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.
Norwegian Embassy and Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Crude Politics
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is proving herself to be the political successor of Junius Richard Jayewardene in the art of crafty politics. As in the case of Jayewardene many of these manoeuvers are dictated through expediency than principle where long term interests are sacrificed for short term gains. The latest exercise by CBK to marginalise Erik Solheim the Norwegian Special Envoy evokes memories of how JRJ manipulated the removal of Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy the Indian special emissary in charge of promoting peace in Sri Lanka.

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.

LTTE protests
The LTTE was angered by the new development. LTTE chief negotiator and political adviser Anton Balasingham told The Sunday Leader last week that the LTTE was concerned over Colombo’s high handed and improper act of asking the Norwegian government to remove Erik Solheim as the special envoy in charge of facilitation at this juncture. “They cannot simply find a substitute for Mr. Solheim without consulting us. Both sides accepted him as the facilitator. They have to provide a satisfactory explanation for this” said Balasingham. Elaborating further Balasingham said “that as far as the LTTE and Tamil people were concerned Mr. Solheim had discharged his duties efficiently, sincerely and impartially.”

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.”

Emergency meeting
The peace process had not progressed in recent times because of the deadlock in Government and LTTE positions on several issues. The most crucial one was the question of de-proscription. The LTTE wants the government to lift its proscription before talks. The government refuses. There has been consistent pressure on the government to reconsider its position on this. It was against this backdrop that Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and special peace envoy Erik Solheim flew into the Katunayake Airport at 2.30 P.M. on June 7. The surprise visit was suddenly undertaken because of an urgent invitation extended by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is reported that Kadirgamar himself telephoned his Norwegian counterpart over this matter. It is learnt that Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo Jon Westborg was himself holidaying in Germany when the sudden invitation was sent. He flew in hurriedly to Colombo for the visit of his minister. Apparently the Norwegians had no idea about the exact reason for the invitation. The expectation was that the government had decided to suspend the tiger proscription for a specific period. Solheim telephoned the LTTE’s chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, based in London and informed him that he would while returning home , meet and brief him about the visit to Sri Lanka. Little did Solheim realise that his trip would be futile and that he would be specifically excluded from the important meeting. It soon became obvious that Solheim had journeyed for nothing and that he would not be included for the government dinner meeting. Norwegian second secretary and embassy spokesperson Tomas Strangland told the AFP “ it was an invitation to the (Norwegian ) foreign minister and not for Mr. Solheim.” Asked for the significance of Solheim being left out, Tomas said “I can’t comment on that” reported the AFP.

Three main issues
Due to pressing engagements in Oslo Jagland’s time in Colombo was limited. After a two hour dinner meeting and three hour follow up discussions the two foreign ministers left Colombo with Solheim on a Paris bound flight at 2: 30 am of Friday June 8th exactly after 12 hours of stay in Lanka. Solheim proceeded to Oslo without going to London for obvious reasons. It was left to Ambassador Westborg to brief Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe of the meeting.

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
On the question of Erik Solheim’s track record as chief intermediary the Government expressed dissatisfaction. While his objectives were laudable and sincere, his functional style had not produced the desired results from Colombo’s perspective. He was too easily accessible to the media. There were several reports in the media about the peace process that were not helpful. Negotiations could not be done through newspapers. A general lack of objectivity also could be detected in his approach. A ‘sequential analysis’ of his mediatory efforts contributed to a general impression among sections of the majority community that Erik Solheim in particular and Norway in general was partial towards the LTTE. This perception was detrimental to the progress of the peace process and may possibly result in undermining the good offices of Norway. Solheim was portrayed as being soft on the LTTE and incapable of exerting pressure on the tigers and compelling them to negotiate without preconditions.

Upgrade Norway’s efforts
Having made this point of view clear the Government however did not want Oslo to quit. There was also no direct demand that Solheim be replaced. Instead the request was for Norway to ‘up- grade’ its level of participation. Erik Solheim was only a former MP from a minor socialist party appointed as special adviser to the foreign ministry. He had apparently reached his limits and the peace process had exhausted him. What was required to galvanise the process was a high level input by Norway. The foreign minister himself could take up more direct responsibility. The facilitatory efforts should be spearheaded by someone who is at least of deputy-ministerial rank. The facilitator in the spotlight should be a high profile upper level functionary who commanded the respect of the international community and capable of harnessing a collective effort to bear down upon the tigers who were recalcitrant in Colombo’s view.

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
Jagland had apparently concurred with Colombo’s view that he should engage himself more directly in the peace efforts. Upon returning to Oslo via Paris Jagland opined that it was time for stronger political engagement by Norway, in order to make headway in the stalled peace negotiations. He said that his talks with Kumaratunga reviewed the status of the peace efforts in order to decide how to move forward. The Norwegian foreign minister said that he would now schedule meetings with the LTTE guerrillas but that no venue or dates had been set. Almost immediately after Jagland’s comments were publicised a London based Tamil radio quoted sources close to the LTTE and said that no one had contacted the tigers on this matter.

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.

Unnecessary blunder
Despite Colombo’s wishful thinking, the LTTE is not likely to abandon the peace process at this juncture. But it does seem that the hasty decision by Oslo to concur with Colombo is an unnecessary blunder. Solheim devoted himself full time to his unenviable task. Will the Foreign minister or his deputy have that kind of time available to them? Elections are scheduled in Norway for September and opinion polls state that the ruling Labour Party is losing support fast. Jagland is also the party leader and in addition to Ministerial duties will have a hectic schedule for campaigning that would leave him very little time for Sri Lanka.

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]