Constitutional Reform, Foreign Relations, Politics and Governance

The use and misuse of international intervention

In this article, I propose to ponder on the issue of pacific international (i.e. mediatory) intervention in intrastate conflicts. I will especially focus on Sri Lanka, and the experiences of Indian and Norwegian intervention.  The term ‘intervention’ normally implies military and economic intervention, or United Nations peacekeeping operations. This article focuses on international mediation, and the term ‘intervention’ refers exclusively to pacific intervention by a third party state in the internal conflict of another sovereign state (mainly in the form of mediation and facilitation – two words that will be used interchangeably).

The ILA Phase: Trying Times of Our Recent Past
Since all-out civil war began in Sri Lanka in 1983, the conflict has been through successive phases of escalation, leading to the current military offensive. It has been noted that Indira Gandhi’s government in Delhi opened talks with the Jayawardene administration as early as the latter part of 1983, concerning our conflict. Delhi was not pleased with President Jayawardene’s foreign policy that prioritized relations with the USA and UK beyond Indo-Lanka relations. Muni (1991), among others, has noted that the relationship between President Jayawardene and Prime Minister (Mrs) Gandhi lacked in ‘personal rapport and political understanding’. Under the post-1984 Rajiv Gandhi administration, the relationship between the Sri Lankan Head of State and the Indian Head of Government took a different turn, leading to the negotiations and paper trail that led to the Indo-Lanka Agreement (ILA). If the elaboration of a durable settlement to the ethnic conflict was the main objective of the ILA, it dramatically failed in that venture due to several basic reasons. Primo, the devolution package, (i.e. the Provincial Councils created by the 13th constitutional amendment and the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987) did not match the magnitude of ethnic contentions and minority demands. Tamils in general and Tamil nationalist political groups in particular were demanding a more extensive settlement. Ethnic violence in the island (particularly in the northern and eastern provinces) had already been active for a decade by 1987, together with the devastating experiences of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots and the subsequent war. The political leadership in Colombo was not receptive to the fact that those individuals who drafted the Vaddukkodai Resolution for the creation of a separate Tamil state were also citizens of Sri Lanka, and that the said resolution was reached due to continuous inaction of Colombo, whose blind eye to ethnic minority grievances is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.

Addressing the Need for ‘Extensive’ Devolution
In other words, if devolution was to be considered as a viable strategy for a settlement, it required an extensive form of devolution with increased guarantees for the protection of minority rights. A devolution package of this nature cannot refrain from addressing issues such as the devolution of policing, taxation, public administration and related ‘crucial’ powers to regional bodies. Dealing with these powers constitutes one of the most challenging phases of a devolution initiative. Despite extensive devolution, the Northern Ireland Executive still does not have fiscal powers. Despite the creation of a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) with an essentially neutral dimension (replacing the former Royal Ulster Constabulary – anathema to Irish Republicans/Nationalists/Catholics) in accordance with the Patten Commission Report of 1999 (Walker 2001), questions over policing reform, cross-sectarian recruitment to the police force and the impartiality of the police continue to pose a major challenge to the Northern Ireland Executive.

In the Sri Lankan context, extensive devolution (especially with regards to public security and fiscal powers) remains extremely delicate, given the substantial divisions among Tamil political and militant groups. Such differences were extremely rampant during the late 1980s. Yet, it is upto the central government to promptly address these issues, and the ILA was a complete failure with regards to extensive devolution. After over twenty years of existence, Provincial Councils still do not have policing and fiscal powers, a matter often raised during the current Western Provincial Council electoral campaign.

Exclusion of Hardliners: Avoiding Confrontation with the Most Challenging Adversaries
Secondly, The ILA completely excluded the LTTE, by then the largest Tamil militant group, from its negotiations. The LTTE, together with other Tamil militant groups such as PLOT and TELO, were sidelined as ‘terrorist organizations’ that were requested to lay down their arms. What Delhi did not grasp was the fact that these militants were also Sri Lankans, and they had turned to terrorism due to decades of discrimination, neglect of their regions by Colombo, and the absence of educational and professional opportunities for youth.  In the absence the active participation of these groups, a durable settlement could not be reached. Exclusion of violent, i.e. ‘terrorist’ factions from conflict regulation efforts is extremely detrimental to their success.

Sunningdale Parallel from Northern Ireland
A parallel can be drawn from Northern Ireland’s power-sharing experiment of 1972-3, widely known as the Sunningdale Agreement, or Whitllaw’s power-sharing initiative (named after the then Northern Ireland Secretary (Viscount) William Whitlaw). The Sunningdale negotiations completely excluded the Provisional Irish Republican Army (P-IRA) , and the Nationalist/Catholic community was represented at the negotiations by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which has historically adopted a non-violent, constitutional nationalist and non-hardline stance. Tamil political parties with a similar ‘moderate’ approach to ethnic politics can be considered as Sri Lankan equivalents of the SDLP. The settlement reached at Sunningdale barely lasted a few months, and Northern Ireland once again drifted into direct rule and sectarian violence.

It has been rightly observed that the extremely high level of P-IRA violence at the time of the Sunningdale experiment prevented the opening of negotiations between the state and the P-IRA. In a province with a population of only 1.5 million, there were 467 deaths in 1972 alone (source: BBC profile of Viscount Whitlaw). This shares a direct parallelism with Sri Lanka in the late 1980s and the ILA. Military activity of the LTTE had reached extremely high proportions, preventing all possibilities of triggering negotiations between Colombo and the LTTE. Besides, the complete failure of the 1985 peace talks between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, held in Bhutanese capital Thimpu provided an impetus for Colombo to emphasize its conviction that the LTTE is thoroughly unprepared for peace talks.

Necessity of Constructive Dealings with Hardliners
Yet, a situation of this nature should not prevent a responsible government from seeking further options, and developing innovative strategies of establishing channels of exchange with militant adversaries. This is where the ‘moderate’ elements of a polity could be of immense use, in building a communicative bridge between the state and the militants. Both Sunningdale and ILA failed in this venture. The negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) of 1998 took Sinn Fein (SF- literally ‘Ourselves’, the political wing of the P-IRA) on board.  SF was given a number of guarantees that its voice will be heard, and its primary demands addressed. An early gesture was President Clinton’s decision to grant a 48-hour US entry visa to SF leader Gerry Adams in February 1994 to attend a one-day conference organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. This decision outraged the British government, but its impact on the politics of Northern Ireland was remarkable. As Prof. Adrien Guelke has noted, the subsequent P-IRA ceasefire declared on 31 August 1994 ‘was widely seen as a vindication of Clinton’s judgment on the visa’ (Guelke 2001).  The Irish American diaspora (especially organizations such as ‘Americans for a New Irish Agenda’ – ANIA) played a crucial role in developing a constructive dialogue with Sinn Fein. In the 1987 paper trail that led to the ILA, no identical efforts were made, leading to doubly redoubled contentions, divisions and violence. Requesting the LTTE to decommission its weapons, without addressing organisation’s strong opposition of the ILA resulted in the phase of fierce fighting between the LTTE and the Indian Pecekeeping Force (IPKF), leaving sour memories among the people of northern Sri Lanka.

Northern Ireland: Case-specific Particularities?
Moreover, the relative consensus reached at the Belfast Agreement of 1998 was the result of the combination of numerous elements including the recognition of the Irish dimension in the Northern Ireland conflict, US involvement, the EU’s wider policy of cross-border collaboration, end of the Cold War and the inability for the Irish Republican movement to justify its ‘long war’ for a united Ireland and the development of a strong public opinion in support of a negotiated settlement. The Agreement is marked by safeguards intended at addressing grievances of contentious groups. While the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was left in the hands of the ‘will of the majority’ of the province’s population (reassuring the minority Nationalist/Republican community- whose numbers have been on the rise), the Irish government amended its constitution, renouncing its territorial claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland (which reassured the Unionist/Loyalist community, about the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom). The ILA officially recognised the ‘Indian dimension’ of the Sri Lankan conflict, while the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in 1985 between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald marked the UK’s official recognition of the ‘Irish dimension’ in Northern Ireland’s conflict. The active and constructive collaboration of the republics of India and Ireland is essential in drafting a durable settlement in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. In the latter case, this has been strongly proven in Dublin’s role in the negotiation process and in the cross-border institutions created by the Belfast Agreement. In Sri Lanka, the Indian dimension has turned out to be a tricky one, given India’s position as the regional superpower and the internationalisation of Sri Lanka’s conflict via the state of Tamil Nadu. Despite reaching consensus over the necessity of a political settlement, policymakers across the Palk Strait have been unsuccessful in developing a strong agenda for a negotiated settlement that includes the hardliners, a secondary external actor, international observers/peace monitors, an agreement based on extensive devolution, and most importantly, developing a strong public opinion in Sri Lanka (and in Tamil Nadu) in favour of a non-violent, negotiated settlement within a united Sri Lanka.

Norwegian Intervention in Sri Lanka: Diplomatic Restraint or Unavoidable Stalemate?
In a paper about the Norwegian intervention in Sri Lanka, John Molakattu (2005) notes that requests made by the British and Norwegian governments to facilitate air passage for the late Anton Balasingham via Colombo airport (to leave Sri Lanka for urgent medical treatment) gradually led to the approval of Norway’s role as mediator. Norway also constituted a neutral power with experience in mediating peace processes, and the absence of colonial ties with Sri Lanka added to its neutrality. Since the beginning of Norwegian mediation, they have been strongly criticized by elements of the Sinhalese polity. Norway and Minister Eric Solheim, the chief negotiator in Sri Lanka, were anathema to Sinhala nationalist organizations and to the Buddhist clergy.  The large Tamil Diaspora in Norway and its direct access to the LTTE leadership seems to have cemented such views. Norwegian diplomats have since been taking quiet but significant steps in dealing with such criticism, by developing their links with Sinhala Buddhist institutions, and the Norwegian Ambassador’s visit to the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy in 2008, and his dialogues with the high priests provides an example of Oslo’s commitment for impartial facilitation in Sri Lanka.
In the post-2006 period, Norway has been vehemently criticized by Tamil nationalists for its inaction with regards to Sri Lanka, for its inability to force Colombo to address the demands of the LTTE and lead the island towards a negotiated settlement. Such views have remained extremely strong in the first quarter of 2009, with Norwegian Tamils blocking the parliament buildings in Oslo, a ‘human chain’ demonstration in the city, and protests during the rush hour that blocked Oslo’s public transport system.  Minister Solheim’s recent statement that he cannot make miracles sums up the most realistic assessment of Norwegian intervention in Sri Lanka.

Ceasefire Requests from Co-Chairs and UN: Music for Deaf Ears?
The Tokyo co-chairs (i.e.  USA, EU, Norway and Japan) have repeatedly requested the Rajapakse administration to reconsider its military offensive and begin negotiations. At the beginning of this year, Pranab Mukergee (India’s Minister of External Affairs) suggested that Colombo ought to accept LTTE’s offer of a ceasefire. The UN Secretary General, US Secretary of State, the British Prime Minister, and other international leaders have been repeatedly engaging in telephone conversations with the Sri Lankan Head of State. The most recent view of the Tokyo co-chairs and the international community at large is summed up by their collective request to Colombo to ‘stop futile fighting’, as Reuters reported it on 10 April 2009.  Sri Lanka’s conflict lacks in international significance, and international involvement and pressure remain considerably limited due to this reason. The same reason lies behind the apparent ‘inaction’ of Western governments, even after a rush hour traffic blockage in London and a hitherto unseen protest in front of the British Houses of Parliament. The massive protests in other Western cities present a sharp contrast to the complete inaction of the respective governments. Unless a government with a strict, well-defined, unwavering and sincere agenda for a durable settlement based on ‘respect’, ‘equality’ and ‘unity’ comes to power in Colombo, Norwegian intervention will remain where it currently is, and will be of meager use for Sri Lankans. On Monday 13 April 2009, Tamilnet reported that the government of Sri Lanka has handed a formal letter to Ambassador Tore Hattrem, expressing its stance that there is no room for Norway to act as peace facilitator.

Ignoring Norway’s Role, Ousting Norway and Heading Nowhere?
It should not be forgotten that it is under Norwegian mediation that the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement was signed, and Norway’s diplomacy, coupled with the practical contribution of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was instrumental in bringing forth that period of short-lived but highly significant peace in the island. It enabled families that were separated for years to get together once again, Tamils from the North to travel to their homeland, and Sinhalese to visit the northern and eastern regions – for the first time for many of the younger generations. That period of relative calm saw the expansion of research studies in a variety of areas including the psychological impact of conflict on individuals, economic empowerment and development, and post-conflict transformation. The contribution made by Scandinavian scholars in reading the dynamics of conflict is remarkable. The ceasefire also enabled to ‘document’ aspects of one of the most violent intrastate conflicts in recent history. Beate Arnestad made My Daughter the Terrorist, while Dr Miranda Allison carried out a revealing study on female combatants in the LTTE. Some Sinhalese, notably those in government, have criticised Beate’s documentary, seeing a threat to their humanitarian military strategy. An attentive viewing of the film shows that it does not have any anti-Colombo or anti-Sinhala dimension whatsoever. On the contrary, it demonstrates the extreme cruelty of this conflict, highlighting the necessity of getting together, external actors, political elites and civil society alike, in reaching a negotiated settlement.

Ousting Oslo from conflict regulation in Sri Lanka is one of the greatest mistakes Colombo can commit, and is suggestive of its adamant disposition, and complete disregard for the people suffering due to the current military offensive. The Tamils stranded in the no-fire zone may be poor, may largely belong to lower castes, may be ‘Tamil’, but it must not be forgotten that they are citizens of Sri Lanka, and it is not by the current decimation that Colombo will achieve any of its positive goals. A Cambridge-educated academic and a seasoned Sri Lankan politician recently stated that:

‘…the dream of Mahinda [Rajapakse] to eliminate the LTTE by brutal repression of all who are associated with the LTTE will be a void in the coming period. In the case of the LTTE, it represents the real anger of the Tamil people against discrimination, humiliation and oppression by Sinhala chauvinism. But it was and is wrong to the hilt in hating Tamil society for its demand for equality and self determination. However the anger of the Tamil people over the ruthless attacks made by both the state and the pogroms cannot be dispersed by decimating the LTTE. The latter will enhance the hard feelings within Tamil society. It will pour out in the future not only in Lanka but also in India as a gigantic Dravidian movement’.
Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne (full text of the article is available here – accessed 14 April 2009).

While leaving approval or disproval to the reader, I wish to note the salient factor that the ‘anger’ of Tamils Dr. Karunaratne mentions is soaring across the globe, like an untreated wound in desperate need of remedy. The elimination of a ‘nationalist sentiment’ of a people who have indeed been subject to constant discrimination and secondary treatment for sixty one years in no way constitutes a realistic objective. Instead, now is the time to call for a stronger role of Oslo in the areas of peace monitoring, welfare of women, children and the most vulnerable and thereby remedying the humanitarian tragedy, engaging in a dialogue based on respect and equality with the Tamil political leadership including the LTTE and all other armed and non-armed groups, recognising the genuine grievances of the largest ethnic minority, and offering a settlement based on extensive devolution, based on a framework of centrifugal federalism, via which the political aspirations of all communities will be reconciled and equal treatment restored. Unfortunately, all us Sri Lankans have been rendered helpless onlookers by uncompromising policymakers whose blindness to the consequences of their policies will keep Sri Lanka in war, Tamils in pain and anger, dozens of Sinhala youth dying in the battlefield, Sinhala nationalism soaring and Tamil ‘anger’ and nationalism attaining immense heights at home and abroad.

Third Party Mediation in Intrastate Conflicts: A Feasible Option?
What Sri Lanka is currently going through provides an example of an intrastate conflict that did not make effective use of third party mediation/facilitation. At this time of conflict and intense suffering of our own countrymen in the Northern warfront, it is essential for concerned policymakers, diplomats, scholars and civil society activists to think further about international mediation, and the role that mediators could play in transforming a conflict-ridden society, addressing the grievances of people in war-torn regions, and in assisting the political elite to draft a negotiated settlement with sufficient strength to endure the wrath of decades-old antagonism.

Why do scholars write about pacific international intervention? Why should a third party state get involved in the regulation of an internal conflict within another state? A quick answer would be ‘to mediate/facilitate’. This suggests that the third party is better placed to enable the warring parties to stop violence and develop a dialogue, and frame a settlement by addressing their demands and concerns, based on mutual respect. The question is, ‘does third party intervention really help reach a durable settlement to an intrastate conflict?’ Once again, the obvious answer is not rocket science. A third party can help – to a certain degree. As long as there is sufficient motivation among the warring parties themselves to make peace, third party actors can contribute effectively. The case of post-2005 Sri Lanka shows what happens under contrary circumstances.

Civil Society Support for Peace?
It must also be mentioned that international mediation, and the role of third party actors in conflict regulation effort, should not remain limited to facilitating dialogue among political elites. This can be considered as one of the greatest flaws of the 1998-2006 Norwegian facilitation in Sri Lanka. President Kumaratunga and her advisors, Ranil Wickramasinghe and senior officials in his administration, and members of negotiation teams from 2002 to 2006 may have discussed many issues with Norwegian facilitators; similarly the LTTE engaged in its own expressions of interest. While peace negotiations were taking place (courtesy: the tax payer) in the gorgeous surroundings of Phuket Thailand, in the cool climes of Geneva Switzerland and Oslo, a strong anti-Norway and anti-peace talks sentiment was rapidly growing among the Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka. A sense of frustration was growing among Tamil youth and militants concerning the slow pace of the peace process. Sri Lankans witnessed the consequences crystal clearly in the peoples’ verdict at the 2004 General Elections and the 2005 Presidential Elections. Very little was done in focusing on civil society, and in developing a sense of peace preparedness among the people, both Sinhalese and Tamil. The Sinhalese majority needs to be engaged in a constructive dialogue that develops a spirit of openness, equality and respect concerning ethnic politics. The idea that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic country, and that we are all equal citizens despite our ethnicity and language, needs to be deeply embedded in Sri Lankan society, especially among the younger generations. The elaboration of strategies for reaching this goal requires the active participation of civil society peace activists, think tanks, academics, non-governmental organizations, representatives from political parties with an agenda for inclusion and a negotiated settlement, and activists from all quarters. Such strategies also require funding, which constitutes a major concern for the Toyko Co-Chairs, the Sri Lankan government and the Diaspora.

An exemplary parallel can be identified in Northern Ireland. A large number of scholars have repeatedly highlighted that conflict regulation requires the active participation and endorsement of civil society. The Peace I and II funding provided by the European Union, contributions from the British and Irish Governments, diaspora funds such as the Ireland Funds and the International Fund for Ireland provided the much needed material support to elaborate extensive community relations projects, peace and reconciliation initiatives, cross-border cooperation, economic development and empowerment, and programmes targeted at youth. The impact of civil society peace activism has been of the utmost importance in developing a strong public opinion in support of peace, thereby enabling the polity to progress on an agenda of reaching a durable settlement based on negotiation and facilitation.

Observing, Understanding and Avoiding Futility
Concerning the effective use of third party mediation/facilitation, a state and a government needs to acknowledge its own commitment for peace, and the ways in which a given third party state could constructively contribute to a peace process. Here’s a useful question: ‘how can the government of a country with an internal conflict reap the best fruit of third party mediation/facilitation?’ First, such a government requires a sincere commitment to restore equal treatment and respect for all ethnic/communal groups. Secondly, it is necessary for a state dealing with an intrastate conflict to observe mistakes committed by other states that have faced and/or continue to face internal civil conflicts. Policymakers and civil society activists ought to understand that there is a fine line between ‘learning from mistakes’ and the assumption that ‘strategies that were successful in a given context can be applied to another (different) conflict context. Learning and ‘inspiring’ from other peace processes does not entail upholding the notion that the strategies used in one peace process can be used as a ‘model’ in another. It requires further creativity and innovation, and a higher level of sensitivity to pressing ‘case-specific issues’ and a deep commitment to peace and stability.

Selected References:
1.    Guelke, A. “International Dimensions of the Belfast Agreement”, in Wilford, R. (Ed.) Aspects of the Belfast Agreement. Oxford: OUP, 2001, pp. 245-263.
2.    Molakkattu, J.S. Peace Facilitation by Small States: Norway in Sri Lanka. Cooperation and Conflict, Vol. 40, No. 4, December 2005, pp. 385-402.
3.    Muni, S.D. “Indo-Sri Lankan Relations and Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict” in de Silva, K.M. and May R.J. (Eds.) Internationalization of Ethnic Conflict. London: Pinter Publishers, 1991, pp. 115-124.
4.    Walker, C. “The Patten Report and Post-Sovereignty Policing in Northern Ireland”, in Wilford, R. (Ed.) Aspects of the Belfast Agreement. Oxford: OUP, 2001, pp. 142-165.