Paper Presented by me at a Seminar on Conflict in Sri Lanka-Road Ahead in Colombo on March 27, 2008
Sir Arthur Clarke, the most celebrated guest citizen of Sri Lanka passed away without having his three fondest wishes fulfilled. He had wanted to establish contact with extra terrestrial beings, which, he knew, existed; he had wanted to rid humanity of dependence on fossil fuels and he had wished to see lasting peace established in his adopted land. Many of his other dreams came true and these three may well happen, but all the three appear distant at this time. On establishing peace, he observed: “Peace cannot be just wished; it requires a great deal of hard work.” Let us hope that peace comes to Sri Lanka before we see ET and set ourselves free from slavery to black gold.
If seminars, studies and debates could resolve the simmering problems in Sri Lanka, which have taken a huge toll in terms of human lives and property, it would have happened long ago. Much has been said and written by both Sri Lankans and outsiders, many peacemakers have made sincere efforts and every known method of resolving conflicts has been tried. The sum total of our experience in Sri Lanka has shown that only a change in the minds of men can lead to lasting peace in this war ravaged and tension ridden piece of Paradise.
Many of the studies and seminars, particularly by the Centre for Security Analysis, have not been in vain. The fact that they and other think tanks persist with their efforts to look for new insights and alternatives shows that they are sincere and determined to end this conflict. One particular study, “Cost of Conflict in Sri Lanka” by another think-tank confirms our suspicion that the costs of the conflict have been staggering. In every sphere of activity, the economic costs alone are huge, not to speak of loss of lives, the opportunity costs and the environmental costs. Sri Lanka of the sixties was a role model for developing nations. Some analysts have concluded that the cost of the conflict per year is 2 to 3% of the GDP per year. By 1996, the cumulative cost of the war was estimated to be 1.5 times the GDP of Sri Lanka. There are no winners in this conflict, only victims.
Speaking of the international dimensions of the conflict in Sri Lanka, it should be said in fairness to the international community that it has not been insensitive to the problems faced by this nation. Whether it is the neighbouring India or the distant Norway, whether it is the United Nations or the Commonwealth, nations and international organizations have spared no effort to bring this conflict to an end. That those efforts were rebuffed, often with tragic consequences, proved that the problems were deep and extremely complex. But it is unconscionable to abandon peace efforts, as a military solution would not be attainable. Only a negotiated solution, which takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankan citizens, can be durable and the international community has the responsibility to urge and assist such a solution.
The Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US said recently that no other country in the world in a similar situation has given greater access to foreign individuals, nations and international organizations than Sri Lanka has done. This is an acknowledged fact. The successive Governments in Sri Lanka have thrown open the doors of the country to those they thought would be of help, without asserting the point that these are matters of domestic jurisdiction, in which the outside world had no business to get involved. All the parties concerned have traveled long distances in the quest for peace. Even today, though the Government has taken a position that it will not allow stationing of foreigners in the island, it has not closed its doors to foreign ideas and assistance to establish peace. I have no doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize is waiting to be awarded to any one who can find the magic formula which can bring peace to Sri Lanka.
The role of the international community is essentially limited as the conflict is domestic in origin and has to be resolved domestically. As Prof. G.L.Peiris observed at a CSA seminar in Chennai: “We have to remember at all times that this is our problem and there is no question of abdicating responsibility and blaming the international community when things go wrong. That is an irresponsible attitude. Our friends can help us, the solution is in our own hands because this is our problem and as a nation we have to formulate a solution with the assistance of the international community.”
An analysis of the previous efforts at internationalization and direct external intervention, particularly by India in the eighties, shows the validity of Prof Peiris’s assertion. India’s intervention was, in a way, aimed at preventing excessive internationalization of the issue. If the accord of 1987 had succeeded, the history of Sri Lanka would have been different. India paid a heavy price for the failure of the accord and decided not to involve directly in the conflict any more. But it has not tried to prevent other international efforts to facilitate a peace process. The most recent abrogation of the ceasefire agreement has once again demonstrated the limitations of any external role. The external role is further constrained by the fact that many countries see one of the parties as a terrorist group.
But the international community can neither ignore nor remain a silent witness to the conflict in Sri Lanka. At the very least, it has to alleviate the suffering of the people and be ready to rebuild the devastated areas as soon as the situation permits it to do so. The way India went to give medical and other assistance to the tsunami victims in the North-East was much appreciated even by the warring factions.
In a situation where the traditional methods of peace making and peace keeping are not possible by the United Nations, the international community can only urge Sri Lankans to make use of the vast experience it has gained in other areas and to abide by the norms, standards and ground rules set by the United Nations over the years. The concepts that surface again and again in the discussions on the Sri Lankan situation are self-determination, democracy, non –violence, human rights, development, disarmament and terrorism. None of these concepts is either new or unique to Sri Lanka. Their characteristics and scope have been debated in the United Nations either in the abstract or in the context of a particular conflict or another. International consensus or near consensus exists on many of these concepts and the best that the international community can do is to urge the parties in Sri Lanka to abide by these norms. The international community will support the country during and after the conflict if it is confident that the norms have been followed.
Take, for instance, the concept of self-determination. While it is asserted as a right of all peoples, it was clarified in the early days of the UN that it applied only to people under colonial occupation or alien domination. A people exercises self-determination in a particular moment in history and once a sovereign nation is born, sections of that nation has no right to claim the right to self determination. The whole concept of the sovereign state will be undermined by repeated exercises in self-determination. Similarly, the international community has identified the features of a democratic society, even if local variations have developed. The possibility for the entire population to participate in elections and the government is the fundamental feature that cannot be compromised. At the same time, all violence stands condemned by the international community.
Human rights have been the subject of extensive deliberations and standard setting by the international community. Violations of the fundamental freedoms of citizens by states have been condemned worldwide and there are norms of behaviour by the states even while dealing with law and order situations. Extra-judicial killings, illegal detentions and torture are not permissible in any circumstances. No civilized nation should violate human rights of its people even in the face of provocations. But at the same time, politicization of human rights and violation of human rights by organized groups or terrorists also stand condemned.
Terrorism has been recognized globally as the worst kind of crime against humanity as it takes different forms and manifestations. Although an international convention on terrorism is yet to take shape, there are several seminal conventions on terrorist activities of various kinds. In an earlier phase, there was a tendency to exclude liberation struggles from the purview of terrorism, but today there is universal recognition that there is no such thing as “good terrorism”. To use indiscriminate force to destroy innocent lives and property in order to secure political advantages is to engage in the worst form of terrorism. States too cannot engage in terrorist activities of any kind. Some see even the examination of “root causes” of terrorism as justification of terrorism.
These are some of the issues on which the international community has clear and definite views. As long as the parties to the conflict act within the framework of these norms, they can be assured of the support of international community. The confidence of the Government that the country is at the threshold of a decisive phase in her contemporary history is welcome and as long as the norms are observed, nobody will point fingers or preach from the pulpit. As Jehan Pereira observed just the other day, the need for preservation of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, the inadmissibility of terrorism and the impracticability of a military solution are the messages that lie behind the mixed signals that emanate from the international community.