The facilitator fracas

Print edition : June 23, 2001

The sharp differences between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam over the status of Norway's facilitatory role threaten to stall the peace process.

THE protracted conflict in Sri Lanka underwent another sharp and dramatic twist in the second week of June when a controversy arose over the facilitatory role played by Norway in trying to bring about negotiations for a peaceful settlement between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Erik Solheim, the mutually accepted Norwegian special envoy in charge of brokering peace efforts between both parties on behalf of Oslo, was himself the centre of the fresh crisis that threatened to stall the fragile peace process which had not in any case progressed much in the past few months. Even as the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE adopted antagonistic stances over the status of Norway's facilitatory role in general and Erik Solheim's position in particular, the reconciliatory effort of the intermediary was seemingly destined for a breakdown.

In a rebel hideout in northern Sri Lanka on November 3, 2000, Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim (left) shakes hands with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam supremo Velupillai Prabakaran as Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jon Westborg looks on.-AP

The peace process that had been progressing at a snail's pace with fluctuating fortunes reached a stalemate over the question of de-proscribing the Tigers. Both sides had agreed in principle to the signing of a joint agreement, the relaxation of the economic embargo on the LTTE-controlled areas and the declaration of a ceasefire. There were certain areas of disagreement concerning these issues that awaited a satisfactory resolution. The plus point, however, was that both sides had agreed in principle regarding the basics. The contentious issue that had virtually paralysed the peace initiative was the question of lifting the ban imposed by the government on the LTTE on January 28, 1998 before negotiations began.

The LTTE insists that the ban should be lifted before talks as a "prerequisite" so that both sides can negotiate as equal partners without any constraints.

"No de-proscription, no talks," say the Tigers. The government does not agree. It says that the LTTE should enter talks first. Thereafter the ban could be lifted at a suitable juncture depending on the progress achieved in the talks. National and international opinion differs, but broadly there are two schools of thought supportive of either position.

A middle way advocated is that the government could instead of formally declaring a "de-proscription" suspend the ban for a designated period initially. Thereafter it could either extend the suspension or revoke it depending on the progress in talks. Diplomatic representatives of at least four Western and two Eastern nations have been engaged in persuading the government to consider this measure.

It was against this backdrop that Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and special envoy Solheim flew into Colombo's Katunayake Airport at 2-30 p.m. on June 7. The surprise visit followed an urgent invitation from President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Apparently the Norwegians had no idea about the reason for the invitation. Solheim telephoned the LTTE's London-based chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, and informed him that he would brief him on his way back home. Due to pressing engagements in Oslo, Jagland's time in Colombo was limited. After a two-hour dinner meeting the two Norsemen left Colombo by a Paris-bound flight at 2-30 a.m. on June 8, after 12 hours of stay. It soon became obvious that Solheim had journeyed for nothing and that he did not attend the dinner meeting.

A terse press release from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry made it clear that only President Kumaratunga, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and the Norwegian Foreign Minister had participated at the meeting. Norwegian second secretary and embassy spokesperson Tomas Strangland told the news agency AFP: "It was an invitation to the (Norwegian) Foreign Minister and not for Solheim." Asked for the significance of Solheim being left out, Tomas said "I can't comment on that."

Informed diplomatic sources revealed the essence of what transpired at the meeting. There were three main issues. The first concerned the de-proscription issue and what was expected from the international community. The second was a governmental assessment regarding Solheim's performance as honest broker. The third was a request to alter the structure, substance and style of Norway's mediatory efforts. Only the third point received at least some mention in Colombo's extremely short press release.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The Sri Lankan government position was that the LTTE was not being genuine and that it was insisting on de-proscription to avoid entering talks. The government was not inclined to oblige it by de-proscribing it. The onus was on the international community in general and Norway in particular to exert pressure on the Tigers and compel them to come for talks. The ban could be lifted afterwards, predicated on the progress in talks. If "de-proscription" before talks was absolutely essential, the LTTE should manifest its sincerity through concrete action. The Tigers should announce that they are dropping their Eelam demand, suspend the armed struggle and as further proof of their bona fides adopt a moratorium on "terrorist" violence for a reasonable period of time.

On the question of Solheim's track record as chief intermediary the government expressed dissatisfaction. From Colombo's perspective, while his objectives were laudable and his sincerity above reproach, his functional style had not produced the desired results. He was easily accessible to the media. There were several reports in the media about the peace process, which were not helpful to the process. Negotiations could not be carried out through newspapers. A general lack of objectivity also could be detected in Solheim's approach. A "sequential analysis" of his mediatory efforts contributed to a general impression among sections of the majority community that Solheim in particular and Norway in general was partial towards the LTTE. This perception was detrimental to the progress of the peace process and may possibly result in undermining the good offices of Norway.

Having made this point of view clear, the government, however, did not want Oslo to quit. There was also no direct demand that Solheim be replaced. Instead the request was for Norway to "upgrade" its level of participation. Solheim was only a former member of Parliament representing a minor Socialist Party, who was appointed special adviser to the Foreign Ministry. He had apparently reached his limits and the peace process was exhausted. According to the government, what was required to galvanise the process was a high-level input by Norway. The Foreign Minister himself could take up more direct responsibility. The facilitatory efforts, the government felt, should be led by someone who is at least of a deputy-ministerial rank. The facilitator in the spotlight should be a high-profile upper-level functionary who commanded the respect of the international community and capable of harnessing a collective effort to bear down upon the Tigers who are recalcitrant in Colombo's view.

NORWEGIAN Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland, during his talks with President Chandrika Kumaratunga on June 7, apparently concurred with Colombo's view that he should engage himself more directly in the peace efforts. On return to Oslo he said that it was time for a stronger political engagement by Norway, in order to help the stalled peace negotiations make headway. He said that his talks with Kumaratunga reviewed the status of the peace efforts in order to decide how to move forward. Jagland said that he would now schedule meetings with LTTE representatives but that no venue or dates for the meetings had been set. Almost immediately after Jagland's comments were publicised, a London-based Tamil radio station said, quoting sources close to the LTTE, that no one had contacted the Tigers on this matter.

The Sri Lankan media and sections of the international media began highlighting the issue of Solheim being downgraded as a result of the facilitatory effort having been upgraded. This media storm, however, was characteristically modest, and the view that he was sidelined stood rejected.

Responding to a posting on a Colombo Website, Solheim said: "I can only say that everything is exaggerated in the media." He felt that he was still part of the peace process. "I can confirm to you that while the Foreign Minister (of Norway) and his Deputy Minister will be involved at a high level, myself and the Norwegian Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Mr. Jon Westborg, will continue to act as the facilitating team," Solheim told the Lanka Academic.

THE LTTE was quite irritated and vexed over the development. Its political adviser and chief negotiator Balasingham told a Colombo English weekly The Sunday Leader over the telephone that the LTTE would not accept Colombo's high-handed and improper act of asking the Norwegian government to remove Erik Solheim as the special envoy in charge of facilitation at this juncture. "They cannot simply find a substitute for Mr. Solheim without consulting us. Both sides accepted him as the facilitator. They have to provide a satisfactory explanation for this. Unless this is done we will not accept or tolerate Mr. Solheim's removal," said Balasingham.

He said that as far as the LTTE and the Tamil people were concerned Solheim had "discharged his duties efficiently, sincerely and impartially". The lack of progress in the peace process was due to "the government's and not Mr. Solheim's fault," he said. "One important reason for the Tigers continuing to participate and cooperate in the peace process was the trust and confidence we had in Mr. Solheim. He has met our leader Velupillai Prabakaran, political wing chief S.P. Thamilchelvan and other senior leaders in the Wanni. I have met him several times in Europe. We have faith in him," Balasingham told The Sunday Leader.

Balasingham said that Solheim was being sought to be replaced because Colombo was unhappy over the independent and constructive role he had been playing. "The government discovered that they could not distort the situation and depict the Tigers as being responsible for retarding the peace process because of Mr. Solheim's integrity," said Balasingham. "So they are trying to get him out of the scene just as (President) J.R. Jayewardene forced (India's Prime Minister) Rajiv Gandhi to substitute Romesh Bhandari for G. Parthasarathy in 1985," he charged.

Prabakaran was extremely concerned over this development and had contacted him, revealed Balasingham. "The LTTE central committee will analyse the situation after more information is received and issue a statement outlining its stance on the issue." he told the newspaper.

Even as Balasingham's views appeared in print on June 10, a statement was released by the LTTE from its headquarters in the northern mainland of the Wanni. Expressing displeasure over "the unilateral initiative taken by the Sri Lankan government to effect a change in the role and function" of Solheim, the statement charged that this "initiative was undertaken to downgrade and marginalise Solheim from his active, impartial role, under the guise of upgrading the level of Norwegian involvement."

"The hasty manner in which Norwegian Foreign Minister Jagland was summoned to Colombo for a closed door meeting with President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, where a critical decision was made to upgrade the status of facilitation without the consultation of the LTTE, the other party in the conflict, is in our view, improper. The facilitatory process in peace-making is not an exercise in inter-governmental relations; it involves tripartite relations among the facilitator and the parties in conflict. As a facilitator, the Government of Norway is under obligation to consult both protagonists before making crucial decisions with regard to its level of involvement or engagement.

"Making a bilateral decision with the government of Sri Lanka circumventing the other party in conflict entails a breach of protocol and neutrality," the statement said.

WHATEVER the merits of the LTTE statement it helped reinforce suspicion among the Sinhala ultra-nationalists that Solheim was in cahoots with the Tigers. There was very little sympathy for the Norwegian intermediary even within government ranks. When he was criticised in Parliament by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Sihala Urumaya members of Parliament, not a single government member chose to defend him. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake was critical of him at public meetings and he even suggested that Solheim cease his mediatory efforts and let the government continue the war with the LTTE. Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalist sections outside the government even demanded that Solheim be declared persona non grata.

Another problem was Solheim's perceived closeness to the LTTE. According to diplomatic sources familiar with mediatory exercises, "it was standard practice for a third party to establish trust and rapport with disputants. Solheim maintained cordial relations with Balasingham while Norwegian Ambassador to Colombo Jon Westborg was quite friendly with Kadirgamar. Said the source: "This was a sound and viable working arrangement but naturally both sides mistrusted each other. His repeated meetings with Balasingham and the fact that he had been presented a gold coin with a Tiger emblem as a souvenir by Prabakaran was viewed with hostility. The Tigers were also concerned about Westborg's perceived partiality towards Colombo but did not protest. The southern hardliners, however, have been calling for Solheim's removal."

The government too was somewhat unhappy over certain aspects of the matter. In the first place, Solheim's enthusiasm to usher in peace led him to exceed his expected role of facilitator. The drafting of a memorandum of understanding and the effort to persuade Colombo to accept its provisions wholesale, for instance, were irritating. So too was his reluctance to "pressure" the LTTE. He had also been urging the government quietly to reciprocate the LTTE's unilateral ceasefire. Solheim had also expressed disapproval of the launching of the "Agni Kheela" military operation. He also used to urge the diplomats of powerful countries to exert pressure on Colombo.

Three specific incidents led to the move to dispense with Solheim's services, according to knowledgeable circles. The first are related to Kadirgamar's letter to Jagland saying that an agreement had been reached on starting talks and asking him to provide a document embodying the agreement. Balasingham disputed Kadirgamar's assertion and stated publicly that no agreement had been reached. It was a case of Kadirgamar's word against Balasingham's. Solheim, however, told the media that while progress had been made, no agreement on starting talks had been reached. This caused considerable embarrassment to Kadirgamar.

The second instance concerned Solheim's recent visit to Washington along with Jagland. Solheim met U.S. State Department officials, members of the Congress, Senators and bureaucrats involved in Sri Lankan matters. Solheim's candidly honest presentation of the situation concerning the peace process was unfavourable to Colombo. It was as if Solheim was charging that various acts of omission and commission by the government had led to the stymieing of the negotiations. His request to State Department Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage that the U.S. exert constant pressure on both sides also did not go down well with the government. In any case, Colombo does not like to be equated with the LTTE.

The third instance related to Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe's recent visit to Oslo. Both he and Solheim interacted frequently and positively. The cooperation of the chief Opposition party was essential for the success of the peace process and Solheim's motives in establishing a working relationship with Wickremasinghe were honourable. The government, however, became irritated about this particularly in a context in which the United National Party (UNP)- sponsored no-confidence motion was expected to be presented in Parliament.

Whatever may be the government's assessment concerning Solheim and his role, its request to upgrade the facilitation efforts does seem overtly reasonable, although the consequence would be the overriding of Solheim. At the same time, the LTTE's objection to the governments of Sri Lanka and Norway taking a bilateral decision on this vital issue without consulting or obtaining the consent of the Tigers is also valid. The contending views of both sides could complicate the situation further. Much would depend on the talks Oslo intends to have with the LTTE in the future. If matters are ironed out in these talks, the peace process could move forward. If not, the process may be jeopardised on account of the Solheim factor. The change that envisaged a further impetus to the process may become counterproductive and lead to the process itself collapsing, because of the facilitator fracas.

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