Veteran UN negotiator: World body outdated, hasn’t solved a single conflict since 1992

In the 21st century, terrorism has become the new reality. What has for a long time been seen as something going on far, far away, has now knocked at the doors of everyone in the world. No country in the Americas, Europe or Asia, or any other corner of the world is safe. Hostage situations and terrorist attacks are everyday occurrences on the news. Powerful terrorist groups even compete for the amount of horror they create in the world. Is there a place now for diplomacy? Could negotiations save lives? And what does it mean to be a negotiator in the heart of conflict? We ask these questions to a veteran UN negotiator and former UN Assistant Secretary-General. Giandomenico Picco is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Giandomenico Picco, negotiator, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, you’ve been a UN negotiator for more than 2 decades, putting your life on the line to do your job. You’ve said yourself it’s not something that can be taught at the university. So, how do you learn the skills you need?

Giandomenico Picco: I think, of course, the question is an impossible question to answer, but the basic element I can mention is that it is perhaps, or it is useful for me, at least, to always keep in mind that I’m not dealing with the country, I’m always dealing with people; so I deal with individuals, and that’s what was my basic rule of life.

SS: I mean, you’re still playing with chance - it’s a dangerous thing to be learning as you go on. Have you ever been kidnapped yourself?

GP: Yes, four times.

SS: How, when was that, can you talk about that?

GP: Sure. I was kidnapped as a part of the negotiations in the sense that this pertains to the long story of the western hostages in Lebanon in the 80s and early 90s. My first negotiation was with the president of Iran, and it was a negotiation which of course required “I help you - you help me” situation and when I then went to Lebanon, thought that the negotiations I had done with president of Iran were sufficient, but in fact they were not, because the very captors, Hezbollah, they said “we want to have our negotiation with you” and during those days Hezbollah was not yet a very public organisation, and so the only way they could speak to me was to take me hostage, blindfolded and locked up in a car and driven away at night, and all the rest. Alone, of course, alone. So that was the beginning of the very second negotiations.

SS: So you said four times you were kidnapped…

GP: Correct.

SS: So which one of those kidnappings was the scariest for you?

GP: The first time, of course, I did not know much about it, except that I would be taken into the night, I would be blindfolded, I would be locked in a car and I would be taken to places that to this day I do not know. Then I would have to be very lucky to come back. And that’s what happened. Yes, when you are in those situations you ask yourself many questions, but the most significant question I was asked by my interlocutor when I was brought into a house - I do not know where - and my blindfold was taken off, and in front of me there were two men in masks, you know, the ski masks. They began to discuss with me what they wanted. So it was the second negotiation for the same subject, and in that negotiation I realised that the person in front of me had all planned out and he asked me many questions, but also one that I will never forget - it was “Why do you risk your to save people who are not members of your tribe”

SS: What did you answer to that?

GP: That requires thinking in three different levels. First of all, what do I tell him? Second, in what way do I convey what I want to convey to him? And third, if this is wrong - what I answer - or if he does not understand it, then I am in trouble. What I’ve answered to him, was a difficult answer - I said “I like to pay forward”. As you know, in english, “to pay forward” means to do something today so that 30 years from now you’ll get the benefit of it. In other words, it’s an act of faith in humanity. And so I said to him “I risk my life now for people I do not know, because I hope that if it happens, ten years from now, your son will be in position to save the life of my son, I hope he will do it, because I’m paying in advance”. So it was very, if you like, philosophical.

SS: While you were coming up with an answer and spelling that answer out to your negotiator - were you afraid for your life? I mean, you knew the risks.

GP: I knew the risk the moment I accepted to be taken in the car, blindfolded and locked up - I knew that the risk was there. So you’re asking me now a different question, and the question is very simple. That question is difficult, but to me it is simple, because I have the answer I thought about all my life, since I was a young person. And the reason why your question is simple is because I received two teachings from my father - only two. One said: “the greatest sin you can commit is to be arrogant; arrogant people commit the greatest sin to humanity” and second teaching my father taught me was: “never forget to say thank you”. So, I accept the risk because I think I’m not arrogant, just one man in the world, and if one man can do something useful to the others, he should do it. The second point was that I had good reason to do that, because I had to say “thank you” to somebody, somebody who saved one of my children years before. So - no diplomacy, no foreign policy.

SS: I’m thinking about that instance that you’re describing, blindfolded - it’s already very difficult when you’re kidnapped, but especially when you’re blindfolded: how do you establish a personal connection?

GP: The blindfold was taken off when our conversation began, so I could see him and he could see me - because he had a ski mask.

SS: Then I have another question - what happens to the fear that you feel? Do you hide it? And does it actually hinder the negotiations? What do you do with yourself when you feel the fear, but you have to overcome it?

GP: There are two things: one thing is the fear, clearly, which I have taken care of, and I’ll tell you in a second how. Second aspect was, of course, “will I be useful to these people who are still hostages for so many years? Can I help them?”. Well, I’ll tell you what a very curious thing happened in those conversations: they were very-very personal as you may have understood briefly in my very short comments now. They were very private conversations, in a way personal, and in a way, you established some kind of very personal communication with a captor in front of you. So, in a way, there is an advantage; in formal negotiations you don’t have the good luck to establish a very personal contact, but in this very strange negotiations I had this possibility and that was the only thing to do. So, we spoke about several things which indicated something about who we were in the sense of humanity, not in the sense of politics or in the sense of power or whatever.

SS: So, you’re talking about trust between the two people, and that’s actually a sign that there’s sort of sympathy, even though two people can be very different - is that happened with Hezbollah, for example? Sympathy? Or was there even friendship, at any level?

GP: It was certainly… my objective was to establish a human contact, not a political contact, but a human contact. And that, I think, what was a surprise for my interlocutor and for the people around him. They were surprised. I took down matters with a very personal level, and that was a surprise. I can give you an example, if you like.

SS: Yes, go ahead.

GP: You see, one of the first opening comments he made to me was: “I know, that taking innocent as hostages is wrong, so we agree on that” - imagine, what he said - “however, I have no other weapons, but I know that the weapon I’ve used is not a fair one.” So this is a kind of conversation they don’t teach in foreign policy universities.

SS: You’ve said you worked with Hezbollah, but Hezbollah is a well-established force with certain trappings of a big, well-organised organisation that has the capacity to reach a compromise. Do you think negotiating with Islamic State is harder in comparison to Hezbollah? Is it even possible?

GP: Three brief comments to your question. I never liked generalities, that is to say “can we negotiate with terrorists or not?” - that is a general sentence which is not practical when you work to save human lives. That is a general statement, which is good not for much. Two differences to what you’ve just said, I’d like to underline here. My contact with Hezbollah was the consequence of a plan I made and which had worked, but which implied my first communication and negotiation was with the president, and I spoke to president of Iran personally, directly. The second reason why it’s difficult to say “can you negotiate with terrorists, yes or no” is… unfortunately, let me say that this is a silly question, because every case is different, so to generalise is what has been the great problem of institutions of what I call “fake negotiators”. Generalisation does not help. Every day of our life is different, every person is different, every situation is different. Generalising it doesn’t help anything, just to write a good book, written by somebody who has never actually done much. So, this is my position in life… so, will I negotiate with other terrorists? Depends.

SS: Okay, so I’m going to give you a precise example, since you don’t like generalisations: how do you negotiate with Islamic State militants after beheadings, for example, after the videos of beheadings that we’ve seen?

GP: I will not, and in fact, it took the liberty, only two weeks ago, I published an article in Beirut, by the title “from the son of a lesser God” which is me. I am son of a lesser God and in this article I said, basically, I wrote - and though it was not specifically addressed to ISIS - in fact it was, and I wrote in this article that as a son of a lesser God I was lucky and I freed individuals and people of three different religions, of the three major different religions from 4 different countries in my life, and nobody has ever saved anybody from my tribe - and that is the message which I think is intelligent enough to read. So, in the case of what you mentioned, I think you need a completely different way of thinking and very-very limited to the case. Generalisation is not useful. Would I start negotiation with ISIS like this? Of course not, because I don’t see that they are in the position to communicate. Number two, forget not that those who actually capture the hostages may not be those - and I’m very precise here - may not be those who can negotiate their release. Those who capture the hostages may not be the ones who can negotiate their release.

SS: I want to talk a little bit about the ransoms - the U.S. and the UK both refuse to pay ransoms for hostages held by Islamic State, while Italy, France, Germany, Spain - they all reportedly have paid to have their citizens released. Which approach would you endorse?

GP: No, I would not pay ransom because ransom is not a policy - it’s an act of panic. As I said, those who take hostages may not be those who can free them.

SS: Is there any other way to save their lives, in this particular instance when we’re talking about ISIS? Unless you are, you know, paying ransom?

GP: I suppose that nobody lives by himself in this world, especially in these days, so I have to support that even the leadership of ISIS or whatever way they like to call themselves, which is fine with me - names don’t bother me, nor scare me, nor impress me - but they must have, as everybody in the world, their own quasi-friends, friends, people they respect and people they don’t respect: and that in my view is the only way to analyze the situation and see what can be done.

SS: So get to these terrorists through their friends?

GP: Nobody is alone in this world. So they may have good friends, they may have bad friends, they may have occasional friends, and all this things. No situation is the same and generalities do not help.

SS: Your colleague Gabrielle Rifkind says “since mediation works so well at home, it should be used more extensively for conflict resolution abroad” - isn’t this what diplomacy is for? Or what, is diplomacy failing, that’s what she is saying?

GP: Though we wrote a book together, of course we have our ideas, independent from each other. It’s not the question that diplomacy failed, it’s the question that institutions are weaker than they were ever in the last 50 years. Institutions, to be specific, if you look at the UN institution as the conflict-resolution institution, the UN has not resolved one conflict since 1992. Whatever is being resolved, is being done by bilateral approaches or “mini-lateral approaches” as I call them. So, mediation? Yeah. Negotiations? Fine. But every case is different, and especially, historically, the institutions have become much weaker than they were 20 years ago. Institutions of governments, I’m telling you, including the UN.

SS: So is it fair to say then that the grassroots negotiations held on the ground are more efficient than the top-level diplomatic negotiations involving heads of state?

GP: Pretty much, but every case is different, and I’d say it is not “grassroot” in the sense that you meet somebody in the street, but I think it has to be seen that every case as every day of our life is different. The ISIS people do not live in a vacuum, nobody lives in the vacuum, especially nowadays. So that is the point - who is actually the fighter? Who is directing the military situation in ISIS? Is it political leadership, or somebody else - just a general question. But again, in this particular issue, like many others that I’ve dealt with - there is an individual dimension which institutions are not able to read.

SS: I’ve read in one of your articles, where you were saying that “the principle of neutrality and impartiality is getting in the way of the UN’s work of solving conflict” - why is that?

GP: Yes, because it doesn’t exist. It never did exist. Impartiality is the following, let me explain to you: I also gave in another article the political explanation for it, but the real explanation is - if you and I sit in front of each other at a table, and we put the glass in the middle of the table, you would always see the glass closer to me, and I will see the glass closer to you. Impartiality does not exist, it was a political concept invented in 1946 by a specific number of countries, with a specific philosophical background for specific political reason. No, impartiality is an excuse of failed negotiators, there is no impartiality, it never existed.

SS: But it’s so funny, because what they teach in diplomacy is that not taking one side or the other is crucial in the negotiations, no?

GP: Nobody will believe you if you say “don’t take sides”, because the only way not to take sides is to be dead. You see, there’s one thing… as you know, president Saddam Hussein did not love me, in fact he tried to kill me a few times, but we agreed on one thing - he said to me, and we agreed, that, of course, impartiality is game, it’s nothing, it doesn’t exist, and we agreed on that. He knew it very well. He said: “you are the first westerner against me” - I was - but I ended war, no other people. Together, with help of the bankers, not negotiators, not diplomats - the bankers. The Iran-Iraq war, contrary to what has been written by those who was not present - I was - was ended with bankers, not with institutions, not with diplomats, not with foreign affairs ministries or whatever, with bankers. Every case is different, impartiality does not exist, never did, and I never believed in it, and I dealt with few conflicts, not in too shabby way, including, as you know, the Afghanistan first war in 80s together with two very-very good colleagues. The Iran-Iraq war was a very personal, as other things which I could tell you. Especially, after the change of the world in 1992, when the bipolar system changed, impartiality is even a less of an issue. I never use this concept anymore, because it’s buried in history, and it was used in history by some specifically Western countries; it was of no significance, it was done for domestic reasons.

SS: You talk about UN has become useless, but the UN actually has managed to broker agreements and help sign conflict-ending treaties: conflicts in South Sudan and in Yemen, for example. You yourself has helped to bring in an end of Iran-Iraq war, like you’ve said. It’s not a complete failure, is it?

GP: No, nobody is a complete failure or complete success, of course. We have to be very careful with words here. Let me tell you, the UN was build - I speaking on the conflict resolution, I am not speaking about how UN is useful for refugees and everything else, I am speaking exclusively on conflict resolution - for conflict resolution, the UN was built as an institution of the Cold War, after WWII, and for that purpose it had a reason and it did work. In the last 5 years of the UN, as it is now, or from the past years, from 86 to 91 - of course there were resolutions done by the UN: Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq war, Namibian independence, the Salvador civil war - it was the most successful period of the UN, from 86 to 91, in terms of conflicts. But that was a world which existed in a different way. We cannot ever forget that history moves on and tomorrow is a white page, it’s nothing like yesterday. What we have to deal with is leaders who have the courage of writing a new page, and those who do not - and that is, in practical terms, what is happening. The page is white. Now, what do we have? The majority of leaders, ISIS as an example, they could not exist without enemy. Now, leaders who cannot live without enemies are not the leaders of the future, they are the leaders of the past, and the past is finished, because history has began to write new pages. I cannot do at the age of 66 what I did when I was 9 years old - I will not do, nobody would; So, how come institutions do that? Well, because of other reasons, which basically are still not explained very much to the public opinion. We cannot behave like 16 in 49.

SS: Giandomenico Picco, thank you for this interview. So, we were talking to Giandomenico Picco, veteran UN negotiator, former UN assistant secretary-general. We were talking about how dangerous his job could get at time, and if talks should always be an option - even if it means dealing with terrorists. That’s it for edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.