Book Review — Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace

“We were not trading arms for hostages, nor were we negotiating with terrorists”
Ronald Reagan.

Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace

Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace by Jonathan Powell is a practical look at dealing with terrorism using the historical record as an example. Powell is a British diplomat who served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff, under British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007. He was the only senior adviser to last the whole period of Blair’s leadership. During this period, Powell was also the chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland. He runs the charity Inter Mediate which works on armed conflicts around the world.Powell is currently the UK’s special envoy to Libya.

We all have heard it. Political leaders have repeated it. Hollywood loves to use it in everything from cop shows to blockbuster movies — “We do not negotiate with terrorists.” It seems to be an immutable law in contemporary international relations but is it? Even if it is, is it correct? Powell looks at several cases in the recent past. Northern Ireland, FMLN in El Salvador, Nepalese Maoists, South Africa and Mandella, Sri Lanka, and other conflicts are all included.

It must be recognized that there are several different groups with different structures and goals. The group responsible for the Japanese subway attack quickly disappeared after its leader was captured effectively ending the organization. The Maoist terrorists in Nepal became the ruling party in a democratic election, creating their own legitimacy. Groups like the PLO have stood their ground for so long they have become recognized. The PLO holds observer status at the United Nations. Other groups or opinions of groups change over time. There was a time Mandela was considered a terrorist (Reagan put Mandela and the ANC on the terrorist watch list) and bin Ladin a freedom fighter. Some groups combine others simply disappear like the Symbionese Liberation Army.

There are groups with permanence that need to be addressed. The IRA, Sri Lanka, and South Africa are prime examples where a negotiation was required. In Sri Lanka, both sides tired from the killing. South Africa was under great international pressure to end apartheid and free Mandela. The IRA was seeing very negative effects by their violence. It created a negative image for the movement rather than support. The became the oppressor and not the victim in many people’s eyes.

Perhaps the most spectacular and focused act against a government was the ETA attack on the prime minister of Spain in 1973. A bomb built under the road lifted the prime minister’s car over sixty feet in the air clearing the building it was driving past and depositing the car on the second story balcony of the inside terrace. Four decades later the ETA is asking for a negotiated settlement.

Once it decided by both sides that the violence needs to end, the real work begins. Making initial contact, when to use a mediator, when to meet face to face, what issues will be discussed, where can the meeting take place safely for both parties all come into play. Powell spends most of his words on these topics and uses the same historical cases to make his points. Not all the situations are the same and not all groups need to be negotiated with. The key to everything is building trust. Taking up arms against a system demonstrates a lack of trust and successful groups have, what they believe are, valid claims. Negotiation is not a magical moment of changing people’s long-held views, but establishing trust so that problems can be worked out peacefully through the political system. Powell explains how this is done and has been done.

Quite a remarkable book on a controversial subject. If peace is the desired outcome, fighting usually will not give that result. Bomb one terrorist group into submission, and another will rise. It will possibly be worse than the previous group as we are seeing with the rise of ISIS. It also seems that the longer we go without negotiations the less desirable the groups we are fighting become.Terrorists at the Table is a well thought out and practical guide of the problem of terrorism and what to do about it. Government’s stance on not negotiating with terrorists is like people and the speed limit law. We all know the law, but we all break it. Unlike speeding, negotiating may save lives and build a safe society.

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