Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

Lessons for Negociating with Armed Groups for an End to the Use of Child Soldiers

by Aaron Griffiths and Sarah Wheeler, Conciliation Resources [1], Coalition to End the Use of Child Soldiers newsletter, #14, Winter 2005/06

For example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been accused of extensive recruitment of child soldiers, yet from its perspective the threatened use of international sanctions on these grounds looks like state bias. LTTE advisors complain that the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which it is not a party to and thus claims not to be legally bound by) gives more scope for states to recruit under 18 year olds than non-state groups, while there is no provision for what it sees itself as: a national liberation movement and a de facto government.

“…With whom are you going to discuss a conflict if you don’t discuss it with the people who are involved in the conflict, who have caused the conflict from the beginning, and who are still engaged in trying to kill each other?”

(Former US President Jimmy Carter, President of the Carter Center, February 2005) [2]

Underlying Jimmy Carter’s response to the question of why he believes that it is necessary, as an intermediary, to talk to non-state armed groups are two important points about violent armed conflict. First, that armed groups are key actors in many of today’s internal armed conflicts, and secondly, that dialogue is an effective way to address the problem. Indeed, when conflicts end it is not usually the result of military victory or the re-drawing of international borders, but of a negotiated political agreement reached after years of painstaking dialogue, often beginning with long periods of discreet talks.

However, Carter’s clear-cut reasoning is frequently resisted by governments or security forces unwilling to “reward” those who have resorted to violence against sovereign states or elected governments.

Yet if we are committed to ending violent conflicts and the use of child soldiers, protecting civilians and promoting democracy, there is little choice but to explore how we can best engage with non-state armed groups.

The following reflections on this challenge are drawn from a new publication by Conciliation Resources, Choosing to engage: armed groups and peace processes, and broadly reflect four key lessons:

1)  There is a case for more engagement with armed groups.

2)  There are a multitude of engagement options and third party roles, and humanitarian and peacemaking interventions can usefully complement each other.

3) The importance of a greater understanding of armed groups and their decision-making.

4)  Creative thinking is needed to overcome obstacles to engaging armed groups.

The case for broader and better engagement

Armed conflicts are often an expression of real or perceived political, social or economic exclusion, or the result of poorly addressed historical grievances. Exclusively military responses to armed opposition fuel antagonism and further violence, resulting in civilian casualties, entrenching violence as the currency of political exchange and strengthening hardliners on all sides.

Many commentators recognize this situation in Chechnya for example, where the Russian government’s own “war on terrorism” stands accused of undermining the debilitated political leadership of the “Chechen resistance”. This strengthens Chechen support for the more extreme elements of the armed opposition who adopt terrorist tactics that proactively target innocent civilians.

Strategic and principled engagement with armed groups can lead to improved understanding of the root causes of conflict, identify the obstacles to settlement, and pinpoint possible ways forward. Far from “rewarding” armed groups with talks, engagement can draw upon a broad menu of dynamic and context-specific options which identify who is best placed to engage with armed groups, when, and how.

Understanding armed groups

An important lesson emerging from the experience of both peacemakers and humanitarian agencies is that to engage effectively with armed groups it is necessary to understand them. This requires more than intelligence reports. An understanding of their constituency of support, relationship with criminal networks, views about violence, internal dynamics, experience of past peace initiatives and their adversaries’ characteristics is required. It is also important to understand how and why these characteristics change over time and how outsiders and evolving circumstances, including state behaviour, can influence this process.

It is also necessary to understand how such groups make strategic choices about when and whether to engage in talks. Conflict resolution expert Clem McCartney argues that strategic shifts occur because the balance of arguments at any one time favours the analysis of one or other group within the armed movement. He imagines a weighing scale with factors tending either towards militancy or towards a desire to transform violent conflict. “Militancy” factors include a “council of despair”, a perceived need to avoid compromise, distrust in a peace process and the need to avoid internal splits. “Conflict transformation” factors include a framework for possible outcomes, the need for legitimacy and recognition, the capacity to manage the inevitable risks, a scenario of mutual dependence, safety guarantees and third party mediation.

Such an in-depth understanding can be gained from a variety of intermediaries. The nature, depth and quality of their interaction with an armed group, both direct and indirect, will affect the quality of the information obtained. An in-depth understanding of an armed group is an essential pre-requisite for developing an engagement strategy, and assists in the identification of entry points. Potential intermediaries need to predicate their engagement on a detailed analysis of the issues, actors and arenas that present the clearest opportunities for successful engagement.

Diverse third-party roles

Third parties can play a variety of roles aside from direct mediation, such as assisting in the process of understanding armed groups, building the willingness of armed groups to participate in dialogue, or simply keeping lines of communication open. Even during particularly “hot” phases in a conflict, informal intermediaries can maintain discreet contacts with elements of armed groups who are open to dialogue. These forms of low-key engagement can allow intermediaries to explore options for future engagement without being seen to confer undue legitimacy.

Trusted intermediaries may need to work exclusively with a group to help them understand and review their engagement options, enable them to engage more effectively in political negotiations, and act as a “translator” of meanings between protagonists. Such work can complement the efforts of other third parties who may be well placed to convene dialogue between belligerents. In Sierra Leone, for example, sustained personal contacts between members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and members of the Civil Society Movement and the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone helped bring the RUF to the negotiating table at Lomé.

The involvement of third parties in engagement efforts presents a variety of risks, as they do not always conduct themselves responsibly or accountably. Where there are too many groups working confusion may occur, and not everyone is well-placed to engage on all issues at all times. Good coordination and communication are required to minimize these risks, avoid damaging contradictions between engagement initiatives, and take advantage of the potential, where it exists, for different roles to complement each other.

Humanitarian engagement

Engagement with armed groups on humanitarian, development and relief issues outside the context of full political negotiations can be – aside from achieving humanitarian objectives – a confidence-building measure when more explicit political and security issues are too contentious to address. However, there is the risk that humanitarian goals are used as a tool for conflict resolution purposes, or that all parties to the conflict can derive political capital from being seen to uphold humanitarian norms or alleviate suffering while at the same time postponing serious efforts to resolve the conflict.

Third parties concerned primarily with humanitarian issues need to consider the political context and implications of their interventions. The international NGO Geneva Call has grappled with this challenge in its global efforts to secure the agreement of 27 armed groups to ban the use of antipersonnel mines and adhere to humanitarian norms through a Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action (see article by Geneva Call in this Newsletter).  Many other actors in the humanitarian and human rights field are also exploring new ways of engagement with armed groups and possible guidelines for good practice.

A key challenge for all third parties is to recognize the likely impact of institutional interests on the dynamics of engagement with armed groups. A third party who comes to an engagement initiative with a clear set of humanitarian goals (and interests) will need to consider different ways of engagement to an intervener who is concerned to promote conciliation between parties without taking a specific position on the outcome of such a process. In many situations, experience seems to indicate that clarity on the boundaries of roles is essential to building trust between any of the parties. However, situations do arise where humanitarian actors may find that their engagement initiatives with an armed group can generate momentum towards and trust in their assuming a broader role. The opportunities posed by such success must, however, be balanced against the risks associated with a blurring of lines of responsibility and interest.

Overcoming the barriers to engagement

In order for third parties to work effectively, policymakers need to guard against actions that entrench the unequal capacities and opportunities that make armed conflicts particularly difficult to resolve, and find ways to counteract the uneven abilities of different parties to engage.

For example, anti-terrorist legislation placing restrictions on the movement of people associated with armed opposition groups can undermine opportunities for peacemaking, while such listings are problematical for peacemakers, who run the risk of being labelled as terrorist sympathizers. While there is a need for laws to protect populations from security threats, much current legislation is not smart or nuanced: listing and de-listing can send unintended and non-constructive messages.

The targeting or nuancing of sanctions against groups using violence can be used to encourage dialogue. Also, creative procedural agreements can help overcome some of the issues described above and can address armed groups’ concerns about domination at the negotiating table. For example, the 1995 Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees between the Government (JASIG) of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front established equal terms for both parties to enter into peace negotiations. While there have been problems implementing the guarantees and no outcome to the substantive negotiations themselves, the JASIG at least built up an understanding that allowed those negotiations to begin.

Lessons for efforts to prevent the use of child soldiers

Some of these lessons may be useful for those working to prevent the use of child soldiers. As those working in the field recognize, the recruitment of child soldiers may require especially sensitive and well-targeted interventions. In armed groups like those in Sierra Leone or northern Uganda, abducted child recruits often go on to abduct the next generation of child recruits – a vicious cycle that demands careful analysis of engagement options and approaches.

It is essential to try to understand the armed group’s perspective, even if their reasoning appears skewed to outsiders. For example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been accused of extensive recruitment of child soldiers, yet from its perspective the threatened use of international sanctions on these grounds looks like state bias. LTTE advisors complain that the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which it is not a party to and thus claims not to be legally bound by) gives more scope for states to recruit under 18 year olds than non-state groups, while there is no provision for what it sees itself as: a national liberation movement and a de facto government. Attempting to understand and positively influence armed groups’ analysis of such questions is an important step towards finding solutions.

One of the key challenges is balancing constructive engagement with the need to take action against human rights abuses and deter behaviour that contravenes international legal standards. Condemning human rights abuses, taking action against perpetrators and exploring effective ways of transforming or ending conflict are all essential responses to organized violence. The challenge for interveners is managing tensions between the twin pursuits of peace and justice through careful and strategic consideration of timing and roles, including due sensitivity to the views of affected communities. Creativity and innovation is needed to meet all these challenges.


[1] Conciliation Resources is an international NGO that works to prevent violence, promote justice and transform conflict into opportunities for development. For more information see Choosing to engage: armed groups and peace processes at:

[2] In ‘Choosing to engage; armed groups and peace processes’ Accord: an international review of peace initiatives, issue 16 (2005).