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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

Secrecy vs. transparency in peace negotiations

Yitzhak Rabin shakes hands with Yasser Arafat after signing the Oslo Accords—named after the city which hosted years-long secret negotiations (photo via the Clinton Library)


How transparent should peace negotiations be? Some argue that they must be done behind closed doors—that there are too many impediments otherwise. Others contend that a peace process demands openness to enable buy-in and success in the implementation phase. So, which is it?

As with most matters related to negotiations, the answer is not a binary. Rather, there are varying levels of secrecy the parties to conflict can employ to advance the peace process. The challenge is determining which level is most appropriate and when. Each comes with its own risks and benefits.

This article explains what those are before offering a few key considerations for practitioners and scholars alike.

Levels of secrecy

Secrecy really comes down to three core elements: level of acknowledgment; representation; and publicity. In other words, are the parties to conflict disavowing the peace talks; who is attending the deliberations on behalf of the parties; and how much about the negotiations is being revealed to the press? Based on those elements, one can break down the different formats for negotiations ranging from most secret to most transparent:

  • Track 2 back-channel talks. In this case, parties to conflict employ groups or individuals who are not formally affiliated with them to engage in discussions on their behalf (e.g., retired officials, academics, or private citizens). The parties to conflict are able to disavow any discussions that may be taking place.

  • Track 1.5 back-channel talks. Here, the parties to conflict employ a mix of affiliated and non-affiliated persons to conduct closed door negotiations. Usually, the non-governmental participants serve as hosts or mediators for the talks, while official delegates deliver proposals and do the bulk of the negotiating. These negotiations are moderately disavowable.

  • Track 1 talks with media blackout. These talks occur directly between the parties to conflict and only involve their formal delegates. These negotiations can be done in complete secret, but once disclosed (whether by leak or journalistic discovery), they become difficult to deny outright. As such, the parties may decide to acknowledge that talks are ongoing without disclosing anything about the negotiations in the information space.

  • Formal negotiations with minimal press coverage. These negotiations allow some engagement with the press to inform the public of what is taking place without providing any additional details.

  • Formal negotiations that disclose the negotiating parameters. These negotiations allow some press engagement, offering information on the agenda, participants, and scope of the negotiations. However, they avoid disclosing details on specific provisions being deliberated.

  • Formal negotiations with open press discussions. In this format, the parties to conflict are not only allowed to engage the press about the negotiations, but they are permitted to comment on the content, progress, and stumbling blocks of the deliberations.

Risks of secrecy

Information control can be a useful tool in the early phases of negotiation. It can mitigate potential obstacles to engagement while giving the parties to conflict more freedom and flexibility at the negotiating table to explore possible compromises.

However, with those benefits come several risks:

  • Vulnerability to leaks. Because of the dearth of information about negotiations that are conducted in secret, they become more vulnerable when any information is exposed. What this means is that a leak, however small, can introduce unanticipated obstacles to the peace process or derail efforts altogether.

  • Susceptibility to bad faith negotiating behaviors. It is far easier for negotiators to operate in bad faith in secret negotiations. Things like third party oversight and accountability via the press are removed when deliberations are done in the shadows, giving greater flexibility for those negotiators who wish to employ tactics like a red herring, false authority, manufactured crisis, and wholesale dishonesty, among others.

  • Degraded ability to cultivate support. While peace agreements can be negotiated in secret, implementation of those deals cannot. If a deal is negotiated in secret, it means that negotiators and policymakers are less able to engage with relevant stakeholders in making sure the terms of any agreements are sound, satisfy their indispensable interests, and are implementable. Keeping veto players in the dark can help peace agreements get made, but it might create major problems when it comes to the implementation phase of the process.

  • Uncertainty about the other side's negotiators or level of commitment. Secret negotiations are designed to allow parties to conflict to disavow any relationship to them, if necessary. That same disavowal could be extended to the outcomes of the negotiations if a party to conflict wishes to reject it. Further, one cannot guarantee how much the negotiators on the other side of the table actually represent the authority and interests of the primary party to conflict.

Risks of transparency

Transparency helps overcome many of the risks of secrecy, in part because it shines a light on issues earlier in the process so that negotiating parties can adequately address them. But the enmity and conflict associated with war complicates matters, introducing additional risks that come with a transparent approach to negotiations. Those risks are as follows:

  • Intensification of hostilities. An announced decision to pursue peace talks could motivate the parties to conflict to employ military force to influence the outcomes of negotiations or achieve as many objectives as possible before any peace agreement is reached.

  • Acute acts of violence against the negotiators. Some actors within the parties to conflict may not want the war to end. As such, they may attempt to assassinate or incapacitate the peace negotiators (e.g., the assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte in Israel in 1948).

  • Undermining other negotiations happening concurrently. A party to conflict may be engaging allies or partners in other negotiations, such as provision of war material or establishment of formal security guarantees. If the parties to conflict openly and actively engage in peace negotiations, some may perceive less impetus for concessions vis-à-vis such support.

  • Mixed messaging. The more transparency in peace negotiations, the more commentary on the negotiations there is likely to be, both from formal and informal players. This can contribute to mixed messaging and false signals to the negotiating parties that can adversely impact the peace process.

  • Veto players. If negotiations are done openly, government officials, business and special interests, and other policy actors may take steps to impede the negotiating process.

Folke Bernadotte (second from right) with a UN delegation in Israel in 1948 shortly before his assassination (photo via the National Library of Israel)

Determining the appropriate level of transparency

With all the risks and benefits associated with the differing levels of secrecy, it can be difficult to determine how transparent a particular peace negotiation should be. There are useful questions that practitioners can ask before initiating those negotiations to help in the decision:

  • What are the constraints and restraints at play for the parties to conflict?

  • Is transparency likely to incite greater violence in the conflict?

  • Will peace negotiators become targets for attacks?

  • Are there veto players who are able and willing to impede the peace process?

  • Are there other negotiations occurring that could be affected by overt peace negotiations?

  • Is it possible to confirm the legitimacy of and commitment to back-channel negotiations?

Generally, secrecy is better in the pre-negotiation phase, with increasing transparency as the negotiation cycle progresses. This is especially true when revelations related to peace negotiations are likely to incite greater violence, whether through broader hostilities or attacks against the negotiating teams. Secrecy is also important when there are veto players who are able to disrupt peace negotiations; in those cases, it is useful to build momentum outside the public eye so that the peace process can withstand efforts to undermine it when it eventually comes to light.

While secrecy can be essential in the early phases of negotiation, practitioners must be cautious about concluding agreements in secret. Secret framework agreements can work to secure temporary ceasefires and lay the foundation for more substantive negotiations; however, durable peace agreements call for clarity of rights, duties, and obligations and for transparency that enables third party oversight and consistent implementation of their provisions. Ultimately, the more a peace agreement is understood and accepted, the more likely it is to survive over time.

Cable No 35_Secrecy vs transparency in peace negotiations
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