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Debate: Negotiating with terrorist groups

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Should governments negotiate with terrorists?

Background and context

This issue has become increasingly important in the years since the end of the Cold War. Over the past ten to fifteen years, many terrorist groups involved in long-running conflicts – the IRA in Northern Ireland, the PLO in Israel, ETA in Spain, and others – have been brought to the negotiating table; in the case of South Africa, a former terrorist group has now formed the government. All of these stem from internal conflict, but for many other countries an external terrorist threat also exists. It is important for the proposition to define clearly the terms of the motion: what constitutes terrorism? And what does it mean to negotiate? The best debate will be produced by a fairly strong definition, with the proposing team accepting that terrorists will harm civilians and the negotiation would involve making concessions. The debate also only really works in the context of a democracy, where there are other alternatives to violence as a tool to change policy.

Argument #1


One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Most terrorist organisations are not engaged in violence simply for the joy of it, nor for personal gain; instead, they stand for a particular political position, and often for a particular group of people. It is important to realize that there are two sides to every conflict. A good example for this is the ANC in South Africa. For many years they were regarded by the government – and by many foreign governments – as an illegal terrorist organisation. For the majority black population of the country, however, they were legitimately fighting for their freedom. History will record that they were on the side of right, and the apartheid government was in the wrong.


The example of South Africa is an isolated one. In many cases, the political situation in which terrorism takes place is far more complex, and it is far less clear who is in the right and who is in the wrong. In such cases, the one most important fact is that killing people is immoral. By accepting violence as a political tool, these groups become no more than murderers, and should be treated as such.

Argument #2


Any government’s primary responsibility is to save lives. History has shown that military solutions have little chance of succeeding: it is almost impossible to defeat an organisation composed of individual people with guns and bombs without unbearable restrictions on the freedom of the innocent. In the case of prolonged internal campaigns of terrorism, the promise of negotiations can be used as a bargaining tool to end violence, and will almost always lead to a ceasefire. This has been seen in almost every case where terrorist groups have been brought to the negotiating table. In the case of more isolated incidents, such as hostage-taking, it is worth making concessions in order to save the lives of civilians who the government has no right to sacrifice on a stubborn point of morality.


Giving in to terrorists may save lives in the short term, but is harmful in the longer term. Many terrorist groups have been unable to achieve their goals through democratic means and hence resort to violence; by making concessions, the government is saying that groups who use guns and bombs can have more influence in society than those who use peaceful methods. This is a dangerous precedent to set, as it encourages others to use violence in the belief that it will further their cause. Instead, governments must demand that groups abandon violence and cease acts of terrorism before negotiations can even be considered.

Argument #3


Many terrorist conflicts are the result of political disagreements that run back many years; terrorism is often fuelled by a historic culture of hatred and distrust. In such situations, it is imperative that someone take the first step in trying to resolve the situation. In the interests of peace and of fairness, it is the government which must do so: it is inevitably the more powerful side in the conflict and is therefore in a position to make concessions. Only by taking a lead is it possible to end the killing.


The reverse problem is that terrorist organisations have nothing to lose. The threat of violence gives them undue power at the negotiating table: they can insist on total concessions to all their demands – even if they are undemocratic – and threaten to recommence terrorist activities if they are denied. In Northern Ireland, Spain and Israel negotiations have hit this same stumbling block, and ceasefires have been broken. Terrorists cannot be trusted.

Argument #4


Refusing to talk to terrorists can cloud the issues surrounding their activities, and can make them seem as if they are fighting against an oppressive regime. By opening up negotiations, a government denies them this opportunity to present themselves as martyrs, and opens their often un-democratic demands up to public scrutiny.


Again, negotiating with terrorists gives them a legitimacy which they do not deserve. Those who use peaceful means to achieve their goals should be respected and listened to; those who murder and terrorise innocent civilians in order to be heard must be treated not as political leaders but as criminals.



  • This House would talk to terrorists
  • This House believes that force cannot eliminate ideology.
  • This House would bomb their beliefs out of existence.
  • This House believes the terrorism list is far too short.

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