Waiting and watching

Print edition : December 05, 2003

(From left) Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brakstar, Special Envoy Eric Solheim and Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen during their meeting with Chandrika Kumaratunga in Colombo on November 13. - SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Norway, which is playing the role of the facilitator in the peace process, adopts a wait-and-watch approach, making it clear that it will not intervene in the politics in Colombo.

THE Norwegian facilitators, who never publicly proclaimed the ups and downs during their involvement in the island's latest peace process said on November 14 that the peace process was on hold.

As a visibly tired Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen told a media conference in Colombo that Norway's options were "now exhausted" and that the facilitators would now "go home and wait" for the island's political standoff to be resolved, one could not but remember what he had said on October 31, 2002: "Nothing is ready, unless everything is ready." The differences exist in the context, in terms of the main players and, more important, in the status of the peace talks.

Helgesen made this statement in Thailand just before the second round of talks commenced, when differences persisted between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The facilitators prevailed at that time, and took the talks forward for four more rounds, before the Tigers unilaterally suspended the negotiations in April. Unfazed, the Norwegians stuck to their task, shuttling between Norway, Sri Lanka and India to keep the talks afloat. Since the rebels adopted a hard line in April, however, the Norwegians were on guard.

After April they heard LTTE chief V. Prabakaran declare that despite considerable international opinion, the LTTE would not attend the international donors' conference in Tokyo. They saw the high-profile visit by their Foreign Minister Jan Petersen failing to persuade the Tigers. They also saw the LTTE reject two government offers and come up with its own set of counter-proposals outlining an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the northeast on October 31. They were then asked by Colombo and the Tigers to start preparing for a preliminary round of talks aimed at resuming the negotiations.

On November 14, the Norwegian government issued a two-page statement saying that it withheld further participation in the peace process until political "clarity is re-established", thereby formally putting on hold the island-nation's latest peace bid.

Although the "peace process is in good shape", it was unclear as to who exercised the political authority over it "on behalf of the government". "Until such clarity is re-established, there is no space for further efforts by the Norwegian government to assist the parties," Helgesen said in the first public pronouncement by the facilitators since the political standoff started 10 days earlier.

Between November 10 and 14, Helgesen met President Chandrika Kumaratunga twice, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe thrice and Prabakaran once.

Helgesen stayed clear of the bipartisan bickering by saying it was "not within Norway's mandate to facilitate between political parties in the south". Although "all parties have confirmed" that the "ceasefire agreement (signed in February 2002) is being respected", the stalemate had led to "a very serious situation, not because the peace process is fragile, but because it might be made fragile", he said.

Helgesen cautioned that in the absence of negotiations "there is always the risk" that "minor events" could flare up into a serious situation. "If progress in political negotiation is made impossible, the ceasefire will become increasingly fragile," he said.

Helgesen, who as the chief facilitator had a ringside view of six rounds of direct talks between Colombo and the LTTE between September 2002 and April 2003, said: "The single impediment [to the resumption of talks] is the political crisis in the south." Although there was "overwhelming public support for the peace process", he emphasised that "the ceasefire will be much more difficult to sustain in a political vacuum". The Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister added that the "freedom of operation and security" of the members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) "is of particular importance".

Answering questions, Helgesen categorically stated that Norway would "not facilitate between the political parties in the south". The present political standoff had sent "mixed signals" to the Norwegian facilitators, who were invited by President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (P.A.) government and were continued with by the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration.

Helgesen said that the peace talks "could have started tomorrow, provided there was clarity about who is holding political authority and responsibility on behalf of the government and the resumption of the peace negotiations".

The resumption of the peace process was "seriously impeded by the political crisis in the south", causing "serious concerns in the international community". With the peace process on hold, international concern is also bound to arise. Asked whether the $4.5 billion - pledged for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of war-torn Sri Lanka - might now be lost, Helgesen said (in an interview to BBC): "I'm very concerned. We see lots of critical situations around the world. There is competition for donor funding and donors are more prone to supporting positive processes in order to sustain progress. There are signals now that donors are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, which can be critical for Sri Lanka."

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Special Envoy who has been involved in the peace process since the beginning, sees the current situation as different from the stalemates that have affected the progress of the negotiations since September 2002.

"This is one of the main crises in the peace process. There have been crises in the past, there will be in the future also," Solheim told Frontline, when asked to comment on the present situation.

He said that in the beginning Norway's was a "somewhat naive" approach, but "after that initial naivety and the very good advice given by India, we were prepared for the long haul".

The Norwegian decision to put the talks on hold has led to a sense of uncertainty about the ceasefire. Although Oslo is unlikely to resume its role until it knows who is in charge in Colombo, it is evident that it has not walked out of the peace process. The continuing presence of the Norwegian-led Nordic monitors from the SLMM is seen as indicating this position. "We are not going away. We are keeping constant contact with the parties, the Prime Minister, the President, the LTTE and the monitors," Solheim said.

On why the Norwegians reacted in such a manner to the political crisis and how the present situation differed from the LTTE's unilateral pullout from the talks, Solheim said: "The difference is that at this time there is no clear position as to whom to talk.'' He said that when the LTTE suspended talks "there was complete clarity"; the task this time was "to bring the parties to the talks".

An earlier external attempt to forge a bipartisan consensus was in the late 1990s, in the form of the Liam Fox Agreement between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the then Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe. Oslo, however, has made it clear that it does not see such a role for itself. "We cannot intervene to decide who will be the power holders in Colombo. That is a completely internal political matter," Solheim said.

The facilitators basically want to know to whom they should speak on the government's side and "unless this is clarified, it would be difficult to restart talks".

The most difficult question doing the rounds now is how optimistic anyone is about an early resumption of talks. Himself a left-of-centre politician, Solheim said it was "very, very hard to be either optimistic or pessimistic. We will wait and see. In politics, it is very impossible to predict. We can predict when a comet would go by, but not politics for the next week."

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