Ex-Foreign Secy on ‘intra-conflict’ diplomatic issues

Continued from yesterday

Former Foreign Secretary H. M. G. S. Palihakkara on Monday (Feb. 14) discussed what he called intra-conflict diplomatic issues, which confronted Sri Lanka during the final phase of the offensive action against the LTTE. "This is a perspective necessary to facilitate a better appreciation of the post conflict diplomatic challenges facing Sri Lanka," he said delivering the Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture titled, ‘Post-conflict foreign policy challenges for Sri Lanka,’ at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute.

Palihakkara said: "Before I do that, let me confess that I use the term "conflict" lightly. I do so because precision terminology referring to Sri Lanka’s problem is not easily achieved, i.e., whether we should call this situation an ethnic conflict; a terrorist problem; a communal issue; a civil war; a counter insurgency operation or even a humanitarian operation as it was described towards the latter part of the military campaign in 2009. Leaving this rather complex discussion aside, I thought we could be satisfied with the term "conflict" for the limited purpose of the topic I speak on today. That term can denote conflict of ideas, conflict of perceptions, conflict of interests, conflict of prejudices or even the conflict of absurdities. Before I proceed further, let me add another caveat; I speak today not as an expert or an informed academic on foreign affairs. My perspective is that of a practitioner.

Little do we appreciate that Sri Lanka’s conflict (and even its genesis) has been a highly externalized process. This external dimension has manifested in different forms for over three decades now. And it has assumed new meaning and somewhat disturbing proportions in the post conflict period. Consequently, there has been intense external influence and intrusive scrutiny over the conflict as well as many attempts at its resolution. This external influence and scrutiny spilled over into the post conflict period as well.

What are the factors that contributed to this unique phenomenon?

The first contributor is a consistent pattern of leadership failures in Sri Lanka for which all successive Governments and all ‘democratic’ political parties since independence must bear responsibility. When domestic processes fail to find solutions to internal problems external prescriptions become inevitable. You create space for external forces to advocate and even impose solutions for the latter’s political or strategic convenience, be it from a regional power or from extra regional powers.

A secondary contributing factor is a large and vocal expatriate community or Diaspora that remained very much focused on the Sri Lanka conflict from the outset. A significant and continuous outflow of people , both economic and asylum migrants from Sri Lanka since the 1983 communal violence, has led to the creation of a substantial Diaspora influence group especially in a number of countries in the Western hemisphere. They have in fact become a very influential and vociferous opinion-making body, even impacting on the electoral fortunes of politicians in their respective host countries.

Another development that has externalized the conflict was the so-called "peace process" in Sri Lanka – the failure of which since 2002 has eventually led to the military activity that culminated in the elimination of the LTTE. This process also brought in the involvement of Norway as the facilitator and a group of Western countries known as the co-chairs in an oversight role for the ‘peace process’. This external involvement in the Ceasefire Agreement brokered by Norway and the subsequent ups and downs of the peace talks with the Tigers entailed a great deal of foreign involvement in what were hitherto considered essentially internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

I had taken it for granted that all of us are aware and appreciative of the well documented role of our friendly neighbour India in this context until a friend pointed out to me that nothing should be taken for granted. India was indeed a major contributor in internationalizing the Sri Lanka situation and providing intrusive Indian military inputs thereto in the pre 1983 and the post 1983 periods. This good neighbourly influence and brotherly guidance will continue. It will perhaps manifest in non military but more sophisticated forms. It may continue not only bilaterally but also through multilateral means. This intrusiveness can grow in intensity and frequency especially if a consensual political process does not take root here to capitalize on the soldiers’ success over the LTTE to ensure a sustainable post conflict peace building process.

Another development that brought further external visibility to the conflict in Sri Lanka was an emerging trend among local political parties to enmesh foreign relations with the interests of parochial electoral politics, by canvassing domestic governance issues abroad, for the purpose of electoral strategy at home.

Unfortunate synergy of all these created many situations in which a negative image of Sri Lanka sharply contrasted against what the country stood for before; a model Third World democracy with egalitarian ethos and socio-economic achievements.

Consequently, when the Government of Sri Lanka began its military activity against the LTTE, after it became clear that the LTTE was not seriously interested in a negotiated solution, the Sri Lanka situation was already under intense international attention.

Last but not the least, one must also bear in mind that in a shrinking world where the forces of globalization and the power of IT are at play, no country remains an island anymore. No situation can remain isolated. For a variety of reasons a conflict anywhere, be it internal or inter-state, will be a matter for attention everywhere as evidenced by recent events in Egypt. Real time television, internet, remote sensing technologies, and robust armies of investigative journalists work synergistically to bring conflicts and humanitarian emergencies instantly to the drawing rooms of millions of homes all over the world. Unlike previously, no conflict can escape public attention anymore. The recent Wiki leaks episode demonstrates the power of Internet for dissemination and even disruption. The highly classified state secrets can no longer be counted upon to remain secrets.

Impactful contributions from various social networking web sites have led to dramatic political upheavals in some Middle Eastern countries, signifying that States find it difficult to keep abreast of, let alone keep under control, what was hitherto known as matters of exclusive domestic jurisdiction.

It was in such an evolving international back drop that the Sri Lanka security forces approached the terminal phase of its military operation. The LTTE had taken over 300,000 Tamil civilians as virtual hostages, and exploited these innocent victims as human shields, exposing them to the LTTE’s own fire and to the crossfire between the two sides. Given the humanitarian dangers entailed, the ensuing situation was considered by the key international players as one that is ripe for international ‘humanitarian’ intervention in order to bring the conflict to an end through negotiations. This was the prevailing Western (international) sentiment notwithstanding the precautionary humanitarian measures taken by the security forces and the exercise of maximum restraint to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage. The LTTE resorted to the abhorrent practice of holding such a large number of civilians as hostage in order to ensure this safety of its cadres. They also threw untrained and underage cadres to the battle, employed suicide bombers mostly among the unsuspecting civilians who were crossing over to the government lines and in fact fired at those civilians who were trying to leave. In this scenario of imminent and massive blood-letting and in view of the LTTE’s blatant disregard of all the calls by national and international leaders and bodies like the United Nations Security Council to free this human shield, the LTTE remained intransigent in its refusal to let the people go. They had the cynical knowledge that the human shield was the only last resort available to their top leaders. Many international figures cautioned of an imminent ‘blood bath’ on the beaches of Puthumathalan on the Eastern sea board. The LTTE and its Diaspora lobby further dramatized this to good effect by threatening ‘a collective suicide’ on the Pudumathalan beach.

For a number of reasons, this was an unprecedented foreign policy challenge for Sri Lanka. Firstly, this was the first time the Sri Lanka situation figured at the UN Security Council. In fact this was the first time any issue pertaining to Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, especially its security and integrity, had come before the UN Security Council. The Council is the only organ of the UN which can issue a legally binding directive to halt a military operation in its tracks, like it did to Israel concerning its operation in Gaza around the same time. The concern for the Sri Lanka Government was that it would have left room for the LTTE leadership to find a way out to re-group, re-arm and resume their terrorist campaign for Eelam. There was therefore understandable apprehension that what happened in 1987 to stop the Vadamarachchi operation against the LTTE could happen again in 2009. While the former of course was bilateral pressure from our neighbour a regional power, the latter would have been a multilateral decree from the big powers that constitute the UN Security Council. Since such a decree would be legally binding, it would be qualitatively different from other similar calls, including a resolution in the Human Rights Council in Geneva which can be only recommendatory in nature and thus not legally binding. The challenge for Sri Lanka at that time was to prevent the UN Security Council from issuing such a decree and leave no room for an external enforcement operation to be initiated in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was able to successfully prevent this from happening by employing a multi-pronged strategy that harmonized military, humanitarian and diplomatic action. This multi faceted approach ensured the provision of humanitarian support, assistance and protection to the people victimized by the LTTE on the one hand, and facilitated effective strategies of preventive diplomacy in Sri Lanka as well as at the UN Security Council in New York. There was no resolution or any other decree passed by the UN Security Council directing or constraining the Government’s action to bring the conflict to an end.

This was undoubtedly the most formidable multilateral diplomatic challenge that confronted Sri Lanka since her independence. Any mandatory external intervention under the fiat of the UN Security Council could potentially have resulted in adverse and far reaching implications on the fundamentals of the Sri Lankan nation, i.e. its territorial integrity and sovereignty of its people.


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