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Armitage and Solheim on Sri Lanka's conduct, war crimes and the Tamil question

Expressing dismay at the “chauvinistic attitude” of the Sri Lankan state, former US Deputy Secretary of State said on Friday the international community was united in its criticism of Sri Lanka’s conduct in the north and east and that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would not be welcomed internationally unless conditions there improved.

Speaking alongside Mr. Armitage at the launch of the Norwegian evaluation of Oslo’s peace process in Sri Lanka, and echoing his message, Norwegian minister for Environment and International Development, and former peace envoy, Erik Solheim also said the question of accountability for the mass killings of civilians in last phase of the war “will not go away”, and that “the only way the Sri Lankan state can reduce the impact of this is to reach out to Tamils and find a way of resolving the Tamil issue.”

They were speaking in Oslo at the formal launch of the evaluation report on Norway’s protracted peace role in Sri Lanka, at which the question of Sri Lanka’s future was also discussed.

Mr Armitage told the audience,

I don’t think anyone disagrees that the Tamil people have been mistreated and are continuing to lack – across the board – fundamental freedoms, dignity, etc,”

“Much to my dismay the government of Sri Lanka is still caught up in a chauvinistic attitude,”

I don’t think they’ve been far sighted enough in their approach to the north and east. There has been a somewhat lessening of violence there, somewhat lessening of the abductions and things of this nature, but not sufficient.”

“From the US point of view we are quite dismayed at the lack of progress in human freedoms, human rights, etc, and I made that view known [to President Rajapaksa].”

“But what to do about it is the question."

"[Firstly] the international community is generally coalesced around the fact that the north and the east particularly need protections, and the government of Sri Lanka has to move in that direction. … That is the united message the international community gives.

“Second, I don’t think President Rajapaksa is going to be widely welcomed internationally – across the board – until there is some movement. Maybe that’s the wrong strategy, but that’s the way things are going.”

“I think in two conversations with President Rajapaksa he actually understood - better than I had thought – what the government has to do.”

Mr. Armitage speculated that President Rajapaksa might be constrained by chauvinist political forces.

However, Mr. Solheim suggested otherwise,

“[Rajapaksa] has the strongest position of any Sri Lankan President ever; huge majority in the parliament, huge electoral victory, fantastic – from his point of view – military results,” Mr. Solheim pointed out.

So why is he not using this opportunity to reach out to [the Tamils] and find a settlement?”

“[After the war] the remaining problem in Sri Lanka is not military, it is political, and it is for the President should reach out to solve that political problem, and the entire international community should be gathered behind that banner.

Mr. Solheim also said Tamils should pursue their struggle for legitimate rights peacefully and that the international community is agreed that TNA (Tamil National Alliance) should take the lead, and should be supported.

“Tamils should be told there is absolutely no support for violence. They must fight for legitimate rights through Gandhian, non-violent manners and they will get [international] support.”

Leadership should move from the [Tamil] Diaspora to actors in Sri Lanka,” he also averred.

“The Tamil National Alliance is the most important [Tamil actor], and there is a broad international understanding that the TNA should be in the lead for Tamil rights and they [international community] should support the TNA and TNA-government talks.”

In his closing remarks on Friday, Mr. Solheim also spoke of international demands for accountability for the mass killings of Tamil civilians in the final months of the war.

“The most difficult issue [for Sri Lanka’s future] is that of accountability for what happened in the last phase of the war. That issue will not go away. It will remain for a long period of time, maybe forever.”

“There is no way governments can decide it should go away. These issues will be kept up by non-governmental actors, by media, and many other actors. So they will remain.

“The only way the Sri Lankan state can reduce the impact of this is to reach out to Tamils and find a way of resolving the Tamil issue – then the international community will tend to take less interest in those matters.”

Asked about India’s expectations after the end of Sri Lanka’s war, Mr. M.R. Narayan Swamy, Executive Editor with Indo Asian News Service, also said:

The expectations [of India] are the same as the rest of the international community."

"Nobody wants Sri Lanka to develop into a state where [the Tamils] feel permanently a minority – politically, culturally, in every sense of the term. If in the past the Sri Lankan state gave the argument there was the problem of the LTTE, they can’t advance that argument anymore.”

Apart from Messrs Armitage, Solheim and Narayan Swamy, the panel discussing the independent evaluation of the Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka comprised Milinda Moragoda (former Sri Lankan Minister and government peace negotiator), Dr. Gunnar M. Sørbø, (team leader for the evaluation), Dr Jonathan Goodhand (Reader in Conflict and Development Studies, SOAS and deputy team leader for the evaluation) and Dr Suthaharan Nadarajah (lecturer with Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS – who was not involved in the evaluation).

The panel was chaired by Ms. Frances Harrison, Head of News at Amnesty International and former senior BBC correspondent.

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