Accord 16, published four years after 9/11, made a strong case for contact with armed groups to become the policy norm in efforts to end armed conflicts. Ten years on, governments are still reluctant to allow space for engagement, and discussion of how to reach and influence armed groups constructively has been limited.
The reasons identified in Accord 16 for such reticence still apply – fear of legitimising violence or giving credibility to unreasonable or non-negotiable demands. Framing non-state armed action as terrorist and criminal remains the norm, while the number of armed groups prohibited through international terrorist listings has increased: Marieke de Goede estimated in 2011 that there were 214 proscribed armed groups worldwide.
The space for non-governmental organisations (NGOs – local, national and international) to contact armed groups for conflict resolution or humanitarian purposes has also shrunk. The US Supreme Court ruling of 2010, Holder vs Humanitarian Law Project,made it illegal to provide “expert advice”, “services” or “training in human rights enforcement or peaceful conflict resolution” to armed groups that are listed as foreign terrorist organisations. As the US law is extra-territorial it also applies to non-Americans. This ruling has produced a “chill factor” internationally, discouraging unofficial contact with listed armed groups. Even humanitarian organisations, which are usually afforded greater operational space, find their room for manoeuvre restrained.
At the same time, groups previously considered “beyond the pale”, such as the Afghan Taliban and the FARC, are today accepted as participants in political dialogue. The listing of the Taliban alongside al-Qaeda under UNSC Resolution 1267 in 1999 was one of many security and military tools used by the international community to try to disrupt and defeat the group. Yet, as the limits of military intervention in Afghanistan have become increasingly apparent, recognition of the need to talk to the Taliban has gained ground. The UNSC Resolution was amended in June 2011 to separate the Taliban and al-Qaeda lists and facilitate dialogue. However, the international community has no clear criteria to indicate under what conditions an armed group will be acceptable for political dialogue.
Accord 16 offered concrete indicators for whether political engagement with an armed group is feasible, including whether it holds territory, has political institutions or agendas, or derives profit from the war economy. It further highlighted the need to think creatively about, and develop a more sophisticated understanding of, engagement options. Talking to and negotiating with an armed group are not the same thing. Talking can simply mean establishing contact and can be a means to understand an armed group, including its dynamics and motivations. It can involve an exchange of concerns and positions and can help to judge whether other forms of engagement are warranted. Negotiating assumes and requires mutual commitment to reaching an agreement through dialogue and bargaining.
There are many options along the spectrum between talking and negotiating. While Accord 16 reflected on how humanitarian dialogue, for example, can facilitate broader contact, there has been little in-depth exploration of how armed groups are nudged into sustained and serious political engagement. This Accord Insight hopes to shed light on the local interactions with armed groups that often take place before formal talks are considered.