A tragedy of Errors
By: D.B.S. Jeyaraj
“Mr. Thorbjorn Jagland, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway who is also chairman of the ruling labour party in Norway visited Colombo for a few hours on Thursday for a discussion with President Kumaratunga at her invitation. Those present at the discussion were the President, Foreign Minister Jagland and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. It was decided that the government of Norway would henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE”
Press Release dated June 8th 2001.
The endless conflict in Sri Lanka underwent another sharp and dramatic twist in the second week of June when a controversy ensued over the facilitator role played by Norway in trying to bring about negotiations for a peaceful settlement between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Erik Solheim the mutually accepted Norwegian special envoy in charge of brokering peace efforts between both parties on behalf of Oslo was himself the unwilling centre of a fresh crisis that threatened to stall the fragile peace process. Even as the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE adopted antagonistic stances over the status of Norway’s facilitatory role in general and Erik Solheim’s position in particular, the reconciliatory effort of the third party intermediary was seemingly destined for an inevitable breakdown.
The sidelining of Erik Solheim has not been officially announced in detail. A terse statement with identical text was issued by the Royal Norwegian embassy in Colombo as well as the Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Ministry. The release said “Mr. Thorbjorn Jagland, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway who is also chairman of the ruling labour party in Norway visited Colombo for a few hours on Thursday for a discussion with President Kumaratunga at her invitation. Those present at the discussion were the President, Foreign Minister Jagland and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. It was decided that the government of Norway will henceforth participate at a high level to advance the peace process involving the LTTE”. Much of what had really transpired was indirectly revealed through sections of the media.
The LTTE headquarters in the Northern mainland of the Wanni issued a statement about the situation on June 10th. The statement expressed LTTE displeasure over the unilateral initiative taken by the Sri Lankan government to effect a change in the role and function of the Norwegian peace envoy Mr. Erik Solheim. This initiative was undertaken to downgrade and marginalise Mr. Solheim from his active, impartial facilitatory role under the guise of upgrading the level of Norwegian involvement, the statement said.
“The hasty manner in which the Norwegian Foreign Minister Mr. Jagland was summoned to Colombo for a closed door secret meeting with President Kumaratunga and the Foreign Minister Mr. Kadirgamar, where a critical decision was made to upgrade the status of facilitation without the consultation of the LTTE, the other party in the conflict, is, in our view, improper. The facilitatory process in peace making is not an exercise in inter-governmental relations: it involves tripartite relations between the facilitator and the parties in conflict. As a facilitator, the Government of Norway is under obligation to consult both protagonists before making crucial decisions with regards to its level of involvement or engagement. Making a bilateral decision with the government of Sri lanka, circumventing the other party in conflict entails a breach of protocol and neutrality” the LTTE statement said.
The statement continued that “we are well aware that powerful elements in the Kumaratunga government, including Kadiragamar, were unhappy with Mr. Solheim’s facilitator role ... It is sad to note that the Sri Lankan government has deliberately effected a crafty diplomatic ruse to down-grade and marginalise Mr. Solheim by a ploy of upgrading the facilitator role.”
Three main issues
Informed diplomatic sources revealed the essence of what transpired at the meeting. There were three main issues. The first concerned the de-proscription issue and what was expected from the international community. The second was a governmental assessment regarding Solheim’s performance as honest broker. The third was a request to alter the structure, substance and style of Norway’s mediatory efforts. It was only the third point that received at least some mention in the extremely short press release issued in Colombo.
The Sri Lankan government position was that the LTTE was not being genuine and was insisting on de-proscription to avoid entering talks. The government was not inclined to oblige by de-proscribing the LTTE. The onus was on the international community in general and Norway in particular to exert pressure on the tigers and compel them to come for talks. The ban could be lifted afterwards predicated on the progress achieved in talks. If de-proscription before talks was absolutely essential then the LTTE should manifest sincerity through concrete action. The tigers should announce that they are dropping their Tamil Eelam demand, suspend the armed struggle and as further proof of their bona fides adopt a moratorium on ‘terrorist’ violence for a reasonable period of time. The international community and Norway should guarantee the good behaviour of the LTTE if Colombo was to de-proscribe the LTTE as a prerequisite for negotiations.
Solheim’s track record
Upgrade Norway’s efforts
As the LTTE statement has noted the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo had succeeded in using the ploy of upgrading the facilitator role to downgrade Solheim and effectually undermine the peace process. What Colombo wants is to maintain the facade of a peace process while obstructing its progress subtly in practice. The sincere efforts of Solheim were a liability and not an asset for the government in this regard. But what is perplexing here is the seeming inability of Norway to understand the full ramifications of the government’s action. More importantly Oslo seems to be goofed into agreeing to Colombo’s suggestion and announcing it without consulting the LTTE. The tiger protest over this seems to be valid and has visibly embarrassed Norway.
Jagland’s involvement in the peace process
Even as the Sri Lankan and sections of the International media began highlighting the issue of Solheim being down graded as a result of the facilitatory effort becoming up graded, the eye of this media storm however was characteristically modest and rejected the view that he was sidelined. Responding to a Colombo website Solheim said “ I can only say that everything is exaggerated in the media.” He also felt that he was part of the peace process still. “ I can confirm to you that while the foreign minister (Norway) and his deputy minister will be involved at a high level, myself and the Norwegian Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Mr. Jon Westborg, will continue to act as the facilitating team” Solheim told the Lanka Academic.
In spite of Solheim’s optimism there are grave doubts about the future of the peace process. There is reason to believe that Jagland had blundered in agreeing to the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo without consulting the LTTE also. The press release should have stated that while a request had been made to “advance the peace process at a high level” a decision would be finalised after consulting the LTTE. Instead Norway is now perceived as having collaborated with Colombo to impose a bilateral decision on the third party in a tripartite exercise. There is also suspicion in Tamil circles that Norway may discard its Solheimistic approach and adopt a tough posture towards the LTTE in deference to Colombo. If that happens the political climate would be transformed.
Erik Solheim has studied the situation and discovered the real reasons for the Sri Lankan malaise. This is why the government wanted him out. It would require much time and space for the upgraded facilitator to acquire such insight. Besides there is the question of whether a minister or deputy minister will frequently travel to London, New Delhi ,Colombo and Mallavi for meetings. It is very likely that such duties would be relegated to a downgraded Solheim. In that case how effective will Solheim be in a devalued capacity? Unless these matters are resolved and a fresh approach satisfactory to all sides, the peace process is not likely to progress further. Of course the Sri Lankan government would find that situation attractive. What it needs now is the facade of a peace process without any realistic progress.
Whatever the government’s assessment concerning Erik Solheim, its request of upgrading the facilitation efforts does seem overtly reasonable although the consequence would be the overriding of Solheim. At the same time the LTTE’s objection to the government of Sri Lanka and Norway taking a bilateral decision on this vital issue without consulting or obtaining consent of the tigers is also valid. The contending views of both sides could complicate the situation further. Much would depend on the talks Oslo intends on having with the LTTE in the future. If matters are ironed out in these talks the peace process could stride forward powerfully. If not the process may be jeopardised on account of the Solheim factor. The change that is envisaged of inducting further impetus may become counterproductive and lead to the collapsing of the whole peace process. Because of the facilitator fracas the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis is the result of a mounting tragedy of errors.
|Courtesy: Sunday Leader [June 18th, 2001]