Naming Terror: Impact of Proscription on Negotiations with Non-State Armed Groups

Written by
Flavia Eichmann
May 20, 2019

By Flavia Eichmann


This article explores what impact terrorist blacklists have on negotiated solutions to armed conflicts involving listed non-state armed groups. Even though conflicts that involve non-state armed groups do not usually end through these groups’ military defeat, governments around the globe tend to adopt hard-security approaches with regard to inner-state conflicts. Especially when groups resort to terrorist tactics, governments tend to be reluctant to engage peacefully with these actors and instead commonly rely on terrorist blacklists in order to delegitimize and restrict groups’ activities. While these blacklists are effective in criminalizing the operations of these groups, they can also severely impede peaceful dialogue and thus negatively impact the resolution of conflicts. Especially the work of NGOs and third-party peace practitioners is greatly constrained by criminalizing any form of interaction with listed groups. Additionally, in the absence of a universal definition of what constitutes a terrorist group, lists vary from country to country and the criteria for groups and individuals to get listed are often extremely vague. Furthermore, most lists fail to re-evaluate the proscribed groups on a regular basis and delisting procedures lack transparency. This article finds that blacklists severely disincentivize peaceful engagement with non-state armed groups and thus calls for a revision of contemporary proscription regimes in order to shift the focus of counterterrorism approaches towards viewing peaceful dialogue as a first option and not a last resort. 

1. Introduction

Most contemporary conflicts are characterized by their asymmetrical nature, where governments are challenged by the presence of one or more non-state armed groups1 contesting the legitimacy of the state. Due to unequal relationships of power, these non-state armed groups often rely on terrorist tactics, commonly understood as a particular type of violence characterized by methods such as hijacking, bombing, assassination, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and suicide attacks. Government responses to terrorist violence usually consist of hard-security approaches that intend to eliminate the responsible groups altogether (Boon-Kuo et al. 2015, 24; Gross 2011). Although scholars and practitioners alike have repeatedly demonstrated the comparative effectiveness of peaceful engagement over hard-security approaches in conflicts between states and non-state armed actors, these strategies still represent the dominant response by most governments when it comes to conflicts involving groups that are classified as terrorists (Haspeslagh and Dudouet 2015, 106).

As several studies have shown, military force is not very effective when it comes to the resolution of conflicts that involve groups that rely on terrorist tactics (Sriram 2008; Jones and Libicki 2008; Tellidis and Toros 2015). Forty-three percent of conflicts involving listed groups since 1968 ended in political solutions, meaning the inclusion of these groups in the state’s political process (Jones and Libicki 2008, 35).     

One way to reach a political solution is through negotiated peace settlements, understood as an agreement between the government and the non-state armed group that can lead to the members of the group engaging in a transition towards becoming a political party (Jones and Libicki 2008, 21).  Although many governments have repeatedly stated that they would never talk to terrorists, peace-practitioners and scholars have increasingly emphasized that engagement with these groups is oftentimes crucial in order to resolve the conflict and to be able to find inclusive, sustainable, and peaceful solutions that prevent the conflict from being protracted any further (Dudouet, Planta, and Giessmann 2016, 4).

Image of world trade center on 9/11.
Image courtesy of Michael Foran under Creative Common license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the linked process of securitization in relation to the fight against terrorism, it has become increasingly difficult for governments, NGOs, and third-party mediators to engage with non-state armed groups, as the inclusion of groups on terrorism blacklists has become more widespread. The proscription of groups is thereby primarily a political decision and groups do not necessarily have to present a direct security threat to the state in which they get banned. The main aim of blacklists is to delegitimize the groups and cut off external support by criminalizing interactions with these actors. As a whole, these blacklists often “provide the government with a multifaceted arsenal of administrative, legal, and political means of combating terrorism” (Gross 2011, 46).                  

Acknowledging that the majority of past conflicts involving listed groups have not been solved by purely military responses, but relied on some form of non-violent engagement, this paper presents an overview of the challenges and opportunities of engagement with non-state armed groups and their inclusion in peace negotiations, with a specific focus on how the international fight against terrorism has impacted these efforts.

It is not the aim to present a general comparison regarding the effectiveness of negotiated settlements versus armed confrontation in conflict resolution. Rather, the aim is to analyze what impact the listing of non-state armed groups as terrorist organizations has on the prospects of engagement with, and the inclusion of these groups in peace negotiations.

The next section focuses on some of the key challenges and opportunities regarding peace negotiations between conflict parties. Section three presents an overview of the emergence of terrorist sanction lists as a widespread counterterrorism tool and assesses the implications of these lists on the possibilities of negotiated peace settlements between governments and proscribed non-state armed groups. Section four highlights the main findings and puts forward policy recommendations to address the shortcomings of current terrorist blacklist regimes.


2. Peace Negotiations: Challenges and Opportunities

Peace negotiations are only one aspect of broader, often lengthy, peace processes. They are understood as the procedure in which two or more opposing parties enter dialogue and discuss their differences with the aim of finding peaceful solutions. Often, negotiation processes are facilitated by third-party actors, as direct engagement between state governments and non-state armed groups entails several risks and difficulties (Fisas 2015, 39–40; Zartman and Faure 2011, 12).    

One of the biggest challenges that governments face regarding engagement with non-state armed groups relates to issues of legitimacy. Negotiation with these groups entails their recognition, which is often perceived as conferring a certain degree of legitimacy. Especially with regard to armed groups that rely on terrorist tactics and perpetrate violence against civilians, recognition of these actors as partners at the negotiating table is perceived as unethical both by the affected population and the international community (Gross 2010).

In addition, governments also face the risk of encouraging other groups to take up arms in order to “shoot their way through civilian casualties into policy decisions” (Zartman and Faure 2011, 9). Governments that engage with groups that use terrorism as a means to achieve their goals might therefore unintentionally encourage other groups to participate in similar illegal, violent activities, as the state’s recognition of non-state armed groups as negotiating partners can be interpreted as legitimizing their violent means as a strategy to make themselves heard (Carl 2011, 170–71; Toros 2008,  411; Zartman and Faure 2011,  5–9).

Although engagement with terrorist groups presents many challenges for governments, some form of contact is often maintained, even if these contacts are usually denied by most governments (Duyvesteyn and Schuurman 2011, 678; Cronin 2009, 35). Despite the risks related to issues of legitimacy, engagement with terrorists also presents an opportunity for governments to credibly prove their commitment to stop the violence and demonstrate responsibility toward their citizens (Duhart 2018, 4; Duyvesteyn and Schuurman 2011, 678).

Even though the outcome of negotiations with terrorists is highly unpredictable and most negotiations do not result in an immediate resolution of the conflict, they also rarely end in outright failure. A study by Cronin (2009) suggests that less than ten percent of negotiations aimed at ending terrorist campaigns have failed completely. About a third of all negotiations end in the actual resolution of the conflict. The most common result, however, is an ambiguous middle-ground where violence continues at a lower level of intensity and frequency (Cronin 2009, 41). The literature on the engagement with non-state armed groups mostly explores the challenges that states face when they engage with groups that are featured on a terrorist list, thereby assuming that non-state actors are always willing to take part in peace-talks, as long as the state government agrees (Zartman and Faure 2011, 5–6).

Proscribed non-state armed groups, however, face a similar legitimacy issue when engaging in peace negotiations with the government, the main actor whose legitimacy these actors commonly challenge. Through the asymmetrical nature of most intra-state conflicts, non-state armed groups are often tempted to compensate for their relatively weaker position by increasing their commitment to fight (Wennmann 2009, 1125). In order to understand the willingness of armed groups to engage in negotiations, their economic agendas cannot be neglected. These groups often finance their existence through illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking, or extortion. The prolongation of the conflict can therefore sometimes be more profitable for these actors than its settlement. Especially when peace negotiations require a prior cease-fire, non-state armed groups are faced with the problem of having to interrupt the hostilities and risk losing their financial revenues, without any prospect of compensation (Wennmann 2009, 1128).

The willingness to engage in peace talks with the government or other third-party actors thus depends on the nature of the group, its goals, and the extent to which violence is part of the identity of the group (Cronin 2009, 40–42). As they are presented as illegitimate actors, some groups have a strong interest in engaging with the government as it presents an opportunity to show their willingness to transform into a non-violent organization and gain popular legitimacy. Engaging in negotiations with the government can therefore be a tactical strategy to improve their legitimacy as a political actor that needs to be taken seriously by the state and demonstrate to society that they are willing to achieve their goals through non-violent means (Duhart 2018, 4–6; Duyvesteyn and Schuurman 2011, 678–79).

From the perspective of armed groups, the willingness to abandon terrorist violence as a strategy generally has more to do with their political will than their capacity. Due to the limited amount of resources that are needed to conduct a terrorist attack, they are always able to resort to these tactics. Instead of addressing the capacity of groups to perpetrate violence through counterterrorist strategies, governments and third-party mediators might therefore be more successful in changing the behavior of designated groups and incentivizing deradicalization through a negotiated approach (Haspeslagh and Dudouet 2015, 105-106).

Although engagement does not necessarily lead to the resolution of the conflict, dialogue can lead to agreements that address human rights concerns and improve the humanitarian crisis that often results from the violence (Whitfield 2013, 16). Furthermore, the conflict parties have still gained information about each other’s objectives and grievances, which generates a better understanding of the capacities and motives of the other party. By engaging in dialogue, all parties have the opportunity to influence the perceptions and decisions of their opponents and build trust, arguably one of, if not the, most crucial aspects of negotiations (Whitfield 2013, 16–17).     


3. The Fight against Terrorism and Its Impacts on Engagement

3.1 The Rise of Terrorist Blacklists in Response to 9/11

Although not a new phenomenon, the labeling of non-state armed groups as terrorist organizations has become a widespread policy tool after September 11, 2001 and the related “War on Terror.” This has made inclusive approaches to deal with these groups increasingly difficult (Haspeslagh 2013, 3). Whereas academia generally employs a more broad conceptualization of non-state armed groups and defines them as “challengers to the state’s monopoly of legitimate coercive force” (Florquin and Decrey Warner 2008, 17) or “distinctive organizations that are (i) willing and capable to use violence for pursuing their objectives and (ii) not integrated into formalized state institutions such as regular armies, presidential guards, police, or special forces” (Hofmann and Schneckener 2011, 604), the states that are challenged by these non-state armed groups, as well as other governments and intergovernmental organizations, often refer to them using the “terrorist” label. 

According to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI), terrorism is defined as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non‐state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation” (Institute for Economics and Peace 2017, 6). In order for an incident to be listed as an act of terrorism in the related Global Terrorism Database (GTD), the act has to be intentional, must entail some level of violence or threat of violence, and has to be perpetrated by a subnational actor (Institute for Economics and Peace 2017, 6). However, terrorism remains a very ambiguous and contested concept, and an internationally accepted definition of what constitutes terrorism remains absent; the U.S. Government alone employs more than 22 different legal definitions of terrorism (Institute for Economics and Peace 2017, 6; Beck and Miner 2013, 837).

The classification of non-state armed groups as terrorists was therefore not a new phenomenon, however, the proscription became more systematic and pervasive after 2001.

Before the events of 9/11, governments also labeled rebel or opposition movements as terrorist groups and introduced national counterterrorism policies. The classification of non-state armed groups as terrorists was therefore not a new phenomenon, however, the proscription became more systematic and pervasive after 2001 (Helgesen 2007, 11). After the attacks of 9/11 and in relation to the broader “Global War on Terrorism,” various anti-terrorist legislations were passed by the United Nations and its member states, including the U.S. Patriot Act, the UK Anti- Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill and the EU Council Common Position 931 on Combating Terrorism. National counterterrorist legislations were incorporated in the discourse of the global anti-terrorism campaign and states that were facing insurgencies relied more and more on the international community for support. Groups that were previously only listed in the country that they operated in all of a sudden became a threat to foreign countries and international security more generally (Helgesen 2007, 11–14). By declaring an internal conflict as an incident of terrorism, governments easily gained approval for harsh responses by the international community.

A state that defends itself against terrorist attacks rarely ever faces any pressure to legitimize its choice of policies in response to the declared terrorism threat.

The dominant paradigm of the “War on Terror” placed terrorism on top of the security agenda all around the world, such that, a state that defends itself against terrorist attacks rarely ever faces any pressure to legitimize its choice of policies in response to the declared terrorism threat (Helgesen 2007, 11). The politics of securitization resulted in very simplistic, one-sided views of inner-state conflicts and legitimized the states’ use of force “against any forms of political (especially violent) unrest and resistance” (Dudouet, Giessmann, and Planta 2012, 9). Counterterrorist strategies led to intra-state conflicts being primarily framed as conflicts where illegitimate non-state actors challenge the legitimate use of force by the state. Through this state-centered perspective, state authorities always seem to be protected and legitimized, even in cases where regimes are corrupt and oppressive (Dudouet et al. 2012, 9–10).

3.2 Characteristics and Objectives of Terrorist Blacklists

The intention of terrorist lists is to “disrupt the activities of terrorist groups by criminalizing their members, cutting off their access to funds and undermining their support” (Hayes and Sullivan, 2011, p. 6). The aim is to delegitimize the group and to create the legal framework on how to respond. They provide the respective government or organization with the relevant administrative, legal, and political means to combat terrorism and bring legal clarity to how terrorist groups are identified and prosecuted and also provide reference for those who wish to engage with the listed groups about the legality of an interaction (Gross, 2011, p. 46). By blocking financial and material support and raising the costs of using terrorist methods by defining the consequences for specific actions, governments anticipate that these lists will incentivize individuals to abstain from using terrorist tactics. Further, the goal is to target not only the group itself but also its support base by sanctioning financial and material support (Boon-Kuo et al. 2015, 32; Haspeslagh 2013, 4).

In the United States, the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list evolved from the annual report “Patterns of Global Terrorism” from 1985. In 1989, the list of terrorist organizations was formalized, and respective sanctions were introduced. The FTO list defines terrorism as politically motivated violence that is perpetrated against civilians by non-state actors. The FTO list gets updated every two years; groups are added or removed if they no longer meet the criteria (Beck and Miner 2013, 840).

The U.S. legislation is very restrictive and criminalizes interactions with non-state armed groups in most forms. In a Supreme Court ruling in 2010, it was established that the provision of any expert advice, service, or training in peaceful conflict resolution is illegal for U.S. nationals, also if they operate abroad (Haspeslagh 2016, 4).

 In the European Union, counterterrorist sanctions are based on the EU’s Common Position (CP) 2001/930/ CFSP, CP 2001/931/CFSP (CP 931), and Council Regulation 2580/2001 (Eriksson 2009, 18). A terrorist act according to the EU definition is an offense under national law that either seriously intimidates a population or seriously destabilizes or destroys the fundamental political, constitutional, economic, or social structures of a country or an international organization (Council of the European Union 2001).

In order to be listed, an EU member state needs to nominate the person or group which is then reviewed by the EU Council. The decision needs to be unanimous for a group to get designated as terrorists. The list gets reviewed every six months and groups can submit a request to the Council at all times to appeal for their removal from the list; however, this process too requires unanimity of the Council (Conciliation Resources and Berghof Peace Support, 4).

The United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act of 2000 lists any actor that “commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism or encourages terrorism or is otherwise concerned in terrorism” (Home Office 2013). Although all three terrorist blacklists follow a similar logic and entail similar sanctions, they differ quite considerably. In 2013 there was only a 24 percent overlap out of 126 proscribed groups for the three terrorist lists (Beck and Miner 2013, 840).  

Furthermore, certain groups are significantly more likely to be listed than others: Islamist groups are 2.5 times more likely to be included than other groups and constitute more than 41 percent of the listed organizations, although they account for only 11 percent of attacks. Especially in the United States, the designation of Islamic organizations as terrorist groups has become increasingly widespread. Whereas before 2001 only about 30 percent of the listed groups were Islamic, after 2001 over 70 percent of the groups that were added are Islamic (Beck and Miner 2013, 850–54). This misrepresentation not only risks marginalizing Muslim communities through an increasing “othering” in public discourse and the creation of a narrative that links Muslims to terrorist violence, but also risks missing other types of groups that are likely to perpetrate violent attacks using terrorist methods (Beck and Miner 2013, 850).

The different national terrorist lists show some similarities in terms of definitions and policy responses, however, there is quite a lot of divergence with regard to which groups are actually listed as terrorist organizations. Whereas Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group in the United States, the United Kingdom only lists its military wing on their “List of Proscribed Terrorist Organisations.” The European Union instead has even stated in 2012 that it does not intend to list the group altogether (Dudouet 2011, 4; Haspeslagh 2013, 6). A lack of differentiation and the absence of an international definition of what constitutes a terrorist group leads to the same armed group sometimes being called rebels, militant group, separatists, or terrorists. Simplified rhetoric and a lack of nuance leads to many armed groups being put in the terrorist box and ignores the “degree of social legitimacy, political aspirations, provision of services, and reliability in honouring commitments” (Podder 2013, 32) that characterize some of these groups.

Whereas it makes sense to describe a distinct type of actions as terrorist violence, and the proscription of non-state armed groups often brings legal clarity to governments regarding how to deal with these groups, the description of armed actors as terrorists also entails many flaws. It becomes effectively impossible for individuals that get listed to lead a regular life, as they can no longer work due to the fact that they will not be able to access their bank accounts, they cannot receive support from friends or family due to the illegality of any form of support, and they are unable to buy any insurance. Their participation in society is thus severely restricted as a result of blacklisting, even though these individuals do not usually get formally accused of any criminal charges. The UK Supreme Court has in this regard stated that designated persons are in effect living a life as prisoners of the state, as they often do not have the possibility to get delisted unless the state revokes their status (de Goede 2011, 502; Sullivan and Hayes 2010, 92). Whereas this might be viewed as a desirable effect regarding organizations that pose a high-security risk to the state, it also brings the danger of violating human rights of individuals that have been blacklisted without actually belonging to any terrorist group and without having any violent intentions.

3.3 The Implications of Terrorist Blacklists on Engagement with Designated Groups

The implications of naming and listing groups as terrorists are tremendous. Once the terrorist label is assigned, it is no longer relevant whether or not the nature of the group actually corresponds to the label, but rather, “a series of normative associations, motives and characteristics are attached to the named subject” (Bhatia 2005, 9). The authority to name and identify an object is tightly linked to power relations. The intention of labeling is to shape the discourse and establish a dominant narrative that ensures that a certain interpretation of the object prevails. “By naming, this subject becomes known in a manner which may permit certain forms of inquiry and engagement, while forbidding or excluding others. No doubt such simplifications allow people to both engage with and understand a complex world. However, the need for simplicity can be rapidly appropriated and taken advantage of by those with their own political agenda” (Bhatia 2005, 9).

Once the terrorist label is assigned, it is no longer relevant whether or not the nature of the group actually corresponds to the label.

The effect of blacklisting groups has a direct impact on how states and other parties engage with non-state armed groups. Terrorist blacklists encourage zero-tolerance counterterrorism approaches by setting disincentives to negotiated solutions and non-violent engagement. Instead, these lists justify responses that are based on countering violence with more violence, rather than peaceful engagement through dialogue (Dudouet 2011, 6; Florquin and Decrey Warner 2008, 18; Toros 2008, 411; Zartman and Faure 2011, 114). By determining the narrative and perception of a specific non-state armed group, terrorist lists can severely impact the ways in which the respective groups operate. Mediators have repeatedly stated that the listing of groups has a counterproductive impact on the designated groups, as well as their constituencies. Many armed groups seem to be unaware of the possibility to appeal for delisting or find it too complicated. Therefore, there is little incentive for these groups to adapt their behavior and can instead lead to further isolation and increased radicalization, consequently reducing the chances for a negotiated settlement. Some groups, such as Al Shabaab or Hamas, have even used the terrorist proscription as a propaganda tool; either to increase their status or to illustrate their victimhood. The option of delisting can also be used as a prerequisite for peace talks by groups. This works, however, only if the delisting process is a feasible option (Haspeslagh and Dudouet 2011, 5).

In Sri Lanka, the increasing debate around securitization and the war on terror that arose post-9/11 affected the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in terms of raising funds, legitimacy, and access to weapons, as many countries had listed the group as a terrorist organization, therefore cutting off funds from the diaspora and different organizations in Western countries. In response to the EU listing of the group, the LTTE rejected a mission that was supposed to monitor the ceasefire in 2002 and was supported by the EU (Dudouet 2010, 10; Zartman and Faure 2011, 114–15). The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to engage with the LTTE, which the international community equally adapted, led to the listing of the group in various countries which furthered the group’s isolation and is by many scholars and peace practitioners seen as a major cause for the further protraction of the conflict (Helgesen 2007, 12–13). Although the listing showed its desired effect for the Sri Lankan government in terms of delegitimizing the group, one should not disregard that for the overall peace process, this approach was rather harmful.

For third-party mediators, engaging with non-state armed groups that are listed as terrorist groups by a local or foreign government also presents them with a variety of challenges. They need to strike a balance between considering the rule of law and respecting the affected countries’ sovereignty while at the same time enabling an inclusive peace process characterized by impartiality towards all conflict parties (Toros 2008, 411; Wils and Dudouet 2010). The trend towards hard counterterrorism approaches in the wake of 2001 has left many international mediators restricted in their engagement with proscribed groups.

The European Union, which sees itself as a main actor in international peace negotiations, stated in its factsheet on mediation and dialogue in 2012 that peace negotiations need to be open for all relevant actors concerned, but that they, at the same time, risk interfering with domestic affairs or legitimizing human rights violations when they engage with non-state armed groups. The EU acknowledges that engaging with the armed group could contribute to the termination of the hostilities, protect civilians, and make them “aware of their negotiation potential and capacity to influence the peace settlement, which could positively impact the peace talks” (European Union External Action 2012). However, the increasing categorization of armed groups as terrorist organizations has impacted the EU’s capacity for mediation drastically, as engaging with groups that are listed as terrorists is a crime under many national laws (Toros 2008, 411).

Although the EU proscription procedure does not legally prohibit contact with groups that are designated as terrorists, it nevertheless severely impedes the EU’s credibility as a neutral mediator. In several instances, the EU has listed organizations as terrorists while at the same time trying to engage with them. In May 2002 for example, the EU listed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist group in response to Turkish demands, although the group had not been overtly active for the previous three years. The timing was especially striking as the group had announced only a few days earlier that it plans to dissolve itself and reorganize peacefully and democratically. Thus, the decision by the EU drastically disrupted efforts to find a peaceful, political solution at the time (Dudouet 2011, 7).

Most blacklists usually entail a ban on funding the respective groups, whether it is directly or indirectly. Under these legal restrictions fall also all expenditures related to negotiating trainings, exploratory dialogue, or invitations to peace talks that include paid flights, food, or accommodation for members of the banned group (Dudouet 2011, 9–12). For example, the FTO list states that it is illegal for any resident of the United States or party under U.S. jurisdiction to offer any support “that can be construed as having tangible or intangible monetary value” (Dudouet 2011, 10) to a group that is listed. This especially affects NGOs that operate internationally and receive funding from countries that adopt these terrorist blacklists and cannot just withdraw from a treaty.

The German-based NGO Berghof Foundation had to stop one of their projects that promoted the collaboration between members of armed resistance movements and mediators that were involved in successful conflict resolution due to the introduction of new funding legislation in two of its donor countries, the United States and Canada, as some of the participants belonged to a group that was banned in these two countries (Dudouet 2011, 11). NGOs that are involved in peacemaking activities and humanitarian or development projects are thus often restricted by the arbitrary listing of groups by national governments. Especially for small, local, grassroots organizations, this can have very damaging consequences, as they cannot rely on international support as some bigger organizations do and are particularly vulnerable to the government's interpretation of what constitutes a national threat (Dudouet 2010, 11).

NGOs that are involved in peacemaking activities and humanitarian or development projects are thus often restricted by the arbitrary listing of groups by national governments.

Besides the criminalization of engagement, conflict mediators also face increasing stigmatization, as the public discourse is strongly polarized. Parties that are engaging with proscribed actors as a way to explore non-violent solutions are often faced with criticism as they are perceived as sympathizing with the enemy and legitimizing the violent tactics of the respective groups. Even though the engagement itself might be approved by the government, the national and international discourse surrounding conflicts that involve terrorist groups is often characterized by “either us or them” narratives, which make it difficult for the public to accept an engagement with the declared enemy of the state (Haspeslagh and Dudouet 2015, 120).


4. The Need for a More Nuanced Approach

As the above discussion has shown, the events of 9/11 and the related increase in the indiscriminate listing of non-state armed groups as terrorist organizations have had significant and wide-ranging impacts on engagement with these groups and their inclusion in peace negotiations. The proscription of armed groups by local and foreign governments has considerably limited the scope of possibilities for engagement and consequently made understanding and influencing their tactics more difficult.

The fight against terrorism has in many contexts become more important than the resolution of the conflict, often at a cost to civil society that is suffering from the violence the most. Not only has the dominance of counterterrorism as a paradigm become an obstacle to many peace processes, but it has also actively contributed to the protraction of violent conflict (Haspeslagh 2013, 17; Santos 2010, 145–150). Many peacebuilders had to withdraw from their engagement with specific armed groups as a consequence of blacklisting and related sanctions (Boon-Kuo et al. 2015, 35).

The labeling of groups as terrorists is primarily a political choice.

The labeling of groups as terrorists is primarily a political choice and terrorist blacklists are often characterized by vague definitions that lack differentiation between the different types of groups. Non-state armed groups are inherently violent, but not all groups are equally violent and not all groups apply the same tactics and intend to reach the same objectives. All non-state armed groups can be considered a threat to a certain extent, at least to the government whose authority they are contesting, but not all groups are equally threatening to international security or the national security of foreign states. (Gross 2011, 44–47).

In order to overcome these challenges that emerge from strict counterterrorism approaches and hinder the peaceful transformation of conflicts, a more nuanced understanding of non-state armed groups is necessary. Instead of reducing these groups solely to the tactics they apply, the specific setting and objectives of these actors need to be taken into account in order to find context-specific solutions.

The academic discourse has stressed for years that engagement with non-state armed groups is crucial for inclusive, sustainable peace agreements. What is needed now is that policymakers grasp the complexities of contemporary conflicts and truly try to understand the “enemy” they are confronted with and refrain from using simplified narratives in order to justify the use of force to address these conflicts (Helgesen 2007, 19). In order to improve the possibilities of peaceful engagement with listed groups, the following suggestions could be explored as potential alternatives and amendments to current counterterrorism approaches.

  • Listing and delisting procedures need to be more transparent. If terrorist blacklists are used as a counterterrorism tool, governments should ensure greater transparency in terms of the criteria that lead to the listing and delisting of armed groups and refrain from an inconsistent application of the terrorist label out of political considerations. Lists should only include groups and individuals that “present a real, substantial and established danger to the national security of the state or the international or regional collectivity creating the list” (University of Ottawa Faculty of Law 2007).

  • Governments should de-securitize their engagement with non-state armed groups. With regard to the lack of a universal “terrorism” definition, governments should avoid using the term indiscriminately, as it blurs the line between legitimate political movements and unlawful political activities. Terrorist lists should not be used as a tool to silence non-violent dissidents (Dudouet 2011, 13).

  • Delisting procedures should be used more actively as an incentive for groups to reduce or give up violence and engage in a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
  • Frequent review processes should be introduced. Instead of having to appeal for delisting, governments should also review their lists on a regular basis to ensure that positive behavioral changes of non-state armed groups are rewarded.

  • Negotiation efforts should be decriminalized. Especially in countries where the FTO list leads to far-reaching legal restrictions, it would be crucial to ensure that efforts by peace mediators and humanitarian organizations to engage with proscribed armed groups are legalized at some level.

  • Research on the effectiveness of hard-security approaches with regard to conflict resolution should be increased. Existing research suggests that military responses are not very effective in ending terrorist violence. Current terrorist lists are, however, used as a tool to legitimize violent counterterrorism approaches. Further research on the effectiveness of current terrorist sanction lists could help improve understanding about what aspects of sanctions regimes are effective in incentivizing groups to abandon terrorist violence and which ones might be counterproductive (Haspeslagh 2016, 9).


5. Concluding Remarks

This article has addressed the dilemmas related to engagement with non-state armed groups in peace negotiations and specifically looked at the impact of terrorist blacklists on these interactions. Engagement with non-state armed groups has become increasingly more challenging in the context of the global fight against terrorism. The increasing characterization and listing of non-state armed groups as terrorist organizations has tremendously shaped the possibilities of engagement for governments and third-party actors. While blacklists fulfill their purpose in delegitimizing and restricting armed groups and provide a blueprint for a government response, they can also severely impede peaceful dialogue with listed groups and thus negatively impact the resolution of a conflict. In particular, the work of NGOs and third-party peace practitioners is severely restricted by criminalizing any form of interaction with listed groups. In order to reach an inclusive, stable, and peaceful resolution of conflict, governments and international organizations should refrain from using undifferentiated and vague definitions of terrorist groups that are harming peaceful engagement. Instead, counterterrorism approaches should increasingly shift their focus towards peaceful dialogue as a first option and not a last resort.

About the Author

Flavia Eichmann is a Master student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, where she focus on issues related to power, conflict, and development. She would like to thank her JPIA editors for their continued support and the insightful comments and suggestions. She can be reached at [email protected].


1 The armed groups considered in this paper concern those whose rebellion or resistance challenges the authority of the state as a whole and does not include criminal networks and gangs or paramilitary groups or private security providers.    


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