THE OSLO DECLARATION: REPORTS OF ITS DEATH ARE NOT GREATLY EXAGGERATED
The Morning Leader (31st January 2007) carries a report of the first press conference given yesterday by the Hon. G. L. Peiris M. P., the new Minister of Export Promotion and International Trade, since he crossed over to the government. In this he is reported to have, to put it tartly, rubbished the significance and import of the Oslo Declaration of December 2002, which he was instrumental in producing. The Declaration appeared to articulate the framework of a politically negotiated constitutional settlement around an asymmetrically federated, united Sri Lanka. Stressing that constitutional concepts such as federalism are Ã¢Â€Â˜mere words’ which have Ã¢Â€Â˜no clear definition and are indistinct at best’, he states that effectively what he and other actors in the peace process of 2002 – 2004 were doing was Ã¢Â€Â˜brandishing words.’ He therefore argues that what is needed is Ã¢Â€Â˜a practical solution’ to the ethnic conflict, for which he and his former UNP colleagues would support the government.
Needless to say, the initial reaction to this among Sri Lankan liberals was one of aghast disbelief at what appears to be a perfidious and appalling retreat from principle. The Oslo Declaration is the lynchpin of liberal democratic hopes in respect of peace in Sri Lanka. It is a deftly drafted statement of principle which seeks to address and balance the political objectives of the protagonists in conflict, and which is based on liberal constitutionalist assumptions about conflict transformation. Thus Prof. Peiris’s abrogation of the formula would seem to be the latest in a tragic history of lost opportunities that demonstrates the total inability of the Sinhala community and the State it dominates, to deliver a fair deal to Tamils and other minorities. This is what the Indian journalist P. K. Balachandran recently described as a Ã¢Â€Â˜graveyard of pacts’. On the other hand, Sinhala nationalists and in particular the JVP are unlikely to alter their dim of view Peiris and his ilk on the strength of these statements, dismissing them as a trite attempt at smarmy ingratiation with the Mahinda Chinthanaya.
However, the report of Peiris’s dismissal of Oslo has met with a rather emollient reception from an unexpected constituency, the Tamil nationalists. Observers of the dynamics of Tamil nationalist politics point out that agreeing to Oslo was a strategic misstep, and even an all too-hasty concession on the substantive parameters of a future final settlement. They argue that the introduction of federalism to the political discourse was counterproductive, in that it created internal divisions within both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, the tensions of which the process was ultimately unable to withstand. Thus in the circumstances of 2002, they would argue that normalisation and gradual confidence-building ought to have been the focus of the process and that Oslo was an unnecessary distraction.
To liberals, however, this realpolitik approach is unappealing for the reason that it seems to be bereft of principles and values, and most distressingly, the loss of rationality and idealism in politics; focussing instead on hard-nosed interests, power politics and military calculations. Unfortunately, the liberal conception of politics has not much purchase in present-day Sri Lanka, and if it ever did, then political space is now decisively occupied by actors, on either side of the ethnic divide, who probably find liberals a bunch of quaint eccentrics at best, and irrelevant irritants at worst. Chillingly, this appears to vindicate the observation of the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt, that Ã¢Â€Â˜there is no liberal politics; only a liberal critique of politics.’