burundi, which teaches conflict transformation skills to top political and military leaders in Burundi’s government, as well as former rebel groups. The program has been successful in Burundi, and Wolpe and his colleagues have started similar programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia:

The training is directed at communications, negotiating skills, at the analysis of conflict, understanding the basis of perceptions, at techniques for group problem solving and negotiation. The process is very interactive. We do not think it is very useful to lecture people, to preach to them about human rights or about democracy. The challenge is to get people to begin to comprehend their interdependence, to see other as part of the same political universe so that they will not dehumanize their adversaries.

Mediators must always remain alert to the views of the leaders who are directly involved in the negotiation- and pay attention as well to the demands of the constituencies those leaders represent. Melanie Greenberg:

Any mediation or negotiation process will eventually need political support. And in the negotiations that I’ve been involved with, much of the negotiation focuses on how each party is going sell the ultimate outcome to its own constituency. There has to be some softening, some change, some transformation in the political landscape in order for a successful … implementation of a peace agreement. So I think one of the most useful forums can be, are there a series of dialogues, of processes going on within the political environment, at the grassroots level, at the one-and-a-half track level, really looking at all the issues that are involved. Often they deal with schooling, education, justice, reconciliation. What does a joint future look like for groups that have been in conflict? And being able to communicate the outcomes of some of those dialogues with the negotiators is extremely important…. There has to be communication; you can’t just have a handoff from a set of negotiations to reconciliation activities afterwards.

For Andrea Bartoli, the only peace process worthy of the name is one that transforms enemies into partners:

Negotiation is not just an exchange, it’s not a quid pro quo, it’s a change in attitude, it’s an openness to the possibility of a quid pro quo. It’s a change in attitude that means the exploration of something possible as a solution, you know, it’s not a solution, it’s an orientation to a solution...

If you look at the IRA, if you look at ETA, if you look at RENAMO, fundamentally what this communication first and negotiation later do is to transform military formation[s] into political actors. This is the fundamental transformation you make.