Would you shake hands with someone reviled?


Ambassadors and envoys often talk to people they see as tyrants or terrorists. But why do they do it, and do they always shake hands?

When former UN Humanitarian Envoy Jan Egeland met Joseph Kony, the feared and reclusive leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, he made a point of not smiling.

He knew photographers were lurking, even in the remote camp.

"An image can haunt one for many years," he explains. "I was very aware that this was a mass murderer.

"He was known to kidnap thousands of children and kill even more. The relatives would see this image, everybody would see this image."

Meeting people like Kony is a fact of life for many career statesmen.

Find out more

  • Taking Tea with Tyrants, with Lyse Doucet, is on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST

"You don't need to love the people you talk to but you have to talk to everybody whose assistance you need to solve the problems," says former Finnish President Marrti Ahtisaari. His three decades of mediation in trouble spots across the world won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

He gives an everyday example to explain his pragmatic approach.

"Let's say you bump into somebody's car. You don't stop somebody who is passing you and negotiate with them. You have to talk to somebody with whom you have a quarrel."

This is diplomacy of the most difficult, if not dangerous kind.  

"The bad people, the mass murderers, the warlords, the dictators, can often unlock the situation for others," insists Egeland.

Bill Richardson and Hosni Mubarak Bill Richardson has come face-to-face with Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak (above)

But he cautions: "It must never be an exotic meeting with somebody famous. There must always be a greater purpose - to get civilians free, to have an exchange of wounded, to discuss a cessation of hostilities."

To get access to the millions trapped in the worst famine in a generation, the US recently eased restrictions on dealing with Somali rebels al-Shabab, classified as a terrorist group for its links to al-Qaeda.

"If you're in the diplomatic business, much of your time can be spent with people you don't feel any great affinity for," says Sir Ivor Roberts.

As the British ambassador to Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, he dealt with a series of leaders who were later indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

He says it is part of the job to "have to hold your nose as you go into meetings with them".

Big challenges often attract larger than life personalities including former US Governor and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson who has met men dubbed tyrants on virtually every continent. He's often been sent on rescue missions to free captured Americans and brings a certain style to the table.

"You look them in the eye, you sit next to them, you sometimes physically hug, not in a way that shows friendship, but in a way that shows respect," says a man who even swapped baseball stories with Fidel Castro.

Tony Blair and Col Gaddafi Leaders can find themselves meeting those who are widely reviled

"You listen to them, you're humble you don't use the traditional talking points - 'you're a terrible man'. I never say that to somebody I'm trying to get something out of," he says with the kind of full-throated laugh that is part of his charm offensive.

Governor Richardson sees the photograph as being, on occasion, a necessary evil.

In a 1995 meeting in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein to secure the release of two captured Americans, the two men stood for the cameras.

"He kidded me," Richardson remembers, "saying 'this isn't very good for me politically', and I said, 'well Mr President it's not very good for me either, you're not very popular in America'."

Careful manoeuvres through the protocol matter. But in the end, results are what count.

"When you are dealing with these tyrants, it is incumbent on those who do this work to agree on steps they can take," emphasises Joyce Neu. She's spent decades on conflict resolution including advising former US President Jimmy Carter on his mediation efforts in some two dozen countries.

There must be "a sign to you there is something behind their interest in meeting with you more than just having you legitimise them - if that's possible - by showing up at their door."

Rumsfeld shakes hands with Hussein Footage of Donald Rumsfeld meeting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s was used by his opponents

Critics insist meetings reward rogues for bad behaviour. This argument is invoked by governments who refuse to deal with groups such as the Palestinian movement Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah. They're classified as terrorists by several Western countries.

Ahtisaari disagrees. "I don't think we give much legitimacy because they have already been given legitimacy, particularly where elections have been held."

But what if the gulf between world views and values is simply too vast to make any progress difficult, if not impossible?

"It's very different and difficult with the North Koreans because they basically live in an isolated vacuum," Richardson admits about a country he's been visiting since the mid 90s.

Start Quote

If you want to make a difference where human rights are most at stake, you have to meet them”

End Quote Jan Egeland Envoy

But he underlines the importance of trying to build a relationship in order to communicate when there's a crisis. "Here's a country that has maybe three to four nuclear weapons, two million men-in-arms, they've got missiles, they're dangerous."

One person's tyrant can be someone else's legitimate leader. The former Afghan Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, agrees with the need to talk. "Like it or not, we are part of the world," he says. But he says he draws the line at talking to the US military.

For the mediators, it's better to talk than to fight - although sometimes both are seen as necessary.

For some, it's simply the conviction it would be unconscionable to stand by and do nothing, whatever their reservations.

"I remember an old aunt who said to me: 'How did you end up with all these terrible people? You were such a nice boy,'" recalls Norwegian Jan Egeland.

"If you want to make a difference where human rights are most at stake, you have to meet them, put pressure on them."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    What about dictators that live here in amnesty the likes of General Parvez Musharraf a former Pakistani dictator, he is considered to be the most hated man in Pakistan. Leaving her in turmoil and bloodshed and being among those influential to have known about Osama he to should have been added.

    After all he shook hands with all of the top men at that time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I would of course shake hands with a Dictator.

    After all, if I was placed in a position of power I would be the same

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.


    Castro is no Saddam, Amin, Milosevic or Kony! Okay, he's no democrat but he doesn't massacre.

    Sadly, many countries don't see it that way and don't care about health care for all. US as one example you mention, is one of them. Irony is we offer care/aid for other countries. Why not people in our own country? Oil? I don't know but US does not care about health care for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I avoid touch in general but would I shake hands with someone reviled? Define reviled please. There's two sides to every story. There's also this problem known as hypocrisy. One could shake hands with Blair or Bush, and some would say they're shaking hands with terrorists/mass killers. But others would disagree. Basically, we shouldn't judge by such a simple thing that most do to be polite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Surely that's the meaning of diplomacy...to get things moving along by observing the forms, pleasing people, keeping your real feelings and intentions hidden. Some of us can afford the churlish self-satisfied principle of refusing to shake hands with those we don't approve of, but it seems to me this would be a pretty childish and self-defeating step where the work of nations is in play.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    If one is in a situation where one has to get along with someone, even only on a temporary basis, it's important to remain polite. In any formal setting, shaking hands is a way of saying that there is an expectation of trust between the parties and I can see why many diplomats and politicians shake hands with people of which they might thoroughly disapprove. Being rude is rarely helpful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Shaking hands implies solidarity, at least. I refuse to shake hands with anyone whom I dislike for personal, business, or political reasons.

    I did once, in a moment of absentmindedness, shake hands with a many who had stolen money from one of my clients. I made a point, in full view of everyone, of wiping my hands on a serviette. Apparently he was 'deeply insulted', as was my intention.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I wouldn't shake hands with anyone I was in dispute with. Having been sued by a firm of solicitors one of them tried to shake hands with me outside the court.He didn't get one, or the money he was seeking either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    One person's tyrant is another person's hero - so a pretty pointless article on the whole. The central point - missed in this piece - is that we have always tried to identify goodies and baddies - simplistic and quite an easy solution to most questions of right and wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    How can anyone shake hands with one of the mass murderer like Blair. Yes he is worse than a tyrant. BBC get the real facts. British PM are known all round the world for their corvert operations to murder peoples they don't like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    The picture of Blair and Gaddafi is quite striking today. Further, I find it quite hypocritical. Foe one minute, enemy the next, a coup initiated in his nation the next step. Why this sudden fluctuation? Could it be about energy, oil and gas? Surely not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Some of the examples given here are quite odd in themselves. For example, Sadam may have been a tyrant, but ast the time, he was the west`s tryant, placed in power, supported, armed and protected as long he was ` good boy` and kept cheap oil coming. A good example, for me, is when Clinton shook Gerry Adam`s hand in the interests of peace in Northern Ireland. Not a difficult decision really!

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Re37 - There was no Palestinian state before 67 in fact there has never been one - And as for Britain creating Israel - It abstained in the vote, armed 2 of the Arab armies, the RAF flew against Israel and it handed over every military instillation to the Arabs - To get back on subject - If Rabin could shake hands with the boss of the Palestinian delegation to the 72 olympics - nothing is imposibl

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    "says a man who even swapped baseball stories with Fidel Castro"


    Castro is no Saddam, Amin, Milosevic or Kony! Okay, he's no democrat but he doesn't massacre. He does on the other hand support universal healthcare and education. If all 'dictators' were like Castro, presiding over a largely peaceful and stable country the US and every other western government would be delighted

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I'm sure a lot of leaders didn't want to shake hands with Thatcher but they had to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.


    that surely is the case already with our last but one PM?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    One day, maybe not too far off, to shake our Prime Minister's hand would be to do so... People always assume 'it'll never happen here', like the recent riots, of which, terms like 'shocked' and 'disbelief' were used.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I worked as a nurse for many years. Should I have refused to treat someone because they had bee the Deputy Leader of the Nazi Party? No , of course not, I treated Rudolph Hess exactly the same as any other patient. To have failed to do so would have said more about me than about him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    There is quite a difference between shaking hands with someone who is reviled for the sake of civility and relations, and quite another to do business with them. While Gaddafi is reviled today, the picture with Tony Blair might well have been taken during the UK's negotiations with Libya that culminated in a 350 million GBP arms deal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    "I think its statement of fact that the Hamas charter refuses to recognise the existence of Israel. You might also question why Arab nations like Egypt enforce the Palestinian blockade so effectively yet import millions of south asian labourers. It suits the Arabs for the Palestinians and Israelis to fight. Thats not 'zionist propaganda' either."

    How does it suit?


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