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SADC mediated talks between ZANU (PF) and MDC - Index of articles
and dangers of negotiations
The Zimbabwe Independent
June 08, 2007
Sharp's book From
Dictatorship to Democracy, 1993
faced with the severe problems of confronting a dictatorship some
people may lapse back into passive submission. Others, seeing no
prospect of achieving democracy, may conclude they must come to
terms with the apparently invincible dictatorship, hoping that through
"conciliation", "compromise", and "negotiations"
they might be able to salvage some positive elements and to end
On the surface,
lacking realistic options, there is appeal in that line of thinking.
against brutal dictatorships is not a pleasant prospect. Why is
it necessary to go that route? Can't everyone just be reasonable
and find ways to talk, to negotiate the way to a gradual end to
the dictatorship? Can't the democrats appeal to the dictators' sense
of common humanity and convince them to reduce their domination
bit by bit, and perhaps finally to give way completely to the establishment
of a democracy?
It is sometimes
argued that the truth is not all on one side. Perhaps the democrats
have misunderstood the dictators, who may have acted from good motives
in difficult circumstances? Or perhaps some may think, the dictators
would gladly remove themselves from the difficult situation facing
the country if only given some encouragement and enticements.
It may be argued
that the dictators could be offered a "win-win" solution,
in which everyone gains something. The risks and pain of further
struggle could be unnecessary, it may be argued, if the democratic
opposition is only willing to settle the conflict peacefully by
negotiations (which may even perhaps be assisted by some skilled
individuals or even another government). Would that not be preferable
to a difficult struggle, even if it is one conducted by non-violent
struggle rather than by military war?
are a very useful tool in resolving certain types of issues in conflicts
and should not be neglected or rejected when they are appropriate.
In some situations where no fundamental issues are at stake, and
therefore a compromise is acceptable, negotiations can be an important
means to settle a conflict.
A labour strike
for higher wages is a good example of the appropriate role of negotiations
in a conflict: a negotiated settlement may provide an increase somewhere
between the sums originally proposed by each of the contending sides.
Labour conflicts with legal trade unions are, however, quite different
than the conflicts in which the continued existence of a cruel dictatorship
or the establishment of political freedom are at stake.
When the issues
at stake are fundamental, affecting religious principles, issues
of human freedom, or the whole future development of the society,
negotiations do not provide a way of reaching a mutually satisfactory
solution. On some basic issues there should be no compromise. Only
a shift in power relations in favour of the democrats can adequately
safeguard the basic issues at stake. Such a shift will occur through
struggle, not negotiations. This is not to say that negotiations
ought never to be used. The point here is that negotiations are
not a realistic way to remove a strong dictatorship in the absence
of a powerful democratic opposition.
of course, may not be an option at all. Firmly entrenched dictators
who feel secure in their position may refuse to negotiate with their
democratic opponents. Or, when negotiations have been initiated,
the democratic negotiators may disappear and never be heard from
and groups who oppose dictatorship and favour negotiations will
often have good motives. Especially when a struggle has continued
for years against a brutal dictatorship without final victory, it
is understandable that all the people of whatever political persuasion
would want peace.
are especially likely to become an issue among democrats where the
dictators have clear military superiority and the destruction and
casualties among one's own people are no longer bearable. There
will then be a strong temptation to explore any other route which
might salvage some of the democrats' objectives while bringing an
end to the cycle of violence.
The offer by
a dictatorship of "peace" through negotiations with the
democratic opposition is, of course, rather disingenuous. Violence
could be ended immediately by the dictators themselves, if only
they would stop waging war on their own people. They could at their
own initiative without any bargaining restore respect for human
dignity and rights, free political prisoners, end torture, halt
repression, withdraw from the government, and apologise to the people.
When the dictatorship
is strong but an irritating resistance exists, the dictators may
wish to negotiate the opposition into surrender under the guise
of making "peace". The call to negotiate can sound appealing,
but grave dangers can be lurking within the negotiating room.
On the other
hand, when the opposition is exceptionally strong and the dictatorship
is genuinely threatened, the dictators may seek negotiations in
order to salvage as much of their control or wealth as possible.
In neither case should the democrats help the dictators achieve
be wary of the traps which may be deliberately built into a negotiation
process by the dictators. The call for negotiations when basic issues
of political liberties are involved may be an effort by the dictators
to induce the democrats to surrender peacefully while the violence
of the dictatorship continues. In those types of conflicts the only
proper role of negotiations may occur at the end of a decisive struggle
in which the power of the dictators has been effectively destroyed
and they seek personal safe passage to the closest international
does not mean that the two sides sit down together on a basis of
equality and talk through and resolve the differences that produced
the conflict between them. Two facts must be remembered. First,
in negotiations it is not the relative justice of the conflicting
views and objectives which determines the content of a negotiated
agreement. Second, the content of a negotiated agreement is largely
determined by the power capacity of each side.
questions must be considered. What can each side do at a later date
to gain its objectives if the other side fails to come to an agreement
at the negotiating table? What can each side do after an agreement
is reached if the other side breaks its word and uses its available
forces to seize its objectives despite the agreement?
is not reached in negotiations through an assessment of the rights
and wrongs of the issues at stake. While those may be much discussed,
the real results in negotiations come from an assessment of the
absolute and relative power situations of the contending groups.
What can the democrats do to ensure that their minimum claims cannot
be denied? What can the dictators do to stay in control and neutralise
the democrats? In other words, if an agreement comes, it is more
likely the result of each side estimating how the power capacities
of the two sides compare, and then calculating how an open struggle
Sharp is a political scientist, author and founder of the Albert
Einstein Institution, in Boston, Massachusetts, US.
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