Fringe Groups at Edge of Talks

What to do with groups whose tactics or ideology makes them unacceptable?

My experiences as a peace practitioner, across many decades, have taught me to move towards engagement with such groups.  

[Author's note in 2024:  I wrote this post in 2017.  Now of course, we have multiple current parallels scattered around the world, each with its own complex dynamics.   Rather than update the piece, I leave it as written in 2017, and invite readers to ponder whether and how the principles described here apply to Israel and Hamas, Haiti and its gangs, Nigeria and Boko Haram, to mention just a few.]

In Columbia, an agreement was announced on September 26, 2016, between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending 52 years of fighting. Left out of this agreement is the National Liberation Army (ELN), a more radical and smaller insurgency whose practices have included kidnapping civilians. The ELN has refused to renounce this practice as a precondition to talks.

I have no knowledge of the details of the Columbian peace process, but I recognize this old problem as familiar. In South Africa, the Philippines, Israel/Palestine, and other large peace processes I've been close to, there is almost always at least one group like this.

Kristin Herbolzheimer of Conciliation Resources writes insightfully about how to respond in a recent post that I recommend. There are no simple answers to such situations and Herbolzheimer clearly recognizes that. But he explores reasons why ELN has been reluctant to enter fully into talks and offers useful ideas in response.

Personal experience in several big peace processes taught me that some of the most important insights essential to sustaining peace on the long-term can be had by studying the "fringe" groups. I recall here the Pan-Africanist groups at the fringes of the South African talks whose epithets were often blood-curling. Pondering their slogan "One settler, one bullet", I pretty weird going off for a workshop with regional leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress in a township of Port Elizabeth in 1990.  They had invited me, so I was pretty sure I didn't qualify as a settler.  Still I couldn't totally put away the question.

But I had no doubt by the end of the three days that engaging these folks was helpful to the overall goal of peaceful resolution of South Africa's conflict.  So much of what drove their extremism, I saw and felt, was a sense of chronic marginalization.

In Israel/Palestine, I encountered Hamas; in the Mindanao peace process in the Philippines, communist insurgencies and other groups; in India, the Naxalites.

In families, insightful family counselors have learned that often a "problem child" is a voice of serious issues in the larger family system. I've come to view fringe groups in peace processes in a similar way.  They are an expression of deep issues that are not getting the attention they deserve.

Sometimes these are vast, long-term issues like corruption, internal injustices, land, and identity; sometimes they are about badly handled process strategies that overlook or exclude certain groups. Often they are a wicked combination of the above.

Rather than ignore such groups, we are wise to make a serious effort to understand the critique and engage respectfully with those who make it. That does not mean accepting their tactics!  It simply means trying to understand the larger goals they are trying to accomplish and what dynamics are present that have caused them to adopt the tactics they deploy.

In his short piece, Herbolzheimer tries to do that with the ELN, and he offers several suggestions for the Columbian process. These include giving careful attention to public participation in the peace process, in particular to identifying and removing obstacles to involving existing structures, presumably local and regional, in public participation.

Herbolzheimer wisely warns against a common dynamic in peace processes, the tendency to create a boilerplate for secondary talks based on success at the national level. What few people understand about peace processes is that, as talks proceed, many secondary negotiations typically follow at regional and local levels. A host of related decisions have to be made once the larger framework is in place. Herbolzheimer warns against too rigid a framework for these secondary talks in Columbia.

Often the issues driving extremist groups have roots in dynamics that have particular meaning and pain for ordinary people at grassroots levels. National negotiators weary of war are often out of touch with such dynamics. Or, they may know them well but be eager to complete the large national peace framework, opting to set aside certain concerns and leave them unresolved rather than hold up a national agreement.

When this happens, major problems still lie in wait for resolution later. It is important not to set in stone - from the level of a central national peace process - the framework for secondary processes that must follow. Those processes must address issues that are often staggeringly complex. They can't succeed in a straitjacket. Guiding general principles from the central level are needed, not binding rules.

Herbolzheimer also suggests adding a strategic time dimension to planning of next steps. In other words, separate out the issues requiring discussion into short, medium and long-term, and plan accordingly for each. I see this as a logical extension of the previous point: Each issue has its own time requirements for resolution. Recognizing and planning around this reality eases the tyranny of trying to squeeze all issues into one undifferentiated time frame.

I lived for 6 years in South Africa knowing that if I ever had the bad fortune of crossing paths with the wrong person from certain fringe groups in the wrong time and place, I could die. It wouldn't be personal; I would be symbolic to them of a larger evil, or seen as a necessary if regrettable sacrifice to their important cause.

That personal experience makes it easy for me to understand the deep repulsion some people feel at the mere suggestion of a sympathetic examination of such groups.

 But personal history taught me something else as well. Study of the fringes - and in some cases personal relationships with individuals I was able to form with them - has often been transformative for me. With few exceptions, such engagement deepened my understanding of the conflict, often in startling ways.

I think most peace processes would achieve more and prove more sustainable on the long-term by cultivating deep awareness of and engagement with the fringe elements that invariably lurk at their edges.