International negotiations may comprise a number of different channels during a peace process. Negotiations between states may take place in public front channels or they may be veiled to maintain secrecy of the bargaining process. This essay will look at the later and examine whether the beneficial effects of secret diplomacy can also yield negative consequences. This essay will be divided into three sections. The first section will define secret diplomacy, referred to as back channel diplomacy (BCD), and outline some of its characteristics. The discussion will outline why parties use BCD and convey the benefits and disadvantages. The second section will outline the function of BCD in two negotiation case studies. The first will look at Israel and Palestinian negotiations leading up to the Oslo Accords in 1993. The second case study will examine British negotiations with the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland leading up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The third and final section will evaluate the use of BCD in both cases and convey some lessons for policymakers. This essay argues that whilst BCD can be helpful in facilitating a peace process, it can be damaging if it is not managed with front channel diplomacy (FCD).
What is Back Channel Diplomacy?
Secret diplomacy, also known as ‘back channel diplomacy’ (BCD) refers to ‘official negotiations conducted in secret among the parties to a dispute or even between a party and a third party intervenor, which may complement front channels, and are potentially at variance with declared policies’ . Wanis-St. John has also described them as the ‘black markets’ of negotiation. This is because they provide a separate negotiation space away from public diplomatic channels, and enable parties to seek alternative arrangements . In this manner BCD contrast with front channel diplomacy (FCD) which involve overt activities such as direct bilateral negotiation, multilateral conferences and open mediation by a third party . BCD can also be used in pre-negotiation to diminish overall tension and provide substantive inputs for official negotiations . Moreover BCD can be used in parallel with FCD to advance decision making and problem solving. Depending on negotiations BCD can also take on one of two forms. This may either be in the form of direct discussions between decision makers and official representatives, or indirect discussions using third-party intermediaries . The case studies of this essay will present examples of both forms being employed.
BCD contains a number of distinguishing characteristics. First, BCD negotiators typically involve individuals who are closer to the pointy end of decision making. By virtue this enables negotiators to explore a wider range of divergent positions, and creates flexibility to reach tentative agreements . This then enables BCD to proceed to front channel negotiations. Second, BCD negotiators can sometimes have their origin in ‘freelance’...