New Zealand Law Society - Overcoming gunpoint negotiation as a lawyer in Iraq

Overcoming gunpoint negotiation as a lawyer in Iraq

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Rabia Siddique
Rabia Siddique

Irrefutably one of the best skills a lawyer will ever take to a meeting is excellent negotiation skills, but imagine having to use those skills to negotiate the release of yourself and two soldiers in a deteriorating war zone.

Australian-based criminal and human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique was a guest speaker at the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand conference, held in May.

Her story of an experience she had as a military lawyer for the British Army in Iraq in 2005 was both compelling and inspirational.

A unique story

It involved the detention of two British SAS soldiers at a police compound in the city of Basra, who were dressed in local attire. They were carrying out a covert investigation of that police force over allegations of infiltration by Shiite militants who were apparently taking vigilante revenge against Sunnis.

Rabia Siddique was sent to the police headquarters to secure the release of the soldiers.

She was the second-choice negotiator. The British Army’s first option was rejected by an Iraqi judge who said he would only deal with Rabia Siddique as he felt she was a lawyer he could trust.

However, it soon become apparent that this was a very tense and dangerous situation.

Ms Siddique soon found herself on her knees with the cold tip of an AK47 pressed into her forehead.

“The training and skills I had as a lawyer in relation to negotiation, mediation, communication and storytelling through spending a lot of time telling other people’s stories in a courtroom helped me in what was probably one of the highest pressure situations you could find yourself in,” she says.

With the gun at her head both the instinctive legal and military training she had took over.

“You have to dig deep and remain calm and focused on what you’re doing, otherwise several lives including my own could have been in jeopardy. I wasn’t equipped for this, having not had any formal hostage negotiation training.

“Survival instinct also plays a part in these situations and until that day I was unaware how profound it was,” she says.

The importance of human connection

Normally with litigation situations, Rabia Siddique says lawyers already have some training to take the human connection and emotion out of the process.

“We talk about putting on our lawyer’s hats which traditionally meant taking the emotion away and being sterile in our approach. We associate professional with almost being cold and strategic but the Iraqi situation reminded me that there is room to maintain some humanity and personal connection in our work. Never lose sight of what people you’re representing are going through in that it is real and important,” she says.

Rabia Siddique in Iraq
Rabia Siddique in Iraq

Ms Siddique remained calm and was slowly resolving the situation by explaining to the Iraqi chief legal officer in the station that it was illegal to detain British soldiers under an accord agreed between the Iraqi Provincial Government and the coalition forces.

But the situation outside the compound took a violent turn with militants storming the facility after they were fed false information by police that the detained SAS soldiers were Israeli spies, making them a target for reprisal attacks by both Shiites and Sunnis who despised Israel.

The militants stormed the compound and briefly took control of the situation before Rabia Siddique’s captors regained the upper hand.

Eventually, after a further tense stand-off, and the threat of execution, negotiations between the governor of Basra and the British consul-general secured their release.

Team-work in challenging situations

Reflecting on that experience, Ms Siddique says the legal profession should put more focus on the importance of good team work, something she says was vital to gaining their release.

“Everyone brings a different and diverse range of experience, skills and expertise and strength to the table and you should take time to listen to what value they bring. That’s when you realise you don’t have to do everything and you’re not in this alone, and a collection of minds and talent has such potential to yield great results,” she says.

Once her ordeal was over and they were all back at base, there was little appetite for Rabia Siddique’s version of the story at the police compound, yet she had been intensely involved in negotiating their release and wanted recognition for her part in the crisis.

The battle for equal status

She says there are parallels between her fight for recognition and that of the battle some women in law have to gain senior status in law firms, such as making partner.

“The decision to write me out of the incident was a political one. With regard to what is happening in our profession and the challenges women have, I think it has a lot to do with the culture. We are still a very traditional and conservative profession,” she says.

Ms Siddique says conservatism in the legal sector limits opportunity for diversity of thought and innovative approaches.

“It’s that culture which is driving some women to leave the profession because the battle gets too hard and exhausting and they realise they don’t want to do it anymore. It’s a tragedy because we will lose talent and a pool of expertise. We need to challenge this and if so change our narrative and perspectives in relation to how we regard ourselves as a profession.”

She says diversity is broader than just gender and includes age, experience and cultural diversity.

“Better understanding and embracing diversity in its broadest sense will only improve and strengthen the legal profession,” she says.

Rabia Siddique is the author of a memoir, Equal Justice, My Journey as a Woman, a Soldier and a Muslim (Macmillan, 2013). Rabia is holding an all-day leadership workshop for NZLS CLE Ltd in Auckland (19 September) and Wellington (20 September).

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