N. Ram interviews Yasushi Akashi.
As the Norway-mediated entente between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam x known as the "peace process" x enters a complicated and challenging phase, the role of international players in providing incentives and disincentives has become increasingly prominent. Donors are traditionally unwilling to come into a conflict situation where 'non-fighting' is not stabilised and where incidents and flash points abound. But an exception has been made in the case of Sri Lanka x with Japan leading the donor countries and organisations in preparing for a major donors' conference in Tokyo on June 9 and 10.
While Norway, which came into the equation in 1994 as a "facilitator," plays the lead political role in keeping the talks going, Japan's "supplementary" involvement is a little more than a year old. Initially, this role appeared somewhat perplexing to the world outside x notably to India, which registered concern and a degree of disquiet over what was perceived to be a new political foray in South Asia.
As official Japan sees it, the emerging Japanese role in Sri Lanka and some other conflict-ridden areas straddles both economics and politics. It is primarily an economic role leveraged through official development assistance. Japan has been the single largest donor to Sri Lanka over the past two decades. Despite its deep and prolonged recession, it will continue to be the leading donor by far. But it clearly envisages a role that goes beyond being top donor.
The background to this was presented to Frontline Editor N. Ram by a key Japanese official during a recent visit to Japan (at the height of the cherry blossom season when the popular mood seems to be lifted by the enchantingly ephemeral pale-pink blossoms all over the island): "We have to promote the peace process in Sri Lanka Our strength lies in assistance to economic and social development and humanitarian assistance. It is a role the Japanese public strongly supports. Many in Asia also welcome this Japan is hosting a conference mainly by donors but this definitely should not be confined to financial donors. It should include political donors."
In May 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi formulated a new kind of international role for Japan in conflict areas and Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi has followed up industriously. It is called "consolidation of peace" or "peace building," which is not easy to define and implement on the ground and may involve some to-ing and fro-ing before the policy finds its feet. To conceptualise and implement this "peace building" role in Sri Lanka x where a ceasefire has been in place for an unaccustomed period, but the peace cannot be guaranteed x the Government of Japan has as its Representative one of the country's most experienced and suave international diplomats, Yasushi Akashi.
The 72-year-old chairman of the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention was the first Japanese citizen to work for the United Nations in any significant capacity. Joining the international organisation in 1957, he served it with distinction for over two decades, rising to the position of Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. Two of his notable conflict area assignments were as head of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and chief of the United Nations Protection Forces (UNPOFOR) in Yugoslavia. In the latter post, he incurred the displeasure of NATO hawks by clearly preferring diplomatic and political to military means. In this, he made common cause with Lt.-Gen. Satish Nambiar, who was the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of the U.N. Forces deployed in the former Yugoslavia and, like Akashi, resisted pressure to force a military solution in the Balkans. (Interestingly, the retired Indian General has been inducted into the Sri Lankan arena as an adviser by the Ranil Wickremasinghe government.)
In this interview to N. Ram in his Tokyo office on April 1, Yasushi Akashi spoke freely, in fluent English, about Japan's new "peace building" role in Sri Lanka and how he expects the peace process to go forward, despite obstacles, setbacks and risks:
N. Ram: Mr. Akashi, how did Japan approach the sixth session of the talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in Hakone?
Yasushi Akashi: In Hakone, I made it very clear to the parties that unless they made tangible, concrete progress in the negotiations, it would be difficult for donor countries, including Japan, to be generous towards them. And my remarks were not misunderstood, but the parties showed their seriousness in tackling the subject matters under discussion.
N. Ram: This is not interpreted as pressure from Japan?
Yasushi Akashi: No, I was glad it was not interpreted as pressure. I said that despite the unfortunate incident at sea, which took place on the 10th of March, the atmosphere in Hakone was quite reasonable. Each side was cool-headed enough to show flexibility to the other side. And in all human rights issues they made some progress and the hope is that the so-called road map on human rights issues will be adopted in the next round of talks scheduled in Thailand - the seventh session, which will conclude on the 2nd of May.
N. Ram: When you talk of tangible, concrete progress, is there a way of measuring that?
Yasushi Akashi: I think the fact that they are willing to review the ceasefire agreement and the monitoring system of the agreement is an indication. And the meeting at the experts' level was promised three weeks after Hakone. So that's one tangible result. And the second achievement is that the recruitment of underage soldiers by the LTTE; they have already released quite a number of children. And UNICEF is actively involved in monitoring the process, also in taking care of children released - to help resolve the psychological effects of detention.
N. Ram: I learn from Sri Lankan government sources that child conscription has actually gone up in the last few months, for various reasons.Yasushi Akashi: I see.
N. Ram: They say that it's partly because people want to leave, they don't want to fight. Young men and women reportedly want to go away to study and to work, so the LTTE is finding it difficult.
Yasushi Akashi: That's new to me. I saw that the head of UNICEF is also resolved to help in this matter. Aside from its office in Colombo, UNICEF has established a number of sub-offices in the North and in the East. So they showed serious intent to tackle this problem.
N. Ram: What about the political aspect? Do you expect any real progress on that?
Yasushi Akashi: That's one area where tangible progress is much harder to achieve. The LTTE, as you know, has established a Political Committee of about 20 people. It will undertake studies of various federal systems and visits to various countries. So there the result may not be so immediate...
N. Ram: The members of this Committee have already gone to Nordic countries, I read. On the other side, a parliamentary delegation went to Switzerland earlier.
Yasushi Akashi: Nordic countries are not particularly notable for their federal system. But Switzerland certainly is one and so is Germany. The LTTE has visited these countries earlier. And at the Hakone talks there was the former Premier of Ontario, Canada.
N. Ram: Yes, Bob Rae, Chairman of the Forum of Federations. There was an international conference on federalism held in Switzerland some months ago and we had a whole session on Sri Lanka. Bob Rae was there and there was a very good group from Sri Lanka.
Yasushi Akashi: But I think they should study the example of India with all the seriousness that it deserves.
N. Ram: In that connection, the former government, the P.A. government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, put forward interesting proposals. One of them is the Proposals for Constitutional Reforms of October 1997. A somewhat diluted version of these proposals, officially tabled in Parliament in 2000 was rejected by both the UNP and the LTTE. The 1997 proposals are farther going. The P.A. has put these back on the table, as reference documents that can be used.
Yasushi Akashi: I wonder whether Professor [G.L.] Peiris was behind them?
N. Ram: There were many authors. The President, the TULF and in particular Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was assassinated by the LTTE, and many others contributed to it. But Peiris formally worked on it and presented it. The 1997 proposals were not tabled in Parliament but were published. But the 2000 proposals were actually tabled in Parliament. I mention these proposals because they are very close to the Indian model and are perhaps an improvement on the Indian model, in some respects. For example, in this the Governor cannot dismiss the Chief Minister whereas in India Governors have that power under the Constitution. These documents are much closer to the Indian model but, unfortunately, these have been rejected by the LTTE.
Yasushi Akashi: But [Anton] Balasingham, at the concluding press conference, spoke about the possibility of free and fair elections at the local level. I was somewhat struck by his use of the term, "free and fair elections." But if the LTTE is serious about following up on this democratic principle, this is certainly very encouraging.
N. Ram: The official statement at the end of the Hakone talks mentions that the LTTE has promised favourably to consider supporting the holding of local government elections.
Yasushi Akashi: Yes. So it's still not a commitment as such.
N. Ram: Here is the precise formulation: "Following a proposal by the Government of Sri Lanka to prepare for local government elections in the North and East, the LTTE will favourably consider supporting the holding of such elections." There is doubt whether they will participate, but this means they will not obstruct, at the very least.
Yasushi Akashi: Right. I remember Balasingham saying that the LTTE is a guerilla organisation - not a political party. If they want to participate in, or if they want to contest, local elections, they may set up a political party.
N. Ram: In the past they set up a political front, but it did not have any credibility, so they abolished it.
(A Japanese Foreign Ministry official offers this clarification: He said they would not use that old political party. He said that up to now the LTTE is a liberation movement and not a political party. So we shall not participate in the election. But we will favourably consider support to holding elections.)
N. Ram: On the other aspects where you expect tangible, concrete progress, an important aspect, I suppose, is this proposed road map for adoption at the seventh session of talks. The agreed statement of the parties mentions the following particulars. First, "the drafting of a Declaration of Human Rights and Humanitarian Principles." Secondly, "the planning of a programme of human rights training for LTTE cadres and government officials...
Yasushi Akashi: As well as for government officials.
N. Ram: ... as well as for "government officials, police and prison officials". Where UNICEF would organise special training in relation to the rights of the child, UNHCR in relation to the rights of internally displaced persons and refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in relation to international humanitarian law. And thirdly, strengthening of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to enable it effectively to monitor throughout the country. These are the three aspects of the proposed road map.
Yasushi Akashi: Yes. On this last point, I have heard doubts expressed about the effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. But they say this Commission will be advised...
N. Ram: "... to develop the capacity for increasingly effective monitoring throughout the country." I don't know how they can do that.
Yasushi Akashi: With the help of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights...
N. Ram: "... and other sources, and close coordination with the roles of UNICEF in relation to child protection, UNHCR in relation to the protection of returning internally displaced persons and refugees, and SLMM in relation to acts against the civilian population." But I don't know how the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka can be extended to LTTE-controlled areas. It will be very hard to do it on the ground.
Yasushi Akashi: It may be difficult, but juridically it's not impossible. Also, I asked Ian Martin [former Secretary-General of Amnesty International and currently international human rights adviser to the two parties] whether the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the U.N. system is capable of advising the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka with sufficient resources. And he was well aware of this limitation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is located in Geneva. But it's not excluded that some interested governments may help in this area.
N. Ram: These are the areas where you expect real progress, real results?
Yasushi Akashi: Right. And aside from these concrete points, I think the whole atmosphere at the negotiation was serious and at the same time relaxed. I did not attend the whole session, of course. We are not in the negotiations as yet, except that we played a quite specific role with regard to humanitarian needs and rehabilitation - as well as [the role of] the host country of the donor conference in June in Tokyo. So I participated in that particular session, but other sessions were presided over by Norway; they were two parties.
N. Ram: You have been quoted as saying you will play a supplementary role to Norway, that you will supplement the facilitator's efforts...
Yasushi Akashi: ... especially in the area of humanitarian and rehabilitation needs.
N. Ram: I learn it is not quite accurate to call the forthcoming Tokyo conference a "donors' conference." It will be more than that, the conference on the 9th and 10th of June. It will be a "Conference on the Reconstruction and Development of Sri Lanka."
Yasushi Akashi: To the extent that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the UNDP and others will also be participating. Yes, to call it a donors' conference is a simplification. You have to give it some name.
N. Ram: So Japan's role in this is a little more than its traditional role as the single largest donor, in this case, over the last two decades. It stops short of participating in the political negotiations, but it's more than being the leader of the donors. Somebody, a Japanese official source, mentioned to me that Japan's role would be "generous but principled."Yasushi Akashi: Right. Very well said.N. Ram: Could you elaborate on this idea?
Yasushi Akashi: This is part and parcel of the whole review by Japan of its aid policy. I told the parties in Hakone that "we do not want to be just a Santa Claus bringing gifts to the parties." We feel that we have a stake in peace and stability in the world today, particularly in Asia. And our public opinion also demands that our assistance be utilised, to the extent possible, for the prevention of conflicts and for the reduction of tension in various trouble spots in the world. And since May last year, when Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi enunciated Japan's great interest in helping to consolidate peace in these conflict areas, we have been moving in that direction on several fronts. You might say Afghanistan is one. Sri Lanka is another. Aceh, Indonesia is the third. Mindanao Island, Philippines is another. East Timor. So these are some of the examples in which we try to make concrete our general policy of being active in the area of consolidation of peace or peace building. I am using these terms synonymously.
N. Ram: How do you define the limits - what Japan will not do in this new framework?
Yasushi Akashi: We have constraints, maybe sometimes self-imposed constraints, about involving ourselves militarily in these conflicts. Even in U.N.-sponsored operations, Japan has so far refrained from participating in Chapter VII operations [operations under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, covering "Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression"]. It has limited itself to peacekeeping operations under Chapter VI [of the U.N. Charter, covering "Pacific Settlement of Disputes"]. In one of the advisory groups set up by the government, consisting of independent scholars, commentators and others, we advocated that Japan should consider participating in Chapter VII operations, but with two provisos. One is that these should be operations under U.N. decisions or resolutions - not like the U.S. operations in Iraq. The second proviso is that Japan limits itself to essentially not frontline but rear area operations - logistics, which will be divided into communications and transportation, and medical assistance. Here again there is a clear disinclination [on the part of Japan] to involve itself in hostilities even if it is under collective security arrangements.
N. Ram: But what about inputs, say, specifically in the case of Sri Lanka, on federalism. Japan of course is not federal, but you may contribute some ideas on how to make the political arrangements in an enduring way.
Yasushi Akashi: I don't think there can be too much intellectual input from Japan in that area of federalism. Because ours is not a federal system but a unitary system, although many attempts are going on for greater local autonomy. In fact, Mr [Milinda] Moragoda [Sri Lankan Minister for Economic Reforms, Science and Technology] was visiting the Governor of Mie Prefecture, which is one of the vocal voices for greater local autonomy in Japan. So there is an evolving system in Japan and we feel that power has been too much concentrated in Tokyo. But I don't think our system can be a great reference point to Sri Lankans!
N. Ram: Now about your interactions with India. India, as I note it, is in a distinctive position where it has influence, proximity and close interactions with the Government of Sri Lanka, both the government with a parliamentary majority and the President - and yet because of political and legal reasons finds itself constrained. The bottom line, as I see it as a political analyst, is that India cannot sit across the table with the LTTE. That's not on politically and legally. The constraints are pretty well understood, although they have not been officially spelt out yet. For example, I don't think there's any question of India participating in the Tokyo conference of June 9 and 10.
Yasushi Akashi: I think you are a very perceptive journalist...
N. Ram: But India is involved in significant bilateral assistance, more than $100 million of concessional credit, and more could come.
Yasushi Akashi: Yes, all of this is correct. But you see, there are other governments like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom where the LTTE is proscribed one way or another. But this does not seem to prevent them from participating in the Tokyo conference in June. As you have mentioned, India does carry a lot of influence on Sri Lanka and on the peace process. India has more experience than other countries in this area. Some of the experiences have been rather painful. But I think it will be good if India is willing to share its experience and its insight of the Sri Lankan question with other countries. And I think the two parties in this conflict in Sri Lanka are keenly aware of the vital importance of India in the whole situation - including the LTTE. The LTTE keeps repeating that India has a great capability to exert positive influence on the peace process. Legal constraints you cannot do anything about, but if the constraints are of political or psychological nature, I for one hope that India will be flexible enough and will be willing to revise its role in the Sri Lankan peace process.
N. Ram: You see, on the legal aspect, a politician and a former Law Minister, Dr Subramanian Swamy, went to the Madras High Court just before the Oslo meeting of donors and asked for an injunction against the Government of India participating in this meeting - on the ground that "you will be violating the Prevention of Terrorism Act," which says you cannot have any contact with a terrorist organisation, namely the LTTE. Secondly, he pointed out that there is an extradition request from the Government of India to the Government of Sri Lanka that the leader of the LTTE, Prabakaran, the principal accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, be apprehended and extradited. Then the Government of India gave an assurance to the High Court that it had no intention of participating [in the Oslo meeting of donors] and that it only intended to send a fairly junior level diplomatic representative to the inaugural session of that meeting, which is exactly what they did. This assurance has been recorded in Court and on that basis the case was disposed of. And secondly, more recently, on the detention of a pro-LTTE politician in Tamil Nadu called Vaiko (he has been in detention, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, for many months), when the matter went up to the Supreme Court, the Government of India came up with an affidavit that even making a speech in support of the LTTE was an offence under this Act, POTA.
Yasushi Akashi: But nobody is asking the Indian government to make a statement in support of the LTTE. The Japanese government does not make such statements either. We are in support of the peace process. We are in support of Sri Lanka, against destroying its law and order, under a democratic form of government, under a unitary system. So nobody is advocating violence or terrorism, I think.
N. Ram: But the argument in India is that "you can't deal with them, if you have any official dealing with the LTTE, that would be a violation of POTA." Some people might say perhaps this is an extreme interpretation of the law, but it has its political power.
Yasushi Akashi: Mr. Ram, dealing with somebody and participating in a conference in which somebody will be present are not identical to each other. I think the U.S. government makes a very clear distinction. Mr [Richard] Armitage [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] was at Oslo attending the same conference, but I don't think he wanted to be on the same podium with the LTTE and I don't think he shook hands with the LTTE representative. So none of this is required in an international conference. If you go to the United Nations, you see the representatives of dictatorships. Some may be failed or failing states. Some are democracies and others are not and certainly your value system is not affected by your being in the same conference hall with the representatives of all these different systems of government.
N. Ram: But there is yet another aspect. Providing assistance through organisations or fronts associated with the LTTE may again pose legal problems in the Indian courts, not to mention political problems. India's assistance to Sri Lanka is, of course, bilateral.
Yasushi Akashi: In Japan's case also, assistance is from government to government in principle. But, of course, with the consent of the [Sri Lankan] government that assistance may be distributed in areas where the government shares power with an autonomous entity. We had a talk with the LTTE on this matter. We cannot directly assist them, but we might provide assistance in such a way that it benefits the life of people in those areas under their control (which is not identical).
N. Ram: Will you be using the North and East Reconstruction Fund (NERF) set up by the World Bank?
Yasushi Akashi: At present, we do not think that's the way Japan provides assistance. Nordic countries are willing to use, and are using, that fund, which is under the custody of the World Bank. But Japan's way of providing assistance is not through the Bank. We will take into account priorities established by the sub-committee to which I am the Principal Adviser. We will fully take into account their sense of priorities.
N. Ram: Do you have a target for the pledges in the Tokyo conference? How many billion dollars? (Laughter)Yasushi Akashi: Not at this point.N. Ram: Ballpark figures?Yasushi Akashi: It's premature.
N. Ram: The shadow of the U.S.-U.K. war on Iraq - how do you see that playing?
Yasushi Akashi: That shadow seems to be becoming longer than I expected. But we are very hopeful that the needs of Sri Lanka will be judged not on the basis of a comparison with Iraq or any other conflict, but on its own merits. I think if Sri Lanka becomes an example of a country that has freed itself from terrorism, from violence, this will be a victory for moderation and democratic principles. So I think Sri Lanka's peace-building can be seen as a successful example of people who have come to feel that the way of peaceful negotiation is a preferred means of resolving internal conflicts waged over linguistic or religious differences. That's why we support the peace process and want to sustain it, but we are fully aware that the people themselves should decide how to resolve this conflict. The outsiders can only provide an atmosphere in which the decisions are conducive to better results. You cannot force parties to opt for one outcome or another. And no peace will be durable unless it is done on the basis of free choice by the parties directly concerned.
N. Ram: There have been ceasefires before and elaborate arrangements made, guidelines and so on. One difference seems to be that there is for the first time significant donor intervention before an outcome is achieved. The reasoning seems to be that there are signs and that, in a sense, peace is to be consolidated and a downslide is to be prevented.
Yasushi Akashi: I think this is a significant difference but that's not the only difference. I'm not a historian or an expert on the Sri Lankan conflict. But I think this particular peace process has been over a longer duration. It has continued despite occasional violations and even serious incidents. It has an outside government, namely Norway, serving as the facilitator, in a sense the monitor of the ceasefire. Although I have no knowledge of previous negotiations, I detect from the present negotiators on all sides a strong commitment to continue the process. They are open-minded and they seem to be willing to take certain risks for peace and for a reasonable solution. So it's not just the external assistance.
N. Ram: Yet the impression is that's what binds the parties, particularly the LTTE. Because it makes no sense to prepare yourself for a major meeting of donors and others and expect significant pledges, and then break the ceasefire agreement. In other words, is the LTTE free to do something else than what it is doing today? That's the interesting question.
Yasushi Akashi: Something else meaning going back to their traditional ways?
N. Ram: As they threatened to when the last incident on the sea took place. They didn't say, "we'll go back to fighting," but they said there could be a breakdown. Balasingham spoke about it to the press. This could seriously threaten the ceasefire, that's how they put it.
Yasushi Akashi: I think they are still probably able to return to their old ways. But they are aware that the times are different, that there is less possibility for the old ways to be successful anymore. In a democratic system there's a way to resolve differences without resorting to violence. After twenty years of armed conflict, people are quite tired of continuing old ways that only serve to worsen their livelihood. So for a number of reasons, I venture to think that the odds are certainly for a peaceful solution through dialogue.
N. Ram: One of the requisites for that seems to be a consensus in the Sri Lankan Parliament where the track record has been this. If the government party proposes something forward-looking [on the ethnic or Tamil question], the law in Sri Lanka is that the major party in Opposition, giving some reason, shoots it down. It happened last time when President Chandrika Kumaratunga moved forward with far-going devolution proposals...
Yasushi Akashi: It has happened several times.N. Ram: Have you paid attention to that?
Yasushi Akashi: Yes, indeed. That's something that should concern us. But I hope very much that the parliamentary system is not pre-destined to such nihilistic procedures. It will be the greatest condemnation of the parliamentary system if a good outcome that is beneficial to everybody concerned is destined to be shot down merely for partisan interests. I am well aware that Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst system of government except all others! That last phrase "except all others" is interesting.
N. Ram: We read that Balasingham said that the LTTE would like the [Sri Lankan] President to sign the ceasefire agreement. But she was not invited to do that and I think it's simply not on, not realistic. It seems to be just a statement of wishes rather than a serious demand.
Yasushi Akashi: I think for peace in Sri Lanka to be really durable and supported by all significant political groups, it is important that the President and the Prime Minister be on the same wave length - on the essentials of the peace to be achieved, if not on every detail. Certainly constitutional amendments are not possible unless the two major parties are in agreement.
N. Ram: By bringing in the "19th Amendment to the Constitution," the government attempted to clip the wings of the executive President. But the Sri Lankan Supreme Court upheld [in its judgment of October 2002] the position that "the executive power of the people is inalienable and shall be exercised by the President"; that the power to dissolve Parliament, as laid down in the Constitution, is "a component of the executive power of the People, attributed to the President, to be exercised in trust for the People"; and that any change in this feature requires a constitutional amendment to be adopted by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and also approved by a simple majority in a referendum. The "19th Amendment" fell through. The Supreme Court's ruling seems to have restored the balance between the President and the Prime Minister. Many commentators have noted this.
Yasushi Akashi: Yes, I think these two institutions, the President and the Prime Minister, have to co-exist. But they have to do more than co-exist with each other. They have to cooperate.
N. Ram: Finally, you have had experience, in the United Nations, in consolidating peace or helping facilitate peace in what looked like two intractable conflicts - Cambodia and then the Balkans, where you also worked with General Satish Nambiar. He has also been inducted as an adviser on military affairs by the Sri Lankan government.
Yasushi Akashi: Yes, I have the greatest respect and admiration for General Nambiar and I am delighted that he is involved also in this Sri Lankan peace process. I think his dispassionate professional advice will be taken seriously by the two parties.
N. Ram: But in a comparative framework, which has been more difficult - Cambodia or the Balkans or Sri Lanka? These are enormously challenging situations.
Yasushi Akashi: I think each conflict is sui generis. You cannot say one is easier than the others. Each conflict has different components and different proponents and different ingredients. I consider that the question in which I am directly involved at a certain time requires my full attention. One should not exaggerate the complexity of any particular conflict and one should not simplify any of these conflicts as easy to resolve. There are so many imponderables, which only hard work, goodwill and some element of luck can help to resolve.