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The paradox of international policy

Delegations from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) last week engaged in face-to-face negotiations for the first time since talks, also in Geneva, in February this year.

Expectations for any substantial break through at Geneva II, as the meeting has been termed, were lower than at any past negotiation between the warring parties, particularly given they could not even agree on the agenda.

The Sri Lankan government insisted that it came to engage in discussions over a permanent solution, as opposed to implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed in February 2002.

The LTTE insist that only when the people of the Northeast enjoy the same normalcy as the rest of the island could they engage in negotiations on a long term solution. The Tigers wished to focus on implementing of the CFA.

It should be noted that aside from the cessation of hostilities, the CFA agreement extensively covers the need for normalcy in the North-East of Sri Lanka.

It also spells out the need for the government to disarm paramilitary organisations which were working with the Sri Lankan military. Clause 1.8 had not been implemented by the previous Sri Lankan government led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, nor by his successor President Mahinda Rajapakse.

However, it was agreed at the outset of the peace process, that only after a series of confidence building measures and de-escalation of the conflict could any negotiations over a long term solution be discussed.

The situation has worsened substantially this year. President Rajapakse’s coalition government has all but repudiated the CFA. Despite pledging to disarm the paramilitaries at Geneva I in February, it has done quite the reverse, expanding their numbers and weaponry and escalating the conflict.

The history of the Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict is strewn with examples of successive administrations breaking agreements with a succession of Tamil political and militant leaderships.

The only difference in the present peace process is the involvement of foreign powers as intermediaries.

The LTTE had been most insistent upon foreign involvement as it felt that facilitation by third parties was the most likely route to ensuring that agreements would be implemented, given the international transparency.

With the economy it tatters after four years of military losses, Colombo, which had zealously defended its sovereignty, finally agreed to participate in a peace process with foreign involvement in 2002.

At the outset Norway was the sole foreign participant involved solely as a facilitator, but within a year the US, EU and Japan had become self-appointed co-sponsors of the peace process.

Irrespective of the Norwegian ‘front’, the US has always been viewed as the architect of the overall strategy of resolving the Sri Lankan conflict, with the EU and Japan playing a supporting role.

India has always been consulted on major policy issues, but has always been on the sidelines as far as the peace process is concerned.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that only two of the four co-chairs, Japan and Norway, can directly communicate with the LTTE as the other two have proscribed the organisation domestically as terrorists.

But during the life of the current peace process it became increasingly clear to the Tamils that the involvement of foreign parties did not necessarily mean that agreements with the Sri Lankan state would now be implemented.

The CFA became the first victim, with the failure by the state to remove its troops from occupied Tamil homes and public buildings. Instead the state unilaterally defined such locations as High Security Zones, resulting in permanent occupancy.

The promised disarming of state backed paramilitaries also never took place, with now disastrous results.

Various programmes to share development and humanitarian aid were systematically blocked by state bureaucracy, including the latest such effort, the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS).

This year the conflict has erupted – albeit without declaration of war. The first direct assaults on the frontlines of the LTTE were launched by Sri Lanka’s military in July this year under the pretext of liberating a water resource for Sinhalese farmers.

The offensive, it should be noted, came despite a successful intervention by the Norwegian facilitators to resolve the situation peacefully.

That clash escalated into a series of direct confrontations between the two parties which has rendered the CFA meaningless. Sri Lankan aerial and artillery bombardment has resulted in civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.

But, the international community has casually observed the proceedings with the occasional lament urging a return to the negotiating table.

With the fighting going its way, the Sri Lankan government defended each new offensive as ‘limited’ or ‘defensive’ strikes intended to curb the LTTE’s offensive capability. A series of military victories resulted in extremely hawkish rhetoric from Colombo. The GOSL asserted that it intended to engage in peace talks only after delivering a substantial blow to the LTTE.

That the Sri Lankan state is in such a belligerent mood after military successes is unsurprising. The Tamils have always been concerned that the Sri Lankan state never intended to share any substantial power with the Tamils and hence negotiations with the state will always prove to be futile. And with the battlefield victories the allure of crushing Tamil aspirations militarily would prove too tempting for Colombo.

The foreign powers have meanwhile continued to voice their support for a peace process, but, more surprisingly, have also become more strident in their support for the Sri Lankan state; a paradoxical twist of policy.

If the Sri Lankan state were becoming more militant and less compromising surely foreign powers might have been expected to become more forceful and to take measures to encourage Rajapakse’s hawkish administration to pursue a peaceful resolution.

Which is why a series of policy statements issued barely a week before Geneva II by US US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs Richard Boucher were especially startling.

Whilst continuing to pay lip service to the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Mr Boucher, emphatically declared that the US viewed Sri Lanka as an ally, and would continue to assist Sri Lanka militarily, politically and financially in its conflict against the LTTE.

He asserted Sri Lanka is a democratically elected government and as such it trusted Sri Lanka to deal with human rights in an appropriate fashion, and would offer assistance in areas that need improvement.

Considering that during the history of the ethnic conflict Sri Lanka has failed to prosecute a single member of its armed forces, despite widespread and systematic abuses, suggests that the US faith in Sri Lanka is not merely mistaken oversight, but a clear assurance that it will turn a blind eye to the abuses.

The Sri Lankan state has breached virtually every United Nations humanitarian protocol. It has inflicted collective punishments on a destitute people, including embargoes on food and medicine. It has bombarded civilian targets and its troops and paramilitaries have executed thousands of civilian, including hundreds this year also.

As human rights groups now admit, the state is also complicit in the abduction of children by Army-backed paramilitary organisations for training as child soldiers.

And the attacks go beyond just the theatre of war in the Northeast. Hundreds of Tamil politicians, members of the judiciary, teachers, journalists and humanitarian workers have been brazenly executed.

The Sri Lankan state has waged a total and unrestrained war on the Tamil people and this year for the first time in the history of the conflict it has been in full view of the International Community, including the US.

Thus, the most shocking aspect of the policy of foreign powers in Sri Lanka is their reversion to backing the state more resolutely, the more the state makes gains on the battlefield.

The most glaring example of this is the shift in international positions on the Norwegian peace process it self.

Prior to Geneva I, the international community, including the US, backed the need to implement the CFA as a first step.

However, eight months and several military successes later, the US has echoed demand of the GOSL for talks to begin to focus on a final solution to the ethnic problem, rather than stabilisation of the fraying truce.

Most disturbing was Mr Boucher’s insistence anew that the US will back Sri Lanka in the conflict against the Tamils, and, implicitly, that this backing is not dependent on Sri Lanka observing any humanitarian norms.

Such unethical policy is not new to foreign involvement in the Sri Lankan question.

After all, prior to the Tamil military successes of 2000, all the foreign powers in question, backed the Sri Lankan state militarily, politically and financially, despite horrendous and near-genocidal abuses against the Tamil people on the island.

All that changed after the LTTE drove the Army from the Vanni, defeated its counterattack and shattered the Sri Lankan economy with the attack on Katunyake airport.

What is shocking now is how quickly the international community’s reversion to the pre-2000 policies is taking place.

The obvious implication is that international support for the peace process in 2002 was not some watershed event of recognising the need to address Tamil grievances, but rather a necessary tactical shift driven by the inability of the Sri Lankan state to resolve the conflict militarily.

With the Sri Lankan military engaged in assaults on LTTE lines even the day before the negotiations were due to begin, it is clear that Geneva II was a charade. The international community has made no effort to get Rajapakse’s government to de-escalate the conflict.

Perhaps the foreign powers are quietly confident that Sri Lanka’s military, after almost five years of respite, is capable of overwhelming the LTTE. As the question is explored, the Tamil people continue to suffer the Sri Lankan military’s atrocities.

This newspaper has long asserted that the decision to engage the Tamils in a peace process and to recognise the need to resolve their grievances have been directly linked to escalating Tamil dominance on the battlefield.

Initiatives of engaging the Tamil people in dialogue have never occurred during our darkest hours. From the 1983 pogrom to the ethnic cleansing in the early nineties, there has rarely been a murmur amongst the leaders of the international community.

In the late 90’s, whilst the Sri Lankan state attempted to starve the Tamils, the world watched unaffected. Instead international actors were most vociferous in condemning the LTTE and focusing on issues such as child recruitment. The Sri Lankan state is presently involved in the massive abduction of Tamil children to be trained to fight the LTTE, but is yet to receive a single reprimand.

The sole benefit of increasing international support for Sri Lanka amid the military’s ascendancy on the battlefield has been that the Tamil people will be divested of any illusions. They are, in fact, truly alone in their struggle for self rule.

The members of the international community, which had projected themselves as honest brokers in resolving this decades long conflict, have demonstrated this year that fair adjudication is not their purpose.

Instead they have reverted to the policies that the Tamils had been familiar with during the horrific periods of conflict: i.e. wholeheartedly backing the state’s war machine in the pursuit of their own interests.

Lest we forget, the Tamil struggle has progressed a long way, coming through past periods of isolation and concerted hostility. It is unique for its lack of dependence on any foreign power. It has been the folly of many domestic and foreign governments to underestimate the determination of the Tamil people to win their freedom. It has been our folly, of late, to expect more from the international community.