The priority of governments after a terrorist attack is to ensure the safety of the population, stabilize the state, and make sure that no other attacks will follow. Debates about whether governments should enter talks with terrorists produce a lot of heat, but a unanimous decision is never reached, mainly because of the emotional aftershock of an attack.
Those arguing against negotiating with terrorists claim that democracies should never give in to violence, and that terrorists should be punished for using it. It is argued that negotiation talks would only give legitimacy to terrorists, and would undermine the political actors who have tried to reach conflict resolution through peaceful measures. And aside from weakening international efforts to reduce the incidence of terrorism, negotiations can set a dangerous precedent.
However, democratic governments often negotiate with terrorist groups. Examples include the Spanish government, which in 1988 entered talks with the separatist group ETA, only six months after the group bombed a supermarket, leading to the death of 21 people. Even the government of Israel – which is known to be mostly intolerant towards terrorism – secretly negotiated the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, even though PLO continued its terrorist attacks and refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Even so, there are hopes that talking with terrorists can have positive outcomes. The best example of how negotiations can ultimately work is that of the IRA. A major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s, the Good Friday Agreement called for the IRA ceasefire and disarmament.
Jonathan Powell, the long-term Downing Street Chief of Staff, who played a central role in the peace talks, says it is essential to secure an open line of communication with terrorists. He suggested that western governments should consider entering talks with al-Qaeda and the Taliban by applying the tactics used successfully in the Northern Ireland peace deal.
The British Foreign Office rejected his proposition, claiming that it is inconceivable for democratic governments to reach a mutual agreement with any terrorist organization.
In some cases, terrorist groups are the ones showing no interest in peace negotiations. Having won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006, it would seem that Hamas has a real incentive to make politics work. However, the terrorist group has recently rejected US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would take place, claiming that Hamas will never accept the negotiation track and its result.
Negotiations with terrorists are not an easy task. However, it is worth trying to reach a peace agreement. Most terrorist organizations are not simply involved in violent attacks for the sake of it or for personal gains. They have clear aims and hold a specific political position. They are rational actors, just as states are.
Many terrorist conflicts result from political disagreements that have been going on for years. By addressing grievances, governments can reach peace agreements with terrorists. Since governments are the more powerful side in the conflict, it is imperative that they take the lead and open up the negotiations.
By promoting peace and cooperation, rather than punishing violence, governments can reduce terrorist attacks. Negotiations with terrorists can be successful in the end, if governments strongly indicate to the terrorist groups that they have to play by democratic rules.