Lessons Learned from Norway’s Mediation of the Sri Lankan Civil War

Lessons Learned from Norway’s Mediation of the Sri Lankan Civil War

In looking at the case the Sri Lankan civil war case, as a whole is a great case study for understanding the socio and political build-up of a conflict, the breakdown of commitments due to underlying interests, and the challenges of third party mediation. In this brief essay, it will cover the key causes leading up to the conflict, the build-up/stages of the conflict, and lastly the attempts of mediation in order to further prevent all of the actors involved going any further down the rabbit hole.

The Root Causes of the Civil War

At the core of the Sri Lankan civil lies the issue of ethnic politics, which in one shape or another lead to the creation of offshoot issues. Delving into the issue of ethnic politics, the issues that come up are historical perceptions during the colonial period (which side benefitted the most from English colonialism), issues of education, issues of citizenship, and language rights.

From a historical aspect, the animosity between the Tamil population and the Sinhalese population stems from the Sinhalese perception of the British favoring the Tamil population with regards to education and employment opportunities. Compound this perception with the issue of the Sinhalese claims of the Tamil population as not being natives, and one will get a better understanding of the later policies enacted by the Sinhalese majority against the Tamil minority.

With regards to the issue of education, while under colonial rule the northern area of Sri Lanka, which is where the Tamil population is located, experienced a huge influx of investment by foreigners in their education system. It is this investment in their education, which was perceived by the Sinhalese as an act of favoritism by the colonial powers that allowed for the Tamil population to easily obtain highly sought legal, business, and governmental positions. From the perspective of the Sinhalese the high representation of Tamils in highly sought professions was a consequence of favoritism, which later on after the colonial period would have vast ramifications for the Tamil population as a whole.

Once Sri Lanka (originally known as Ceylon) gained independence from the British in 1948, keeping in mind the issue of the perceived favoritism of the Tamils, the Sinhalese dominated Government strip a vast majority of the Tamil population of their Sri Lankan citizenship (the Ceylon Citizenship Act), which destroyed any chance of real representation in Sri Lankan politics. This further deepened the cleavages between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, which would eventually erupt into a decades- long violent conflict.

A decade after achieving independence from Britain, the Sinhalese politically dominated Government enacted the Official Language Act (No. 33 of 1956) in which all official Government business was to be conducted in Sinhala. The consequence of said act further impeded the participation of the Tamil population in the Government sphere due to the fact that most Tamil civil servants did not speak Sinhala well enough to fulfill the Government’s language requirement.

As the Tamil population faced increasingly discriminatory policies, prominent Tamil leaders up until the early 70s pushed devolution of the Government in order to obtain some form of autonomy. Initially, the Tamil agreements were signed with the Government; however, said agreements were never fulfilled and were done in bad faith by the Government. The persistent false promises lead to the creation of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which eventually split into various paramilitary groups. From then on, the conflict went from being in a form of unstable peace to instances of violent conflict. Conditions were ripe when the Government made promises various times and did not go through with said promises, which was compounded by the long history of discrimination.

Norway’s Mediation formula (2002-2008):

In going over the vast literature on Norway’s involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war, three major conflict management strategies appear: 1) The implementation of an initial ceasefire, 2) giving primary ownership of the negotiations to the primary actors of the conflict, and 3) the impartiality of the mediating actor. Overall, Norway’s formula on paper sounds good, but when one looks at the facts, it turns out that their formula as a whole failed for various reasons.

Implementing a ceasefire: From a theoretical standpoint, it is necessary when it comes to implementing a ceasefire as early on as possible, so that the mediating party can create a situation in which some normalcy is restored. Normalcy in the sense that the actors involved can switch from warring state of mind to a state of mind that is less or not at all occupied with obtaining a military victory that goes against the idea of negotiations in the first place. Furthermore, reinstating or creating a sense normalcy has the added benefit of allowing the involved actors to return to domestic issues (issues of business, economy, and so forth), which was the case for the Sinhalese Government and for the LTTE. However, it should be noted theoretically speaking, ceasefires should be short term or else they will be taken advantage of by actors who will use it to regroup and adjust their military strategies. As much as the ceasefire was a success, it was also a failure to an extent that it did not prevent human rights violations and light action being committed by both sides. The underpinning issue that led to the failure of the ceasefire and the mediation as a whole was due to Norway’s policy of extremely impartiality, which prevented them from pointing out agreement violations and human rights violations.
Giving primary ownership of the negotiations to the conflicting actors: The second aspect deals with handing over the steering wheel to the actors involved in a conflict, so that they can theoretically steer the talks in a direction and at a pace that they are both comfortable with. One can say that it is an exercise in building trust, which can help with issues of perception (a huge component of conflicts). Unfortunately, as good as Norway’s intentions were, it led to rounds of failed peace agreements. In looking at the attempted peace talks between the Sinhalese Government and the LTTE, over the years, one will see that Norway’s ownership model was not suitable due to the fact of the inability of the actor’s to seek a durable peace agreement amongst each other. A secondary issue with Norway’s model was that it failed to include sub-actors within the Sri Lankan civil war. Some of the actors forgotten were the Muslim Tamil community, the other Tamil rebel groups, and even civil society groups. To not include key actors is to essentially create a situation in which one remedies the problem, but in reality does not solve it.
Policy of impartiality: Finally, the final aspect of Norway’s mediation policy is one of impartiality, which is key depending on the mediator’s goal (absolute gains vs relative gains). For the sake of this conflict, Norway opted for the goal of maximizing the gains of both actors involved in the talks, which in theory should create a more durable peace if both sides have perceived to have their interests fairly met. However, the outcome of Norway’s policy led to the lack of enforcement on their part when it came to bringing up issues of human rights violations occurring or any other agreement issues ran counter to the entire point of mediating the conflict in the first place. In general. If one just lets an issue continue to occur because of being “fair and balanced” so is to not offend anyone, then one will never solve the issue at hand. One can still be impartial and bring up issues as long as they use finesse in how they deal with bringing up a particular issue.

Even though Norway’s mediation policy as a whole did not bring about the peaceful resolution of the Sri Lankan civil war, one can still learn from its goal absolute gains and its contextual shortcomings.

With regards to the issue of education, while under colonial rule the northern area of Sri Lanka, which is where the Tamil population is located, experienced a huge influx of investment by foreigners in their education system. It is this investment in their education, which was perceived by the Sinhalese as an act of favoritism by the colonial powers that allowed for the Tamil population to easily obtain highly sought legal, business, and governmental positions. From the perspective of the Sinhalese the high representation of Tamils in highly sought professions was a consequence of favoritism, which later on after the colonial period would have vast ramifications for the Tamil population as a whole.

Once Sri Lanka (originally known as Ceylon) gained independence from the British in 1948, keeping in mind the issue of the perceived favoritism of the Tamils, the Sinhalese dominated Government strip a vast majority of the Tamil population of their Sri Lankan citizenship (the Ceylon Citizenship Act), which destroyed any chance of real representation in Sri Lankan politics. This further deepened the cleavages between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, which would eventually erupt into a decades- long violent conflict.

A decade after achieving independence from Britain, the Sinhalese politically dominated Government enacted the Official Language Act (No. 33 of 1956) in which all official Government business was to be conducted in Sinhala. The consequence of said act further impeded the participation of the Tamil population in the Government sphere due to the fact that most Tamil civil servants did not speak Sinhala well enough to fulfill the Government’s language requirement.

As the Tamil population faced increasingly discriminatory policies, prominent Tamil leaders up until the early 70s pushed devolution of the Government in order to obtain some form of autonomy. Initially, the Tamil agreements were signed with the Government; however, said agreements were never fulfilled and were done in bad faith by the Government. The persistent false promises lead to the creation of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which eventually split into various paramilitary groups. From then on, the conflict went from being in a form of unstable peace to instances of violent conflict. Conditions were ripe when the Government made promises various times and did not go through with said promises, which was compounded by the long history of discrimination.

Norway’s Mediation formula (2002-2008):

In going over the vast literature on Norway’s involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war, three major conflict management strategies appear: 1) The implementation of an initial ceasefire, 2) giving primary ownership of the negotiations to the primary actors of the conflict, and 3) the impartiality of the mediating actor. Overall, Norway’s formula on paper sounds good, but when one looks at the facts, it turns out that their formula as a whole failed for various reasons.

Implementing a ceasefire: From a theoretical standpoint, it is necessary when it comes to implementing a ceasefire as early on as possible, so that the mediating party can create a situation in which some normalcy is restored. Normalcy in the sense that the actors involved can switch from warring state of mind to a state of mind that is less or not at all occupied with obtaining a military victory that goes against the idea of negotiations in the first place. Furthermore, reinstating or creating a sense normalcy has the added benefit of allowing the involved actors to return to domestic issues (issues of business, economy, and so forth), which was the case for the Sinhalese Government and for the LTTE. However, it should be noted theoretically speaking, ceasefires should be short term or else they will be taken advantage of by actors who will use it to regroup and adjust their military strategies. As much as the ceasefire was a success, it was also a failure to an extent that it did not prevent human rights violations and light action being committed by both sides. The underpinning issue that led to the failure of the ceasefire and the mediation as a whole was due to Norway’s policy of extremely impartiality, which prevented them from pointing out agreement violations and human rights violations.

 
Giving primary ownership of the negotiations to the conflicting actors: The second aspect deals with handing over the steering wheel to the actors involved in a conflict, so that they can theoretically steer the talks in a direction and at a pace that they are both comfortable with. One can say that it is an exercise in building trust, which can help with issues of perception (a huge component of conflicts). Unfortunately, as good as Norway’s intentions were, it led to rounds of failed peace agreements. In looking at the attempted peace talks between the Sinhalese Government and the LTTE, over the years, one will see that Norway’s ownership model was not suitable due to the fact of the inability of the actor’s to seek a durable peace agreement amongst each other. A secondary issue with Norway’s model was that it failed to include sub-actors within the Sri Lankan civil war. Some of the actors forgotten were the Muslim Tamil community, the other Tamil rebel groups, and even civil society groups. To not include key actors is to essentially create a situation in which one remedies the problem, but in reality does not solve it.

 
Policy of impartiality: Finally, the final aspect of Norway’s mediation policy is one of impartiality, which is key depending on the mediator’s goal (absolute gains vs relative gains). For the sake of this conflict, Norway opted for the goal of maximizing the gains of both actors involved in the talks, which in theory should create a more durable peace if both sides have perceived to have their interests fairly met. However, the outcome of Norway’s policy led to the lack of enforcement on their part when it came to bringing up issues of human rights violations occurring or any other agreement issues ran counter to the entire point of mediating the conflict in the first place. In general. If one just lets an issue continue to occur because of being “fair and balanced” so is to not offend anyone, then one will never solve the issue at hand. One can still be impartial and bring up issues as long as they use finesse in how they deal with bringing up a particular issue.

Even though Norway’s mediation policy as a whole did not bring about the peaceful resolution of the Sri Lankan civil war, one can still learn from its goal absolute gains and its contextual shortcomings.

References:
1. Al-Jazeera, “Q&A: Sri Lanka's civil war,” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2009/01/200912617918908981.html
2. Tamil Guardian, “Root causes of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka,” http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=1609
3. Perera, Sasanka, “The Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka-A History and Sociopolitical Outline,” http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2012/03/28/000333037_20120328010832/Rendered/PDF/677060WP00PUBL0io0political0Outline.pdf
4. Perera, Sasanka, “The Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka-A History and Sociopolitical Outline,” http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2012/03/28/000333037_20120328010832/Rendered/PDF/677060WP00PUBL0io0political0Outline.pdf PDF Page: 11
5. Tamil Guardian, “Root causes of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka,” http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=1609
6. Council on Foreign Relations, “The Sri Lankan Conflict,” http://www.cfr.org/terrorist-organizations-and-networks/sri-lankan-conflict/p11407
7. Wijeyeratne, Roshan De Silva, “Citizenship law, nationalism and the theft of enjoyment: a post-colonial narrative,” http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1234&context=ltc
8. The Official Language Act (No. 33 of 1956), http://www.commonlii.org/lk/legis/num_act/ola33o1956180/
Sect. 2: “2. The Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon: Provided that where the Minister considers it impracticable to commence the use of only the Sinhala language for any official purpose immediately on the coming into force of this Act, the language or languages hitherto used for that purpose may be continued to be so used unit 1 the necessary change is effected as early as possible before the expiry of the 31st day of December, 1960, and, if such change cannot be effected by administrative order, regulations may be made under this Act to effect such change.”
9. Tamil Guardian, “Root causes of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka,” http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=1609
10. Al-Jazeera, “Language policy hits Tamils hard,” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2009/01/2009126163032817635.html
11. Lund, Michael S, “Preventing Violent Conflicts […],” Chapter: 2.
12. Al-Jazeera, “Q&A: Sri Lanka's civil war,” http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2009/01/200912617918908981.html
13.Perera, Sasanka, “The Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka-A History and Sociopolitical Outline,” http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2012/03/28/000333037_20120328010832/Rendered/PDF/677060WP00PUBL0io0political0Outline.pdf PDF Pages: 20-22.
14.Tamil Guardian, “Root causes of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka,” http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=1609
15.Hoglund, Kristine & Svensson, Isak, “Mediating between tigers and lions: Norwegian peace diplomacy in Sri Lanka’s civil war,” Contemporary South Asia 17.2 (2009): 175. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.
16.Øvstegård, Rebekka, “Implications of Norway's Role As Peacemaker In Sri Lanka,” http://www.umb.no/statisk/noragric/publications/master/2008_rebekka_ovstegard.pdf
17. International Crisis Group, “SRI LANKA: THE FAILURE OF THE PEACE PROCESS,” http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/124_sri_lanka___the_failure_of_the_peace_process

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