The go-between: how fear of failure has helped me persuade men with guns to make peace in the midst of conflict

After being approached by governments or armed groups, we begin by convincing them violence as a means to achieve goals is untenable, writes Ram Manikkalingam

Ram Manikkalingam of the International Verification Commission, announces confirmation of disarmament by Basque separatists ETA, alongside Txetx Etchevery, Mateo Zuppi, Jean Rene Etchegaray, Mitchel Tuviana and Harold Good, in Bayonne April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent West - RC15DA0299B0
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Four years ago, I was in a hideout of the Basque separatist group Eta in southern France, surrounded by explosives, revolvers, grenades and rocket launchers. I was present as the chief of the commission to verify a ceasefire and begin the group’s disarmament. It followed more than three years of difficult discussions with Eta leaders, Basque politicians and Basque civil society. We convinced Eta’s leaders that clinging to weapons was going to help neither themselves nor the Basque people.

The Basque peace process was unilateral; Madrid made no concessions to Eta in exchange for disarmament. Our efforts concluded last year in Bayonne in the French Basque region, where I accepted and certified Eta’s disarmament in the presence of the mayor of Bayonne, the Archbishop of Bologna and the Bishop of the Methodist Church of Ireland. Eta informed us where their arms caches were located, information we passed on to the French authorities, who then removed the weapons.

Two weeks ago, Eta themselves announced their disbanding in a statement read out by the director of the Henri Dunant Centre in Geneva, our partner in the effort. So ended a process of more than a dozen years, quietly and without violence and fanfare.

It was just one example of the tireless work of the Dialogue Advisory Group (DAG), which I founded, to get men with guns to make peace in the midst of violent conflict.

Although we are funded by the governments of Germany, Finland, Ireland, Lichtenstein, The Netherlands and Norway, we neither solicit nor accept funds from states with direct interests in the conflicts we work on. Sometimes we approach governments and armed groups – usually they approach us. We then begin by convincing separatists and rebels that using violence as a means to achieve goals is untenable.

I got involved with the Basque process in July 2011, when, as the director of DAG, I was asked to verify Eta’s ceasefire declared earlier that year. DAG, which is based in Amsterdam, facilitates political dialogue between governments and rebel groups to reduce violence, working in Libya, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other places.

I founded DAG out of frustration with my own failures to bring peace to my own country, Sri Lanka. I was the chief advisor to former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga during peace talks with the Tamil Tigers. Ms Kumaratunga’s presidency ended and a new president with a different policy was elected. The Tamil Tigers were defeated through bloody battle and we Sri Lankans are still struggling with the fallout.

DAG was based on hard lessons from this experience – not the lessons of success that the negotiators in Northern Ireland or Colombia can draw on to tell people how to make peace. Rather, I had learned the lessons of failure: I could tell people what not to do if they wanted peace. DAG does precisely this.

Surprisingly, there were plenty of takers for such an approach. Governments and rebels – tired of being preached to by well-meaning outsiders – appreciated the humility of advice on how to avoid failure, not assure success. This gave them more space to experiment with efforts better suited to their particular situation.

Our work in peace dialogue has also involved other major lessons about formal conflict interventions. There has been a surge in demand for dialogue across divides, particularly in the Middle East. Conflicts that emerged from the Arab Spring – in Syria, Libya and Yemen – cried out for solutions but measures to sanction and criminalise armed groups offer limited options for official actors.

The UN, the US and EU put armed groups on terrorist lists. The emergence of groups clearly targeting civilians, like Al Qaeda and later ISIS, further weakened the possibility of dialogue. Official mediators either cannot meet these groups due to political pressure, diplomatic constraints or legal sanctions, or are vulnerable to physical threats when they do so.

International peace efforts usually assume that conflicts divide a state and a rebel armed group, when in fact most conflicts involve multiple actors fighting alongside, and sometimes against, each other, blurring the distinction between the state and an armed group.

As a private actor with fewer political or diplomatic constraints, we can explore precisely those gaps left by an official process and complexities of fragmented groups and factions. We talk to and engage the very armed actors who are diplomatically and politically shunned by the UN and western governments but whose co-operation is required for reducing violence and stabilising a conflict.

For example, we have been working in Libya since 2015, when the country divided into two politically opposed regions – the east under military commander Khalifa Haftar and the west under the Islamist-led General National Congress (GNC) government.

As armed groups affiliated with the GNC took over Tripoli and the security situation began to deteriorate, the UN, western diplomats and NGOs involved in diplomatic efforts stopped visiting. We began engaging disparate armed groups in Tripoli and Misrata, whose links were religious, regional and local, to explore their demands and lure them away from fighting.

That contact paid off in April 2016 when we helped forge a simple bargain between the UN and Islamist armed groups in and around Tripoli. We worked with the UN to get them to stop opposing the political agreement violently and instead express their opposition politically.

DAG has also been working in Kirkuk, Iraq, for several years. We have been managing a discussion on Kirkuk's status, disputed by the Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities. We maintained dialogue among leaders of all three communities throughout Iraq's multiple conflicts.

In February this year, I chaired a meeting in the Iraqi parliament that brought together Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen leaders from Kirkuk after clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, following the Kurdish referendum on independence. The leaders agreed to hold provincial elections in Kirkuk for the first time in more than a dozen years.

Despite tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, we met military and political leaders from all sides. This is a practical approach, based less on ideological and geopolitical positions than on exploring with key actors how moving towards stability can be good for all concerned.

For example, Eta was fighting for a separate Basque state. We argued every killing and every violent threat they made only took them farther away from their goal.

We then argued other options were available. Their goal could and should be pursued by non-violent means like Sinn Fein or even the Basque Nationalist Party closer to home.

We avoid dismissing political or military leaders as evil. Rather, we condemn their actions when they intensify violence or attack ordinary civilians. Our work of talking peace with armed actors is premised on the possibility of their personal transformation, away from deploying violence and towards pursuing politics to achieve goals.

We are a small independent foundation with a dynamic international team. We have no official status and cannot bring political, monetary or armed power to bear on an individual, a group or a government if they fail to reach agreement. This weakness, paradoxically, facilitates our engagement in conflicts.

Governments permit us to explore contacts and engage with rebels, precisely because we have no official status. Even if our contacts and message-carrying are exposed, governments can deny our role – even condemn our efforts as unhelpful, unnecessary and unsanctioned, officially. 

And where our role might be hard to deny, our engagement as a small private actor gives no status to an armed rebel group.

Armed rebels are also not threatened by our presence. Unlike the UN or a powerful state, disagreements we might have with an armed group will not lead to sanctions or pressure so both states and rebels permit us to explore dialogue, even in situations where they would baulk at doing so. And in a dialogue, we are only left with arguments – political, moral and practical – to achieve peace.

Ultimately, we have to rely on the goodwill of the parties and our wits to achieve a settlement. It is precisely this weakness that is our strength.

Talk is cheap while peace is priceless. Indeed, talking peace may rarely lead to results. But the cost of talking peace is very small while the benefit of achieving it is incalculable, making it irrational not to try.

When a small unofficial actor engages in such talk, the political costs of failure to all sides are reduced still further. In this world, where states and armed groups are reaching for their drones, we remind them to also deploy their diplomats.

We believe talking is not only the radical solution – it is also the rational one.

Dr Ram Manikkalingam is director of the Dialogue Advisory Group and teaches politics at the University of Amsterdam. Previously he advised the president of Sri Lanka on talks with the Tamil Tigers and the Rockefeller Foundation on its peace and security programme