The argument against negotiating with terrorists is simple: Democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it. Negotiations give legitimacy to terrorists and their methods and undermine actors who have pursued political change through peaceful means. Talks can destabilize the negotiating governments' political systems, undercut international efforts to outlaw terrorism, and set a dangerous precedent.
Yet in practice, democratic governments often negotiate with terrorists. The British government maintained a secret back channel to the Irish Republican Army even after the IRA had launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that nearly eliminated the entire British cabinet in 1991. In 1988, the Spanish government sat down with the separatist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (known by its Basque acronym ETA) only six months after the group had killed 21 shoppers in a supermarket bombing. Even the government of Israel -- which is not known to be soft on terrorism -- has strayed from the supposed ban: in 1993, it secretly negotiated the Oslo accords even though the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued its terrorist campaign and refused to recognize Israel's right to exist.
When it comes to negotiating with terrorists, there is a clear disconnect between what governments profess and what they actually do. But the rigidity of the "no negotiations" stance has prevented any systematic exploration of how best to conduct such negotiations. How can a democratic government talk to terrorists without jeopardizing the integrity of its political system? What kinds of terrorists are susceptible to negotiations? When should negotiations be opened?
The key objective for any government contemplating negotiations with terrorists is not simply to end violence but to do so in a way that minimizes the risk of setting dangerous precedents and destabilizing its political system. Given this dual goal, a number of conditions must be met in order for talks to have even a chance of success. Assuming that negotiations are appropriate in all cases would be no more valid a theory than