Talking to Armed Rebels

The number of armed conflicts around the world has increased significantly over the past decade, and with it the number of violent non-state actors fighting each other. One way to permanently resolve such conflicts is mediation, a recognized means of finding an agreement accepted by all sides. But what are the limits of mediation? Should mediators also talk to non-state armed groups? At the 2019 Munich Security Conference, experts discussed this question at the invitation of the Robert Bosch Stiftung on the panel, "Crossing Red Lines: Talking to Armed Groups."

Robert Bosch Stiftung | February 2019
MSC 2019 Podium

Among the participants invited by the Foundation (from left): David Harland, Jennifer Welsh, Ghassan Salamé, and Ine Eriksen Søreide.

Mediation, i.e. the facilitation of dialogue through neutral third parties in peace processes, has been recognized for years as a means of lasting conflict resolution, which contributes to the creation of long-term agreements accepted by all sides in many crises. Including non-state armed groups in such negotiations is a particular challenge. The number of armed conflicts has increased dramatically over the past decade, and with it also the number of conflict parties involved. In fact, in two out of three conflicts, more than two parties are fighting each other.

"We accept this risk of failure"

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, experts discussed this development and the associated risks for multilateral, state, and private mediators on the panel, "Crossing Red Lines: Talking to Armed Groups." Among the participants invited by the Robert Bosch Stiftung was Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide. Speaking to around 70 guests, she confirmed that her country actively supports mediation as an instrument for conflict transformation: "We are willing to fail. We know that most efforts, most likely, will fail. Peace diplomacy is high risk and Norway accepts this risk of failure." Even if mediation fails, the attempt is not in vain, as it often establishes a starting point for future negotiations, Søreide stressed.

The UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary General to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, emphasized the timing of talks, also with armed groups, as a crucial ingredient for the success of mediation efforts. "It’s difficult to rewrite history, but if we did, we could ask in many cases, how much countries have paid for it taking so much time before speaking to armed groups." If contact is made only in an acute crisis, it is often too late to prevent violence on a larger scale. Existing communication channels and the establishment of trust are therefore crucial, Salamé said.

"Speak to everyone without whom peace cannot be reached"

The experts in Munich unanimously rejected the assumption of many actors in conflicts that the simple act of starting negotiations with non-state armed groups would legitimize these groups. David Harland, Director of the non-governmental Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, pointed out that behind the scenes every mediator speaks to armed groups: "If you are speaking to some armed groups and not to others, you need to ask, what are the criteria for this decision. Most often, utility is the key criterion: If you cannot solve a problem by military means alone and you need to talk, you must speak to everyone without whom peace cannot be reached."

With regard to Libya, Special Representative Salamé outlined the seemingly hopeless situation: Whilst the groups involved in the conflict often cause widespread instability, in some regions these same groups offer a source of security and stability where the state has failed. Similarly,  the separation between state and non-state actors is not really clear: "Often you have clashes between two armed groups that are both on the government payroll," explained Salamé. Naturally, this situation causes problems, because although the state may bankroll these groups, they take their orders from militias. In Libya, too, it is evident that civil war is the ideal breeding ground for terrorist organizations. "When you have civil war and armed groups fighting each other, it is the best environment for terrorist groups to grow. But when you want to defeat terrorist organizations, you rely on armed groups to fight them."

Based on his experiences with Libya, Mr. Salamé called for cooperation rather than competition between multilateral organizations, state actors, and private mediators in peace processes.

Among the participants engaged in the lively discussion were Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; Geir O. Pedersen, UN Special Envoy for Syria; Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj; and Michael Keating, former UN Special Representative for Somalia.