Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Negotiating with Terrorists

Negotiating with Terrorists
RT Hon Michael Ancram QC MP
CISD Annual Lecture
24 February 2009

Terrorists and terrorism are the bane of our current existence, or so it goes. Therefore, the title of the lecture is quite catchy and, produced a packed hall.

The speaker, Michael Ancram, was part of the negotiations in the process that led to peace in Northern Ireland. According to himself, he is acting as a free lance 'negotiator' in dialogue with the 'terrorist' groups, Hamas and Hizbollah. After a lengthy self-promoting introduction by the head of the CISD at SOAS, Ancram was introduced as a very courageous man with a distinguished career in politics and peace making. Apparently Ancram can also sing and play the guitar.

As Ancram took to the podium, he said that there were a lot of lessons from the peace process of Northern Ireland however, given that each conflict is different there aren't any templates or solutions that can be directly copied. However, we can use the techniques.

For a long time, 'we' did not talk to terrorists because 'we' were democrats. We preferred confrontation and or engagement but never engaged with terrorists. It struck Ancram that despite this many 'former' terrorists eventually became heads of states (i.e. Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau 'Rebellion') and were dining at Buckingham Palace. This made him realise how 'clever' the policy of disengagement actually was. This policy continues today: be it Sri Lanka or the Middle East.

So, what does 'talking' with terrorists mean? Ancram said that it was the dialogue phase of the negotiations, the behind the scenes conversation, that has been the key in successful peace making. Dialogue or conversation does not require pre conditions while negotiations are based on grand rules and preconditions. Negotiations are very slow and cautious while, dialogue is probably less constrained - let's say its 'freestyle!'

Ancram then outlined some criteria for 'talking' to terrorists:

- if the terrorist movement is or has to be part of the peace settlement (for instance - the Republican movement in Northern Ireland), then it is essential to talk to them
- are these people necessary?
- is there any point in talking to them?
- are these ideological terrorists such as Al Qaeda with whom we cannot have any common ground or territorial terrorists such as the IRA, Hamas or Hizbollah?

The first stage of talking to terrorists is 'below the radar.' This involves getting behind the rhetoric or 'megaphone diplomacy' as he put it. Violence can still be ongoing while this first phase of this process is ongoing. Drawing a parallel with the experience of this phase in Northern Ireland, Ancram said they had received coded messages from the IRA one of which said that 'the war is over, please help us end it.' After a series of back channel talks and dialogue, the Downing Street Declaration was issued followed by a framework document. This sent open signals to the 'terrorists' for the possibilities of negotiation and solutions. Tony Blair picked up the process thereafter and did a good job of taking the process forward and consolidating the peace process. Senator George Mitchell was also part of this process (he is now the American Special Envoy to the Middle East for the Obama administration).

Ancram recently gave a speech at the House of Commons. He stated that if 'you' believe in a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, 'you' have to deal with Hamas which enjoys significant popular support not to mention the fact it legitimately won elections in Palestine. If 'you' believe in security for Israel, 'you' have to also deal with Hizbollah. Little did he know that after his speech, he would be approached in order to actually start talking with the two groups. And, in fact, he is talking with them as a freelance agent. He has been talking to them for two years and, he believe there is hope. The 'events' in Gaza recently clearly showed that a military solution will not work.

Ancram met with Hamas as recent as two weeks ago. When he had first met the senior leaders of the group, they expressed to him their utter surprise that no one from the international community wanted to speak to them despite the fact that they had won elections in a democratic process. They dubbed it 'Cinderella Democracy' because clearly democracy was legitimate only if the shoe fit.

The Middle East Quartet set three pre conditions for dealing with Hamas which were designed to be undeliverable. Among these preconditions was acceptance of Israel's right to exist.* While speaking to Hamas, Ancram said that the group cannot remove this from their set of core beliefs or manifesto because nothing has happened as yet, Israel continues to illegally occupy Palestinian territory and without any outline of negotiations, Hamas cannot give up on this. In his meeting two weeks ago with Hamas, Ancram asked them why the ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians broke. Hamas said that there were two different understandings of the ceasefire. Hamas thought it would entail release of prisoners while the other side thought it was re-opening of the crossings. Any ceasefire agreement needs to be on one piece of paper which should be publicly signed.

Ancram found Hamas leaders to be 'intelligent' and interested in moving forward. They were desperate to ensure transparency in the use of funds for the reconstruction of Gaza. They wanted to reconcile with the other Palestinians (PLO, Fatah, Christians, refugees in the surrounding countries, etc). They have made a proposal to set up five committees involving all these various representatives Palestinian groups. Ancram said that if Hamas is saying all this, it is important we consider it.

As for Hizbollah, this group is 'moving out of international terrorism.' 'Our' Parliament has declared them terrorists although they are part of the Lebanese Parliament. Only the U.S. and the U.K. do not recognise Hizbollah which is very unfortunate.

For the question of dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have to be part of the solution. Having declared war on them is not going to work and, we will be there forever. Who are the Taliban? It maybe a farmer or an extreme radical - it is a diverse group of people. Therefore, we have to make them part of any solution. There is a slight opening in Pakistan with the renewed interest of the U.S. in Afghanistan under the new administration.


Ancram was, unsurprisingly, bombarded with a lot of questions. When asked why the negotiations with PLO did not work, he said that it was precisely because they were formal negotiations and there was no exploratory dialogue which he believes is very important before the phase of negotiations. Dialogue cannot be rushed and relationships have to be developed during this process.

Has Ancram been sharing the information? Was he 'depressed' with the right wingers coming into Israel **? Of course, he was sharing information. It was precisely because he is freelance and that although he will respect confidentiality, he will ensure the messages are delivered to the right people. He was not really depressed with the election results in Israel because sometimes the extremes end up making the deals e.g. Nixon in China, Hizbollah and Iran. I think this was a fair point.

He really thinks that these groups are terrorists because they use acts of violence to create fear which is effectively blackmail. He was asked yet again by another audience member as to how he recognises the groups as terrorists and manages to engage with them. I don't think he really answered the question in terms of questioning the labels and definitions.

There were quite a few questions which Ancram dodged and, these were what I would call the moral, ethical questions. For instance, he is part of the Intelligence and Security Committee which has received allegations of torture under its nose. He said he could not really answer. There were questions of state terrorism and Israeli 'political terrorism' and, what he thought of that. He said that states were subject to international law and, terrorists were not. He completely fudged that. Someone even asked him about putting Blair on trial and wouldn't terrorism be reduced if the West stopped interfering in the world? That was a very general lament rather than a statement but needless to say, a lot of the audience was fumbling with definitions of terrorism and, if states, powerful states commit acts of aggression, why is that not labeled terrorism?

Another question asked him about imposing Western solutions on the Middle East instead of supporting regional solutions. He completely agreed with that and said, that Qatar was coming up on the scene. He made reference to the Baker - Hamilton Report which was 'put in the bucket.' ***

Ancram really stressed the fact that we have to deal and engage with terrorist groups. He said he realised how interesting things had become when sunni Hamas was talking to shiia Iran.

Someone asked whether Northern Ireland worked because of 9-11. Ancram said to some extent it did because IRA realised it could not 'sell' terrorism any longer (although the process was quite advanced as it was with the Good Friday Agreement for instance). There are irreconcilable narratives of Israel and Hamas however it was same case with the IRA which wanted all of Ireland. It is possible to move forward and come to a common ground.

Some dopey old guy said that it seemed that Ancram was actually speaking on behalf of the terrorists. Also, why was he saying 'we' can't defeat terrorists? Did 'we' not beat the French, the Germans, the Malaysians, Cambodians? I don't know whether he's Queen Victoria's father or Churchill's cousin, but he sure sounded like a British Empire looney. Likewise, Ancram took care of him in an appropriate manner.

End Note

Overall, it was a very useful talk. I think the main thing we can really take away from this is the fact that in conflict resolution and peacemaking process, we have to have all the elements and actors on board, even if they are condemned as terrorists by the international community. If certain actors are part of the landscape - be it political or social - they have to be engaged with by the international community.

The other thing that can be appreciated is that Westerners who speak like this and, represent more reasonable and realistic views are helping to humanise a so-called evil phenomemon, terribly wicked individuals. The so-called enemy we are talking about is not a monster but actually human beings. Moreover, in humanising these individuals we also end up humanising the culture, religion and places they come from because let's face it, it is not terrorists only but Muslims and Arabs in general who have also suffered in this war on terror.

I am really glad I attended this talk as I am very interested in terrorism/the war on terror. It is probably the defining global agenda of our generation (poverty reduction and saving the environment are also part of it but not so divisive or destructive) and as a Muslim, even more so.

I asked a few of the people I met - some Pakistanis I keep running into - of what they thought of the talk. Everyone agreed the guy made a lot of sense and more or less right. I met someone from the Pakistan High Commission and the Sudanese High Commission as well. What Muslims and I imagine many others would argue should be addressed or rectified is the language - who and what is a terrorist and who is 'we'?

In the VCD class reading I have come across, some writers argue that to understand violence and conflict in context, we have to understand the culture of violence and place it in a social context. Violence is among others a social project for example; its actors are social actors, its mechanism are social institutions. I think this might actually be relevant in analysing and conceptualising terrorism other than just a political struggle. I am planning on tackling the 'Who becomes a terrorist and why' for my second essay which is due on 2 March. Yikes!

* I do not believe Israel has the right to exist. It has no historical case, no moral case, nada. Does this make me a terrorist? So, who is a terrorist? Someone who takes his or her beliefs to an extreme practical application? Or someone who genuinely believes in a cause or represents a group of people or grievance that has no other political alternatives?
**Right wing and Israel - seriously - what's the difference?
*** According to Wikipedia, it is a 2006 Iraq Study Group report mandated by the US Congress.

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