Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sri Lanka’s Peace Efforts: The View from a Distance
International Dimensions of the Sri Lankan Peace Process"
Colombo, July 8-9, 2005

Teresita C. Schaffer
Director South Asia Programe,
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS),

Sri Lanka has been known for centuries as a land of seductive beauty and complicated politics. Visitors are struck by the fact that people here like to refer to it as "the Island," not by more common expressions like "the country." This is a perspective that encourages observers to take a close-up view, to enjoy the fascinating people, remarkable history and glorious vistas, and get to know as much as possible about the twists and turns of a highly convoluted and controversy-ridden political system.

What I’ve been asked to speak on today involves a different and more distant perspective, focusing on how Sri Lanka appears from the perspective of Washington. I would like to leave you with the thought that Sri Lanka’s overseas friends are ready to stand with them in sustaining a serious peace process and implementing the economic program that goes with it, but that they are not prepared, and probably not able, to rescue the peace process if it is allowed to crash. This puts the responsibility for building a better tomorrow squarely on the shoulders of Sri Lanka’s various political leaders – but then that responsibility was always there to begin with.

Let me start with the basics: what drives United States policy? In the years of the Cold War, there was an easy answer to that question. Today, the answer is more complicated. One key factor is the War on Terrorism; another is Washington’s sense that a new world power structure is emerging, in which the U.S. will need to construct a new set of relationships. Let me discuss each in turn.

The nature and location of the War on Terrorism is actually the subject of heated dispute in the United States. For the administration, it currently centers on Iraq. This has been the administration’s number 1 issue for at least three years – in other words, since about a year before the invasion. Others argue that Iraq is a self-made problem, different from the War on Terrorism, but they would not dispute Iraq’s primacy as a U.S. worry. But for both the administration and the rest of the country, the terrorism agenda goes beyond Iraq. Terrorism in the name of Islam – and that is really the central focus of the administration’s anti-terrorism policy – has manifested itself in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, not to speak of the insurgency that claims dozens of victims every week in Iraq.

Within what you might call the terrorism-and-Middle East agenda, the Administration’s primary foreign policy goal is to help competent, friendly and if possible democratic governments emerge from the fog of war and the chaos of reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. With this objective in view, it is trying to cultivate and channel democratic impulses in the Middle East, and it is working closely with other neighboring governments, notably Pakistan’s, to shore up the military anti-terrorism operations that are needed to put the worst of the terrorist groups out of business. As the administration articulates it, this policy is both operational and visionary. The administration’s critics would argue that the operational side is inhibited by an excessively short-term focus, and that the visionary side is wildly unrealistic.

The U.S. administration has given first place to this cluster of issues, and since this administration has from the start taken a highly focused approach and concentrated its efforts on a very short list of priority topics, that is what one usually hears about when one asks about U.S. policy. But there is at least one other important theme, which I will call the rise of the East. The administration has an emerging vision of a changing structure of world power and politics, and wants to ensure that the power the United States enjoys today will be fully available as this transformation comes to pass.

These changes are perhaps most evident in Asia. China is rising in economic and military power. It is widely expected that the Chinese economy will pass Japan’s in the next few years. While relations between China and the United States have actually been fairly good since the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, and China does not seem to have any objection at the moment to the traditionally strong U.S. presence in the western Pacific region, China’s rise nonetheless represents at least an implicit challenge to the United States. The administration has wanted to work with China (for example on the North Korean nuclear problem), but it still has serious anxieties about the implications of China’s rise. If you are looking for an illustration of this, I suggest you consider the storm that arose when several European countries sought to liberalize arms exports to China recently.

India is also rising, but the U.S. government has treated this phenomenon quite differently. In the past fifteen years there has been a revolution in U.S.-India relations. India’s economic growth, the increasing size and prominence of the Indian-American community, and India’s reassessment of its interests in the wake of the end of the Cold War have made the United States into India’s most important extra-regional power. For the United States, two important turning points occurred when India came out in favor of a U.S. missile defense system and when India agreed to escort sensitive U.S. naval cargoes through the Straits of Malacca a few years ago. All this has prompted speculation that the U.S. wishes to "use" India as a counterweight to China. I believe that India is too sophisticated to be used as anyone else’s pawn – especially at a time when India’s own ties with China have been expanding and warming up. Nonetheless, the fact that China is rising, Korea is deeply troubled, Japan is in a slump, and Indonesia is racked with separatist problems, all at the same time, suggest that the United States has solid geopolitical reasons for wanting to develop a serious and sophisticated strategic relationship with India, immediately to the west of this troubled part of Asia.

U.S. policy toward South Asia derives from both these strands of U.S. foreign policy. Oversimplifying a great deal, one can say that policy toward Pakistan is driven chiefly by U.S. "terrorism-and-Middle East" objectives, and policy toward India is more closely connected to the "rise of the East." The announcement on March 25 that the U.S. was prepared to sell F-16 aircraft to Pakistan showed the world that the U.S.-Pakistan security relationship had been fully restored – but it also asserted that the United States wanted to "help India become a major power in the 21st Century." South Asia, in other words, is the point where both these strands come together.

Where does U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka fit in? In fact, these two global features of U.S. policy do not provide a very good explanation of why the U.S. government has taken an interest in Sri Lanka’s troubles or of how it is likely to act in the future. Terrorism has played a devastating part in Sri Lanka’s long national agony, and has certainly intensified U.S. interest in seeing that agony resolved. But the principal U.S. interest in play in Sri Lanka is the risk the ethnic conflict here poses to the peace of South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

The level of U.S. interest and diplomatic activity in Sri Lanka has varied. Moreover, the United States has not always considered peacemaking to be its only or even its primary goal in Sri Lanka. When I first arrived here as ambassador in 1992, the top issue on our list was human rights. This was a time when disappearances were still taking place routinely, and when there was no active peace initiative in play. Peacemaking was on our list, but not at the top of it.

During periods of active peace efforts, the U.S. encouraged them, but played a supporting rather than a principal role. During the 1980s, the U.S. supported India’s diplomatic efforts. It publicly endorsed the Indo-Lanka accord, including both the IPKF and the Thirteenth Amendment, joining in the signatories’ hope that it would make possible a durable settlement based on greater devolution of power to Sri Lanka’s provinces. During the mid-1990s, when Chandrika Kumaratunga revived peacemaking efforts after a long hiatus, neither the Sri Lankan government nor the LTTE wanted an active American third-party role. The United States again strongly supported her initiative. It tried to provide encouragement and to make available some of the fruits of U.S. experience in dealing with other conflicts. The fact that the Sri Lankan government had tried to implement a serious peace process set the context for the gradual resumption of military cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s and beyond.

The United States also provided anti-terrorism assistance to Sri Lanka during those years. This help was basically defensive, and consisted primarily in providing advice to organizations tasked with maintaining security for Sri Lankan leaders and facilities. It had nothing to do, in other words, with the business of conducting war or negotiating peace.

During the past three years, the United States has continued to play a supporting rather than a principal role, but its engagement with Sri Lanka’s peace efforts has been deeper and its support has had a higher profile. The United States is a co-chair of the donors’ group; it has convened donors’ meetings and its senior officials have participated in international conferences on Sri Lanka. It has been deeply involved in coordinating the deployment of economic aid so as to support peace efforts.

Why the change? I see four principal reasons. First, the attacks of 9/11 brought the terrorism issue into sharp focus. Although the LTTE, unlike the Islamic extremists that have been the primary object of the U.S. "war on terrorism," did not target Americans, this experience increased U.S. interest in bringing this phenomenon to an end in Sri Lanka.

Second, the Norwegian facilitators who became involved in Sri Lanka at about that same time saw the need for international support for their efforts, and made a compelling case to Washington that it needed to step up its involvement in order to keep the peace process afloat.

Third came the new U.S.-Indian relationship. It has always been clear that a settlement in Sri Lanka would have to enjoy India’s acquiescence, regardless of whether India was involved in brokering it. In years gone by, India was uncomfortable with any active U.S. diplomatic posture in its neighborhood. But with the dramatic change in its relations with Washington, with the increasing overlap between U.S. and Indian interests and with the expanding high-level dialogue between Washington and Delhi, India no longer had the same automatic skepticism about a U.S. role – a role that India and the United States were able to consult about in the normal course of their diplomatic conversations.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Sri Lanka had a serious peace process taking shape. The government – indeed by now three governments in a row, headed by two different parties – had made serious preparations for discussions with the LTTE; they held meetings and exchanged proposals; they had the able assistance of a skilled Norwegian team. In other words, there was the real possibility of success. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, speaking at a conference on Sri Lanka at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in early 2003, said that the United States was taking an interest "because it is the right thing to do." This was true, but Sri Lanka would not have claimed the level of attention it received from senior officials unless it also looked like a reasonable bet.

These four factors increased the level of U.S. involvement in Sri Lanka. That still leaves the more important question: what can outsiders bring to the table, if they are interested in helping Sri Lanka deal with its internal conflict.

Sri Lanka fits into the category of "intractable conflicts," which are described in an insightful collection called "Grasping the Nettle," put out by the U.S. Institute of Peace. These conflicts’ long duration unfortunately burdens all participants with the baggage of years of resentment and unsuccessful settlement efforts. The most stubborn conflicts in this group are those characterized by disputes over identity, by radically different concepts of a solution, and by an issue of national integrity vs. secession. Sri Lanka’s conflict shares all these characteristics.

These characteristics can change, and much of the art of peacemaking consists in identifying and sometimes creating the moments when change is more possible. The conflict resolution literature speaks of the need for a "hurting stalemate" – a tacit recognition by both sides that continuing the struggle is unacceptable, and that even a compromise solution would be better. The contrast here is with what William Zartman has called a "stable, soft, self-serving stalemate," still a stalemate but one in which the status quo looks better to the participants than a compromise. The first kind of stalemate is the first step on a path that can lead to peace; the second is a recipe for continued agony.

I suggest to you that 1994-95 was a period in which the nature of Sri Lanka’s stalemate briefly changed. The period from early 2002 on was another moment of opportunity, in which the participants in the conflict once again focused on the unacceptability of simply soldiering on and recognized a "hurting stalemate." In addition, during this period the government and LTTE negotiators began to identify the outlines of a single solution they were prepared to work for. If recognizing a hurting stalemate is the first step, defining a common solution – even if all the specifics still have to be painfully negotiated – is a hugely powerful second step.

These changes came about for many reasons, but let me underline three. The first is political leadership. Chandrika Kumaratunga got the peace movement started. Ranil Wickremasinghe made key decisions on the ceasefire and put the process together. And the LTTE’s decision to request a unilateral ceasefire also contributed to changing the landscape. The second big factor was the changed international environment after 9/11, which seems to have changed the LTTE’s view of what it could achieve. And the third is the determined and skillful role of the Norwegian negotiators.

But just as positive change is possible, so is negative change, and that is the danger we face today. So far, there seems to be agreement that the ceasefire should be maintained. However, it is under pressure, and conflicts that come close to a resolution and then fall apart tend to resume the fight in a more destructive fashion than before. So this is the time to try to reverse the trend. What can third parties do, and what strengths and weaknesses does the United States bring to the task?

Facilitation: The quintessential third party role is brokering negotiations, either through a relatively modest role, normally called "facilitation," or through a more active one, "mediation." This is what the Norwegians have been doing for several years now. They have built up considerable expertise, first through their work on the Middle East and now through their involvement in Sri Lanka. Norway is not a major global power; this gives its diplomats the freedom to define peacemaking as a key foreign policy goal and to pursue it without being accused of harboring more mundane ambitions. This does not necessarily equate to "equidistance" between the parties. There is ample evidence, however, that "equidistance" is not a necessary condition for an effective broker. Respect for and from both sides, imagination, determination, and persistence are.

The United States has ample experience with facilitation, but has not sought nor been asked to assume such a role in Sri Lanka. I believe it will and should remain a member of the "supporting cast." Its current preoccupations with Iraq and Afghanistan, and its agreement to resume an active role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, have left the U.S. foreign policy plate full to overflowing. This administration does not like to take on a large number of issues, and in any event whoever plays a facilitating role must be prepared to devote to it a great deal of time and personal high-level attention. But even in a "supporting" role, the United States can and should make available important assets.

Economic aid: U.S. economic aid for Sri Lanka in FY 2004 came to $21.2 million, and slightly smaller amounts have been requested for FY 2005 and 2006. These funds are divided among various aid accounts, one of which, Economic Support Funds, can be spent fairly flexibly. The U.S. government wants these funds to help reinforce the economic incentives for peace. Because of U.S. policy on terrorism, and because the LTTE is still one on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations, none of these funds can be granted to them or to organizations they control.

In addition, the U.S. government contributed $134 million to Sri Lanka’s Tsunami relief. This has no connection with the peace process. However, the peace process represents an opportunity for the government and other organizations, including the LTTE, to learn to work together on their common goal of repairing the devastation. I believe that one of the ways that the Sri Lankan parties to this conflict can prepare for resumption of a serious peace process is to work together, or at least in parallel, on concrete and tangible things. When one is trying to overcome long-standing suspicions, the concrete and visible is much more compelling than abstractions. A successful demining or reconstruction project that one can see and touch is more compelling than a constitutional proposal that is subject to many interpretations. And resources of all kinds can be opportunities to create this kind of concrete accomplishment, which can be powerful even if it has no direct connection to peace efforts.

This is where the issue of managing post-Tsunami relief comes in. It is not my place to join the controversy over how the proposed P-TOMS agreement has been handled in the Sri Lankan political system. But I believe that an arrangement which brings the LTTE into the decision and management process for reconstruction of the hardest-hit areas of the country, the first kilometer or two in from the coast, can pay powerful dividends both for reconstruction and ultimately for Sri Lanka’s larger task of reconstructing its national policy. It can offer the government and the LTTE the opportunity of doing small, concrete things together, and thence, perhaps, creating the first fragile strands of trust. In other words, both regular aid and Tsunami relief represent resources that can help Sri Lankans develop a "peace dividend." Indeed, the experience of working together and the concreteness of these accomplishments are probably more important than the amounts of money involved.

By the same token, I do not wish to second-guess the negotiators in their difficult task of reconciling the needs of the government, of the LTTE, and of the Muslim community. Any negotiated document will have imperfections from the point of view of each of the stakeholders, and no negotiated document is likely to be perfect from the technician’s perspective. But the important thing is for the government, the stakeholders, and the members of the committees created by P-TOMS to implement the agreement as best they can. If they do this, they will not only contribute to post-tsunami reconstruction. They will have a chance to contribute as well to Sri Lanka’s political reconstruction.

Conflict resolution experience: One of the classic roles of third parties seeking to help resolve conflicts is to introduce new ideas and approaches into the dialogue between the parties to a conflict. The United States government has been involved in the resolution of a great many conflicts around the globe, including Angola, Ireland, Israel-Egypt and Israel-Palestine. Private Americans have an even wider range of experience using non-official channels ("Track 2"). Even if the United States continues to play a supporting role with others in the lead, Americans may be able to draw on this experience to help nudge the process along, if the Sri Lankan participants want them to.

International solidarity and respectability: The parties to the Sri Lankan dispute all want to emerge from the negotiating process with a strong reserve of international support. In the early years of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, this did not seem to be a major issue on the mind of the LTTE, and the Sri Lankan government probably assumed that given the LTTE’s involvement with terrorism, the international community would always look on Sri Lanka as the more attractive party. Both parties’ dealings with the United States after the LTTE decided to abandon the ceasefire and resume combat operations in 1995 bore this out. The attacks of 9/11 changed this. The LTTE’s dealings with countries outside Sri Lanka since then suggest that it recognizes its own vulnerability and believes it has some interest in retaining the good will of the international community.

International solidarity is not just a public relations question, however. For a country emerging from civil war, the support of the international community, and especially of the countries with a historical relationship with the country, can be tremendously important. It can take many forms: security guarantees, continued monitoring of compliance with agreements, a "peace package" of economic assistance, encouragement to private investment, to name only a few. The promise of this kind of support is one of the most powerful assets that the United States and other friends of Sri Lanka can bring to the process. It is most powerful when those countries are prepared to act together, and to bring still other international players into the game.

The terrorism issue: U.S. terrorism policy plays an important role here. One of the objectives of the peace process is to make terrorism of all sorts a thing of the past in Sri Lanka. U.S. law and policy impose tangible disabilities on terrorist organizations and countries that support them, in an effort to make terrorism too costly to be worthwhile. The difficulty comes in when one tries to combine the disincentives for terrorism with positive incentives for organization to leave its terrorist past behind.

The LTTE appears on the U.S. government list of designated terrorist organizations, a status that the LTTE bitterly resents. This affects U.S. diplomacy on Sri Lanka in several ways. The first is the public relations issue: in a post-9/11 world, and especially with the greater international exposure it has achieved during the early years of the peace process, the LTTE has become more conscious of the disadvantages of having the label "terrorist." Two years ago, the U.S. government suggested publicly that it might be able to reconsider that designation if the LTTE would stop killing Tamils who pursued policies contrary to theirs. I believe the U.S. government is right to take this position, despite the resentment it generates in LTTE circles. As long as the U.S. government maintains a list of terrorist organizations, it needs to be even-handed in the way they are interpreted, and cannot treat Tamil deaths more lightly than deaths of people from other communities.

Second, the LTTE argues that the list itself represents a form of discrimination against them, since the United States has not imposed any similar label on the Sri Lankan army despite acknowledged human rights abuses. This sensitivity on the LTTE’s part is understandable, but it overlooks the fact that governments and armies, including Sri Lanka’s, are scrutinized in the annual human rights reports issued by the U.S. government. This arguably helps level the playing field.

But the third effect of U.S. terrorism law and of the terrorist organizations list has been a problem for U.S. diplomacy, and one that has not always been wisely handled. I refer to the U.S. policy forbidding most kinds of contact between the U.S. government and representatives of organizations on the list. When the peace process is actually functioning, those working for peace, including in the U.S. government, need to be able to communicate directly with the LTTE and to strengthen its motivations to leave terrorism behind. Given the importance the LTTE attaches to being treated on a par with the government, this makes it important to avoid occasions where LTTE peace negotiators are unnecessarily kept out of peace-related gatherings on account of terrorism policy. This may mean that meetings where the LTTE has a logical claim to participate should not be held in the United States, or in other countries with similar policies. U.S. relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization were plagued by the same issue for decades, and there is no easy answer. Perhaps some kind of step-by-step policy in which contacts are expanded based on specific improvements in behavior could help. Ultimately, the only path to success is one that ends terrorism.

U.S. international power and position: In the decade since I ended my term as ambassador to Sri Lanka, the dimensions of U.S. military and economic power in the post-Cold War world have become larger and clearer. This can give extra weight to U.S. support for the peace process. This is especially important in light of the changed U.S. relationship with India. It should be possible now, much more than in the past, for the United States to coordinate with India as well as with the more conventionally understood "donors" the various ways in which the international community can give or withhold international respectability. Similarly, a common policy on economic aid can magnify the impact of individual donors, and the U.S., as one of the co-chairs of the aid group, is in a position to help make this happen.

But the global interests and responsibilities of the U.S. are in another sense a disadvantage. The United States is deeply engaged in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. The volatile situation in both countries will make U.S. officials much more reluctant to get deeply involved in other difficult and stubborn conflicts.

What next?

Implicit in this analysis is a very important point – that no matter how skilful or how comprehensive the third-party involvement, the work of conflict resolution falls primarily on the parties to the conflict. That means that at times like this, when the parties are having difficulty talking about the central issues, third parties have a harder time than usual finding a helpful role. It also means that one must be clear about what third parties can do, and what can only be done by the participants in the conflict. Defining the character of the political life that will follow a settlement, for example, is vitally important to the sustainability of that settlement, but it must be done by the participants. Third parties, no matter how dedicated, cannot create a functioning democracy.

Others will no doubt talk about the kinds of transformation that Sri Lankan politics and society must undergo to make peace possible and sustainable, and the parallel transformation required of the LTTE. I will confine myself to a smaller question: what will it take to sustain effective third-party involvement? This is not a trivial point. Despite the fact that the real work of peacemaking belongs to the parties, some kind of third-party involvement is the norm rather than the exception in extended civil wars, and more often than not, it has been a positive factor. One study in the book I mentioned above asserts that there has been some form of outside assistance in two-thirds of the extended conflicts that were resolved.

Norway has already shown considerable staying power. Indeed, the risk for Norway is probably a different one. Given its commitment to the peace process, both at the national level and in the people whom it has selected as representatives, the Norwegians will be inclined to stay with the process despite considerable storms. Their challenge will be to put their foot down when one party or the other is behaving in ways that are really incompatible with peace efforts. Norway did step back from the process during Sri Lanka’s constitutional problems in late 2002, so it clearly recognizes that there are circumstances in which it needs to deliver a stiff message and let the participants digest it.

What about the United States? The donor co-chairs’ meeting last month in Washington demonstrated that the U.S. government is still interested in active participation, and prepared to work with both Sri Lanka and the other international players. But to keep the U.S. involved, it will be important to infuse the process with more momentum than it has showed for the past three years. A dynamic peace process, whatever its difficulties, will tend to accelerate; an anemic one will continue to slow down. The post-Cold War world has expanded the opportunities for countries that are working hard to build peace and prosperity. The post-9/11 world deals harshly with terrorists, but provides expanded chances for those who can put that past behind them. It would be a crime if Sri Lanka missed the boat.


Posted July 24, 2005