If this is not war, what is?
I find it somewhat ironical and amusing when politicians and peace activists alike still talk about the peace process. What peace process? Which peace process? I believe the majority of them are still referring to the one that kicked-off with the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. If I was to be cynical I’d contend that peace process was dead on arrival. If I was to be more gracious, I’d acquiesce that the 2002 CFA did auger a period of relative security and stability, but in the end it was not strong enough to withstand the challenges that followed, including the escalating military confrontations, the insubstantial gains at the negotiating-table and the growing political fragmentation and dissension in the South. If the 2002 peace process was not dead on arrival, it certainly heaved and hauled its way to a grinding halt in the year or two that followed. So essentially, there is no peace process. There has been no peace process for some time now.
It is not an easy task to work within the realities of war, both conceptually and practically. Conceptually we risk the danger of treating war as a real and neutral entity, where war becomes a given and we take contention only with its discretions. This then is the classical contradiction of developing a war ethic. In order to make war more humane, we have to momentarily discard the ethics of war per se and concern ourselves only with the ethics that govern the conduct of war. Practically, the reality of war is restrictive by nature; it restricts access to geographies and populations, it restricts access to information and truth; it restricts the freedom of independent opinion and expression; and most regrettably, it restricts the individual and collective human will and capacity to imagine and work towards something other than war.
This then is our operational environment. As I said before, the war in Sri Lanka is neither imminent nor impending, it is ongoing. If we are waiting for either or both parties to make a public declaration of it, we can wait an eternity. It is blatantly obvious that both the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) do not intend to abrogate the Ceasefire Agreement; paying lip-service to it stands as the last saving grace for both actors in the face of the international community. It is also abundantly clear that the GoSL and the LTTE will continue to use military force towards achieving their ends for the foreseeable future. If the period of 2002-2003 was characterized as a Ã¢Â€Â˜no war-no peace’ situation and 2003-2005 was described as a Ã¢Â€Â˜low-intensity conflict’ or Ã¢Â€Â˜shadow war’, 2006 and onwards is undoubtedly a period of open military confrontation or high intensity conflict. The violence appears to be more brutal and bloodier than in years past and shows no hope of ceasing. Hundreds of thousands of civilians live in displacement (often, repeated displacement) enduring abject conditions of poverty and deprivation. Controlling or denying humanitarian relief to these populations seems to have become simply another means by which the GoSL and the LTTE wage war against each other. Democracy, pluralism and the freedom of expression are being pitted against concepts like national security and patriotism and those seeking to present an alternative view are being held up and vilified as enemies of the state or movement. If this is not war, what is?
So, where do we go from here? I am of the opinion that calling a spade a spade let’s one get on with the digging. If there was a window of time when it was strategically beneficial for everyone alike to still talk about the looming threat of war, then that window of time has closed, save perhaps for the warring parties. For the rest of us, it is time to face up to the reality of war and in so doing work towards minimizing its tragedies. The international community needs to wake up from its diplomatic slumber and begin making unequivocal statements against the violence being plied by both sides against hapless civilians. It is not that they have been silent this past while, but their censure has been too little too late or too couched in diplomatic speak to warrant attention. If there was a time to call on the smorgasbord of international human rights conventions and humanitarian norms as a means of publicly naming and shaming the GoSL and the LTTE into compliance, this is that time. The peace lobby needs to infuse itself with a new imagination and begin strategizing and programming ways and means for remaining mobilized, even when the space for independent civil society action is an increasingly small and frequently dangerous one. The true grit and strength of peace activism has to be measured at times such as these, not when it can hop on a pro-peace wave, but rather when it must swim against a pro-war tide. To remain effective these sets of actors must abandon their own comfort zones, i.e. the five-star conference confabs, and venture into new territories. If we are to work on the premise that the violence will be protracted then there is work to be done. There are information and research lacunas to be filled on issues such as human shields, child soldiers, the rights of displaced persons etc. It is sad to note that despite the fertile climate of research and writing on the conflict in the country, work on specific topics such as these are woefully inadequate and that the debates in the international arena on such matters are far more complex and progressive than they are locally. There needs to be a far more integrated and professional approach to fact-finding missions and to human rights documentation. There needs to be far more active support and where necessary protection for independent media reporting on the ground situation. There needs to be far more energy put into keeping the lines of communication open between moderates on all sides. Finally, there needs to be a cohesive and sustained effort to keep the people mobilized for peace. Given the increasingly hardening attitudes on all sides, this final charge will perhaps be the hardest to deliver, but it is also the most crucial. In order to carry-out all these tasks and remain credible in the eyes of the people, both the international community and civil society must examine their own limitations and biases. The vociferous condemnation of one act of violence and the muted silence over another, or the strong censure against one actor and the explicit if not tacit endorsement of another does not bode well for presenting one’s self as an independent, concerned and multi-partial actor.
Working within the reality of war will not be easy. The normative challenges are only reinforced and augmented by ground realities. We do worse however in ignoring the ground realities altogether. The sooner that politicians and peace activists alike wake up and smell the gunpowder residue, the sooner we can all muster the courage necessary for minimizing the tragedies of war and perhaps even envisioning a peace process for the future.