Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Rejecting Bildt, one way winds and concerns over conflict regulation

The most recent controversy in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations popped up with news reports on Sri Lanka’s apparent ‘rejection’ of entry clearance to Swedish Foreign Minister the Hon. Carl Bildt. Minister Bildt, a senior Swedish politician and former Prime Minister of Sweden from 1991 to 1994, was supposed to visit Sri Lanka on Wednesday 29 April 2009, accompanied by his French and British counterparts, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband.

Some news agencies, including Xinhua, reported that Minister Kouchner and Foreign Secretary Miliband were supposed to visit Sri Lanka in their capacity as permanent members of the UN Security Council (therefore, the visit is not related to EU-SL relations). In a press release, the government of Sri Lanka states that it envisaged the visits of the French and the British Foreign Ministers purely on a bilateral basis and not in terms of their membership in a regional or United Nations context.

According to the Xinhua news report, Karel Schwarzenberg, the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic (which currently holds the EU presidency) has remarked that it would have been useful for Minister Bildt to visit Sri Lanka, due to his experiences in conflict transformation and peacebuilding. It is indeed a fact that Minister Bildt is well-experienced in these sectors. Prior to being appointed Foriegn Minister, he was the EU’s Special Envoy in Bosnia-Harzegovina, and later High Representative to the same region. He also acted as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to the Balkans. In November 1995, Minister Bildt acted as co-chairman of the Dayton Peace conference.

It ought to be noted that Minister Bildt has also been at the centre of a few controversies. Some have questioned his role in an international advisory committee that pushed the Bush administration’s 2003 Iraq War (related news report is available online). In 2007, an inquiry was opened for not deleting ‘racist’ comments on Palestinians made by a commenter on his blog. The investigations found no grounds for suspicion concerning Bildt. More recently, Minister Bildt made a controversial comeback by comparing the role of the Russian Federation in the South Ossetian War to Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which outraged the authorities in Moscow (related news report). He has also noted that Russia, Belarus, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela are ‘miserable’ countries (related news report).

Despite these controversies, Minister Bildt’s input would have provided food for thought for Sri Lankan policymakers. His presence would have had an added strategic importance for SL-EU relations, given the upcoming Swedish Presidency of the European Union (i.e. in the second half of 2009).

Nevertheless, it is of importance to highlight Colombo’s stance on Minister Bildt’s visit. The Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs notes that when the visit by the Foreign Secretary of Britain David Miliband and Foreign Minister of France Bernard Kouchner was discussed with Sri Lankan officials both at presidential and ministerial levels, there was no indication of the participation of the Swedish Foreign Minister. Colombo further notes that:

‘It needs to be understood that in this instance there had been no formal prior consultations with the government of Sri Lanka with regard to the visit of the Swedish Foreign Minister. The statements made in this regard seem to be emanating from a unilateral decision made on the part of Sweden and the EU with regard to the said visit’ (emphasis is mine).

Thus, it appears that Colombo was not consulted in arranging the visit of Minister Bildt with his French and British counterparts. Therefore, the decision of his visit took the form of a ‘unilateral’ decision, that does not take Colombo’s standpoint into account. It is unarguable that external intervention at the present juncture is beneficial for Sri Lanka, especially in managing the humanitarian crisis in the North, and (given the implementation of conducive state policy) in incorporating hardliners in a process of dialogue meant at reaching a political agreement. But it is essential that the international community takes Colombo’s stance strongly into account. If potential external actors cast out the government of Sri Lanka as the ‘villain’ in the current situation, it would only result in aggravating the crisis, leading to further deterioration. Instead, external actors are faced with the challenge of developing a new and interactive exchange with the government of Sri Lanka – which would enable the latter to strengthen its external relations, outline potential benefits of a policy transformation and gradually develop joint mechanisms to address the ethnic question.

The issue over Minister Bildt’s trip to Sri Lanka is suggestive of a deep-seated trend in the policies of international actors towards intrastate conflicts, especially those taking place in the global south. Almost all analytical studies, project reports, datasets and scholarly works on pacific international intervention and the role of international mediators/facilitators purely focus on the roles of external actors. They are written from the ‘perspective’ of external actors, with little or no attention devoted to explore the perspectives and perceptions of internal actors. The challenges they (i.e. internal actors) face in working with international actors are unaddressed and blatantly ignored. This lacuna, strongly present in policymaking platforms, is amply shown in the Bildt-Sri Lanka issue, where the viewpoint of a sovereign ‘internal’ actor to an intrastate conflict has not been adequately considered. What is required is a new approach that focuses on looking at international intervention, mediation, diplomatic engagements and facilitation from the perspectives of both external and internal actors. In the absence of such a discourse, unilateral decisions will be the norm, resulting in considerable barriers to intrastate conflict regulation.

This by no means implies any form of endorsement of Colombo’s current policies on the ethnic conflict. It is this writer’s stance that despite repeated assurances; the current military offensive is carried out at an utterly desperate and irrevocable ‘human cost’. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the Rajapakse administration received a peoples’ mandate to address the ethnic conflict using a strategy different from the Wickramasinghe government of 2001-4. Propaganda or not, that mandate has been subsequently strengthened by repeated successes at local government elections. The government’s stance that a ‘ceasefire’ only gives its adversaries a renewed opportunity to regain their military strength and reengage in violence is a historically proven fact. It is only normal that the government gives a need to the political views of its coalition partners, including Sinhala nationalist elements. In such a context, external actors need to be doubly innovative, strive to develop its relations with the government. It is such a strategy that they can gradually make Colombo move towards a more ‘inclusive’ handling of the conflict.