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Bhavani Kannan

Bhavani Kannan is a doctoral candidate in the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University (ANU). Her research focuses on harnessing diplomatic approaches to terrorism through improving negotiations as a CT mechanism. She has previously been a research assistant at the Western Australian Institute of Dispute Management. Bhavani holds a Master of Diplomacy (Advanced) with Honours and a Master of Laws in international law from the ANU. She previously completed a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Specialist) in Japanese at Murdoch University.


Thanks for agreeing to chat with us Bhavani! Can you start by telling us more about your interests and research areas? Specifically, regarding your PhD?
Thanks for reaching out! My research focuses on diplomatic and non-military avenues for maintaining international peace and security with respect to armed non-state actors. Specifically, I find soft power tools such as negotiation, mediation, and persuasion fascinating. Nelson Mandela stated that ‘[n]egotiation and discussion are the greatest weapons we have for promoting peace and development.’ This is reflected in negotiation being a wildly more successful tool than policymakers give them credit for. Yet, world leaders and policymakers continue to reject negotiations, turning to them as a last resort. My PhD examines the intersection between diplomatic studies, international law, and international security to re-evaluate basic assumptions and understandings about negotiating with armed non-state actors, such as terrorists, as an international security tool. In particular, I am looking at the relationship between who are, or ought to be, considered diplomatic actors, and what it means to behave diplomatically. Linked to this is analysing whether certain actors are inherently bad, or are choosing to behave badly. The potential implications for the way we frame foreign policy to maintain international peace and security are huge.

What inspired your interest in this research area?
I have always been drawn to negotiation and mediation. In a previous life in law, it infuriated me that negotiation was considered an “Alternative” Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanism. As Winston Churchill remarked in 1954, ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’; this has innately rung true for me. It is why I was drawn to law in the first place. A desire to give a voice to the un(der)-represented and voiceless members of society saw my interests grow from criminal law, to public international law, to diplomacy and international security. Within the international context, there is a clear power asymmetry among actors. This is even more pronounced from a realist/strategic/security perspective. While negotiations don’t completely level the playing field, they do give the un(der)-represented members of the international community an opportunity to address legitimate grievances. That we counter-intuitively shy away from a conflict resolution mechanism with a proven track-record simply makes researching negotiations and diplomacy even more fascinating.

You recently wrote a chapter ‘Negotiating with terrorists’ for ASPI’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019. Why is it important for Australia to improve our approach to negotiations with terrorists?
The simple reality is that the status quo in counterterrorism isn’t working. It has been almost 2 decades since the “War on Terror” commenced. During this time, we have not only seen the spread of terrorism increase, but more importantly, combating terrorism through military action led to the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time.

Terrorism is as old as humanity. It will continue to exist wherever there are governments that do not adequately address the concerns and grievances of their constituencies. Historically, negotiations have enjoyed a significantly greater success rate in ending terrorism than military action. Refusing to negotiate with terrorists is akin to countering terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. In improving our approach to negotiations with terrorists, Australia, and the rest of the international community, will be better equipped to actually counter terrorism effectively and achieve lasting peace and security.

What advice do you have for women wanting to pursue a career in this field?
Go for it. The great thing about the glass ceiling is that glass is fragile!

More seriously though, women need to embrace being women. For too long, and especially in certain industries such as security and law, we have been told that to succeed, women need to emulate men. However, there is a lot of research suggesting that the very traits and characteristics that were seen as “negative” feminine qualities are actually strengths within negotiating.  Contrary to what the Donald Trumps of the world would have you believe, successful negotiators do not approach negotiations as business transactions. They, instead, bring understanding, flexibility, and equity to the table. Or, to quote Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, good negotiators can ‘climb into [a person’s] skin and walk around in it.’ Good negotiators are sensitive listeners who build relationships and find creative solutions to problems. More women in negotiating can only be a positive, especially for international peace and security.

What podcasts are you currently listening to?

I really need to make more time for podcasts. It’s on the To Do list. When I do get a chance, my go-to is ABC’s Conversations. The broad-ranging topics keep me from falling too deeply down the rabbit hole of my own interests, while simultaneously highlighting opportunities for multidisciplinary research. Another family favourite is Imagine This, a science podcast for pre- and primary- school-aged children. In addition to sharing the joy of curiosity and research with my daughter, the podcast is a good reminder about the importance of conveying research in a way that is accessible to all.

Finally, who inspires you?

Everyone who has ever been physically or institutionally silenced continually inspire and motivate me to keep pushing boundaries and affect change. Sadly, this is often women, children, and minorities; societies’ most vulnerable members. I also draw inspiration from Voltaire, and Beatrice Evelyn Hall’s take on his philosophy: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Tolerance and empathy don’t mean agreeing with everyone.  Instead, it requires one to be open to treating everyone with dignity.  This, in my opinion, is the true starting point for peace.

Updated: 25 Nov 2019