Initial engagements are not only about securing the armed group's entry, but involve the very nature and details of the peace process itself. Such negotiations involve establishing the role of the third party. Building trust in the process involves building trust in the mediator. Due to the intrigue and manoeuvering involved in establishing the Burundi talks, the Tanzanian facilitation team was on the back foot throughout the process.
Pre-negotiations: Rules and arrangements
The range of process issues that can be pre-negotiated is extensive and the more that is agreed the smaller the list of potential flash points that might threaten the process later. Such issues include: decision-making formulae at the talks; the extent and nature of representation of the parties at the talks; important logistical questions such as the venue and transport; the powers and role of the third party; the removal of pre-conditions to the talks; time frames; rules of procedure, etc. A comprehensive negotiation of these process issues with an armed group is also a form of preparation for the substantive talks to come.
Negotiating a peace process 'road map' can provide both clarity and confidence in the direction and trajectory of the peace process. In South Africa it was only after the conclusion of an agreement on such a road map (in a memorandum of understanding between the South African government and the ANC) that negotiations proper were able to commence. The failure to negotiate a road map at the outset in Sri Lanka has seen that process stranded in a state of uncertainty.
An issue that may have disproportionate importance in the discussion of negotiation arrangements with armed groups is the equality of treatment and status of the parties. Whilst state parties are sometimes loathe to accord full and equal status to non-state parties and armed groups, the very process of engaging across a negotiating table is itself an equalising mechanism. However, sensitivities over equality may mean symbolic issues such as the number of bodyguards participants may bring, the motor vehicles they use, their hotel rooms and other issues of formal status may have more importance than might seem warranted to an outsider. There are also key issues of asymmetry between state parties and armed groups that need to be addressed, such as access to resources, finances and expertise, securing visas for travel, and any perception of inferior treatment in the process.
One reason why an armed group may be loath to enter into a peace process is the fear that it may not succeed in some critical issues in the negotiations. Certain assurances can provide confidence in the process and security to an armed group: for example, pre-agreeing some outcomes that affect neither party's bottom lines. Typically, 'binding fundamental principles' might govern the conduct of the parties during the transition, the outcome of any constitution-making process down the line, or simply guarantee the rights of minorities in a post-conflict society. Such binding principles were critical in South Africa and Namibia.
Agreeing on confidentiality, transparency and inclusivity
The mediator should ensure mutual clarity on rules of confidentiality so that the parties do not leak information about the process to secure certain off-the-table advantages. Breaches of confidentiality have frequently scuppered peace processes before they have started (for example the talks between the National Council for the Defence of Democracy and the Burundian government in Rome, 1998). Party-to-party engagement is generally best conducted in an atmosphere of candour and confidentiality. Yet failure to provide a measure of transparency on the substance of the talks can lead to disinformation and suspicion about the nature of the deals being struck between political elites. It is thus necessary for the mediator to balance the need for confidentiality within the process and transparency about it.
The conduct of the media, and the parties' use of it, can have an important effect on the overall negotiating environment: belligerent war talk, continued propaganda and disinformation can sour the atmosphere. The mediator can offer to regulate information about the peace process itself, and may raise the need to agree on rules regarding each party's approach to the media. It is also critical for the parties to be aware that there are multiple audiences on whom public statements may have quite different effects. Triumphalist reporting of negotiations to supporters may affect the constituency of the negotiating partner and undermine the capacity to keep to agreed compromises. While the participants at the table may allow some space to either side to 'talk up' the fruits of their participation, this may not be understood so strategically by the other's rank and file (as in Northern Ireland). In this regard media releases should address the sensitivities or insecurities of persons who are not at the table but who may have a critical role in destabilising the peace process.
In the interest of a durable and sustainable peace agreement the mediator should endeavour to point out the need for inclusivity especially in regard to any long-term political or constitutional implications of the agreement which affect people and groups not represented at the talks. It is not the mediator's duty to represent unrepresented parties, but for the durability and workability of the outcome of the peace process, a third party may raise the need for inclusivity in the processes and/or institutions created by the peace process. It is unclear whether the Norwegian facilitators did enough to persuade the government to adopt a bipartisan approach to the Sri Lankan talks. In any event, the absence of such an inclusive approach is the principal problem the process now faces.