Interview with Peace Negotiator Erik Solheim Sri Lanka's Government 'Must Show It Can Also Win the Peace'

For many years, Erik Solheim was the chief negotiator between the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government. In an interview with SPIEGEL, the Norwegian diplomat speaks about the end of more than 30 years of civil war and the uncertain fate of the war's victims and losers.


SPIEGEL: The LTTE has capitulated. Its leaders are dead; and there is jubilation in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. As a former peace negotiator, you interacted with all the key players -- especially Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leading Tamil Tiger. Are you in a celebratory mood as well?

Internally displaced Sri Lankan people wait behind barbed wire in a refugee camp in Cheddikulam, Sri Lanka.
AFP

Internally displaced Sri Lankan people wait behind barbed wire in a refugee camp in Cheddikulam, Sri Lanka.

Erik Solheim: It's been one of the considerable strains in our dealing with the Sri Lankan conflict that, on repeated occasions, we've been confronted with the violent demise of persons we've had regular contact with. It's natural that the mood of all of us involved becomes sad and sober -- whichever side of the conflict such a person belonged to. This is also the case regarding the LTTE leaders who have been killed. In addition, it would have been easier to carry through a reconciliation process in Sri Lanka if they had been able to give up arms in an organized way.

SPIEGEL: Several months ago, Colombo officially asked Norway to exit the stalled peace process. But both sides still stayed in touch with Oslo. How long did that last?

Solheim: We had contact with both parties until midnight on May 17. I was contacted directly by Seevaratnam Puleedevan, the head of the LTTE's peace secretariat, who informed us that the political leaders wanted to surrender to the ICRC. (Ed's note: ICRC is short for the International Committee of the Red Cross.) At the time, we could hear gunshots in the background. Then we used all our channels to communicate this information both to the ICRC and to the Sri Lankan government.

SPIEGEL: Did the Tigers also ask members of the international community, including Oslo, to serve as intermediaries?

Solheim: Yes, that is correct.

SPIEGEL: The Tamil rebels had already offered to lay down their arms two weeks ago. But when Puleedevan and Balasingham, the head of the LTTE's political wing, approached an army unit bearing white flags, they were reportedly shot dead at close range. Can you confirm this incident?

Solheim: There has been a complete embargo on information coming out of the war zone, so we don't know what happened.

SPIEGEL: The LTTE's leaders are now presumably dead. Is this going to change the Tamils' demands for their own state? Exhausted by 30 years of civil war, will the Tamils now try to reintegrate themselves into Sri Lanka's society?

Solheim: It's too early to say. It depends a lot on the efforts the Sri Lankan government makes to reach out to the minorities and its willingness to build an inclusive state. We encourage the Tamils to work toward a political solution and to use political means to ensure their rights. The government has won the war; now the government must show that it can also win the peace.

SPIEGEL: What role could the international community play?

Solheim: First of all, the international community has a crucial role to play with regards to securing humanitarian assistance to the conflict's victims. It must continue to pressure the government until international organizations have full access to the camps, to prisoners of war and to all parts of northern Sri Lanka, including the recent theaters of combat. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN must monitor the situation. The media must also be granted full access. And internally displaced persons need to be resettled in their areas of origin as soon as possible, once the areas have been cleared and are safe from mines and unexploded ordnance.

It is also important that the international Community continue to encourage the Sri Lankan government to show magnanimity toward the Tamil population and to build an inclusive state. All Sri Lankans -- whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim -- must feel assured that they have the same rights. For this, a free and open media is an essential element. In order to secure the peace, it is essential to find political solutions.

SPIEGEL: Is Oslo likely to play a leading role in the peace process again?

Solheim: Right now, we in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry are focused on the humanitarian situation as well as on securing the rights of the internally displaced and other victims of the conflict. Together with the US, the EU, Japan and India, as well as international organizations like the UN and the ICRC, Norway will continue to work to ensure the safety of all victims and prisoners of war.

SPIEGEL: How would you describe the time you spent with Prabhakaran, the head of the Tamil Tigers, who is now reportedly dead?

Solheim: We used to eat lunch together. We were served seafood from the northern parts of Sri Lanka. We talked about cooking and the films he liked; and we talked about history. It was the closest anybody ever could get. He was a shy and calm person.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe he is dead?

Solheim: I think so. But that doesn't mean I automatically believe everything the government says.

Interview conducted by Padma Rao.

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