Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Terrorist Kidnappings: Why Don't We Negotiate?

 UN Security Council Chamber by Patrick Gruban

On Monday the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning kidnapping by terrorist and calling for an end to appeasing terrorists through ransom payments or political concessions. UK Ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said of the resolution, "it is... imperative that we take steps to ensure that kidnap for ransom is no longer perceived as a lucrative business model and that we eliminate it as a source of terrorist financing." The resolution does not create any new legal obligations but it does call on Member States to encourage the private sector to adopt relevant guidelines and good practices for responding to terrorist kidnappings without paying ransoms. 

I can understand why the UN would want to adopt such a measure; the UN estimates that Islamist extremist groups have garnered $105 million in ransom money in the last three and a half years. Starving terrorist groups of this source of income would presumably have a significant impact on their operations. And yet I have my doubts regarding this resolution.

The most obvious flaw of the resolution is that no one actually knows whether or not cutting ransom payments will be an effective strategy at countering terrorist activity. For decades, the western, liberal democracies have been staunchly following the creed that we should not negotiate with terrorists for fear of encouraging further terrorism. But terrorist activity persists and no one actually knows whether refusing to negotiate with terrorists has done anything to curtail terrorist attacks. Non-negotiation is not necessarily the best strategy, it's just that we can't think of anything else to do. 

In his book, Globalisation and War, Barkawi argues that a refusal to negotiate with terrorists simply creates a spiral of terrorist attack and harsh reprisal which de-legitimises negotiation and compromise and inspires more violence. Barkawi suggests instead that to counter terror, an effective strategy requires a combination of political and coercive means. Engagement and compromise with those the terrorists claim to represent whittles away at the legitimacy of terror, undermining the incentive to carry out terrorist attacks. We need a softer, 'hearts and minds' approach to terrorism.

A second reservation I have towards this resolution is that it shifts the balance of responsibility away from governments and international bodies and towards the unfortunate individuals who face the horrific decision of whether they should fund terrorists or leave their loved ones to suffer in captivity. It seems unfair that those taken as hostages, and their friends and family back home, are left to suffer at the hands of terrorists because national governments and international organisations can't think of a better method to counter terrorism.

Barkawi may not be correct. Maybe negotiation, compromise and dialogue will do nothing to stop terrorist activity. But I don't think that we should just blindly follow the same policy that we have pursued for years, to little effect, without at least considering alternatives.

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