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How listing armed groups as terrorists hurts negotiations

"Proscribing peace is the first book to take a systematic look at the impact of proscription on peace negotiations based on deep empirical research. With rare access to actors during the Colombian negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army (FARC for its Spanish acronym), the book argues that proscription has made pre-negotiations harder and more prolonged.

The book critically revisits and extends central concepts of the pre-negotiation literature: vilification, symmetry and ripeness. It develops a new concept, the ‘linguistic ceasefire’, to understand how negotiations still take place in an age of proscription. The ‘linguistic ceasefire’ has three main components: 1) recognize the conflict, 2) drop the ‘terrorist’ label and 3) uncouple the act and the actor. It removes the symbolic impact of proscription, even if de-listing is not possible ahead of negotiations.

With relevance for more than half of the conflicts around the world in which an armed group is listed as a terrorist organisation, this concept can help explain why certain conflicts remain stuck in the ‘terrorist’ framing while others emerge from it. International proscription regimes criminalise both the actor and the act of terrorism. The book calls for an end to this amalgamation between acts and actors. By focussing on the acts instead, international policy would be better able to consider the violent actions both of armed groups and those of the state. By separating the act and the actor, change -- and thus peace -- become possible.

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Sophie Haspeslagh

A logical result of the swift increase in the listing of armed groups as ‘terrorist organisations’ following 9/11 would have been a reduction in the number of settlements negotiated with these targets of proscription. Instead, peace negotiations have continued. The introduction explores this puzzle and argues that there is little understanding of how international proscription affects negotiations and peace processes, and in particular how it affects the process by which conflict parties get to the negotiation table. The chapter draws on conflict and peace literature and critical terrorism studies to situate the book in on-going debates and clarify the terminology used. It goes on to lay out the research design and methodology. The chapter concludes by highlighting the book’s overall argument and giving an overview of the different chapters.

in Proscribing peace
A short history of international proscription
Sophie Haspeslagh

Chapter 1 argues that 9/11 and the passing of UN Security Resolution 1373 was a turning point that embedded proscription regimes deeply in the international system. The global reframing of a whole range of protracted armed conflicts as wars against terrorists has affected local conflict dynamics and their possible resolution. As the chapter goes on to explain, this shift did not emerge overnight and there were a number of antecedent concepts that laid the ground for it, but it was the first UN Resolution to invoke the right to self-defence (Article 51 of Chapter VII) against a non-state armed group.

in Proscribing peace
Material and symbolic effects
Sophie Haspeslagh

Chapter 2 describes the main international proscription regimes, their characteristics, commonalities and differences. It delves into the previous work published on proscription. After describing the possible material and symbolic effects of proscription, it turns to exploring how the different actors will be impacted.

in Proscribing peace
The importance of the ‘linguistic ceasefire’
Sophie Haspeslagh

Chapter 3 sets out an analytical framework to explore how the international listing of armed groups as ‘terrorists’ might affect the process through which conflict parties get to the negotiation table. Drawing mainly on the peace and conflict literature, the chapter then details the three key dynamics that are needed for conflict parties to start negotiating: 1) moving from vilification to de-vilification; 2) moving from asymmetry to establishing a perception of symmetry; 3) perceiving a mutually hurting stalemate and the need to seek a way out. Revisiting the key concepts in turn, the chapter assesses how proscription might affect these central processes.

in Proscribing peace
Sophie Haspeslagh

Chapter 4 explores the processes of vilification and de-vilification by mapping and analysing the representations each conflict party – the Colombian government and the FARC – made of the other over a 20-year period. The chapter examines the language used, the associations made and how that evolved over time during two pre-negotiation phases leading up to the Caguán and Havana negotiations. The chapter argues that before proscription, each conflict party was able to react to opportunities fluidly and shift language accordingly. Following proscription, de-vilification gets stickier as altering characterisations becomes harder and takes more time. This is especially true of the government, which, having vilified its opponent in an extreme way, cannot simply switch directly to de-vilification. First it has to normalise its vilification – a concept described as a ‘linguistic ceasefire’.

in Proscribing peace
Sophie Haspeslagh

The chapter takes a perceptive understanding of power and delves into how each party perceived the shifts in their status and resources. Drawing on interview data, it explores how proscription affected the nature of the asymmetry and how this asymmetry was adjusted during the two pre-negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. It assesses how proscription shifted the multiple sources of power at the disposal of the government and the armed group. The chapter argues that international proscription sharply heightened the power of the government and shifted the burden of proof to the proscribed armed group in such a way that they were effectively asked to surrender.

in Proscribing peace
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Sophie Haspeslagh

There is a prevalent understanding that the Colombian government and the FARC got to the negotiation table in Havana because the FARC were cornered and so weak they had no other option – that military defeat forced them to the negotiation table. Proscription, the logic would go, played a key part in this by weakening the armed group. However, a closer look at these dynamics through the lens of ripeness shows a different picture. While proscription undeniably weakened the FARC, the chapter shows that by bolstering the government to such an extent it also prevented it from perceiving a mutually hurting stalemate. Moreover, proscription also worked against ripeness by blocking the way out – neither the government nor the FARC have a political exit to the armed confrontation. The chapter goes on to explore how these challenges were overcome by going back to the concept of the ‘linguistic ceasefire’. It adds the idea of the ‘political landing strip’, which highlights the innovative roles played by international and local actors despite proscription.

in Proscribing peace
Sophie Haspeslagh

Chapter 7 brings together the analysis of the three empirical chapters by assessing the overall impact of proscription on the dynamics of getting to the table in the case of Colombia. It goes on to assess the lingering effects of proscription throughout the negotiation process and in the post agreement phase. It argues that the intense polarisation and stigmatisation accompanying the terrorist framing still remained an issue for the ongoing transition of the listed armed group into political life and for longer-term reconciliation efforts in Colombia.

in Proscribing peace
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Proscribing peace
Sophie Haspeslagh

The book concludes by reflecting on the contribution of this research to understand other cases of negotiations with armed groups listed as terrorist organisation as well as implications for policy. It argues that international proscription makes pre-negotiations longer and more protracted, in effect reshaping how peace processes can be initiated. International proscription regimes criminalise both the actor and the act of terrorism. The chapter calls for an end to this amalgamation between acts and actors. By focussing on the acts instead, international policy would be better able to consider the violent actions both of armed groups and those of the state.

in Proscribing peace