May 2015

Local populations living in conflict zones often bear the brunt of armed violence. But they are not simply passive victims – their relationships with armed groups are much more complex, and can offer opportunities for building peace. A new Conciliation Resources’ publication Local engagement with armed groups: in the midst of violence, looks at how communities have been able to influence the behaviour of armed groups away from violence.

“While states are weighing up whether and how to engage, populations living alongside armed groups may already be in contact”.

Sophie Haspeslagh, Accord Insight Specialist Editor

Providing unique entry points to dialogue

Community engagement with armed groups can create entry points for peacebuilding when more conventional paths are blocked. Local civil society often undertakes and sustains contact with armed groups when no-one else will. Such efforts can support or provide an alternative to more formal mediation processes.

“Pioneers of peace talks with armed groups are often figures from communities affected by violence.”

Michael Semple, Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Queen’s University Belfast

The publication draws on examples from Colombia, northern Uganda, Syria and Northern Ireland to examine how communities reach out to and talk with members of armed groups.

Syria case study authors, Wisam Elhamoui and Sinan al-Hawat, state, “As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, it is important not to lose sight of the significant roles played by unarmed, non-state actors to develop structures for promoting local security and peace”.

Talking is not negotiating

Governments are still reluctant to allow space for such engagement. And where they have embarked on political talks with armed groups, for example the IRA in Northern Ireland, FARC in Colombia or the Afghan Taliban, the criteria for doing so has been unclear.

Yet, talking to and negotiating with an armed group are not the same thing – talking does not necessarily confer legitimacy. It can simply mean establishing contact, and can be a means to understand an armed group, including its dynamics and motivations. It is vital to open and maintain channels of communication with armed groups, to allow possibilities for a peaceful end to conflict.

It is hoped this new publication will contribute to the debate on how and why to ‘talk to’ armed groups, and highlight the possibilities for peace in the midst of violence.