Interview with Sri Lanka Peace Negotiator: 'Civilians Are the Ones Who Will Suffer'
The cease-fire in Sri Lanka officially came to an end last week, but violence has been flaring for months. SPIEGEL spoke with Norwegian peace negotiator Jon Hanssen-Bauer about monitoring the country's collapse and Sri Lanka's bleak future.
SPIEGEL: Sri Lanka has withdrawn from the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) negotiated with the help of Oslo in 2002 between Colombo and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE ). The bloody, 25-year-long civil war that has already killed more than 80,000 people has begun all over again. Did the Sri Lankan government provide an explanation for their withdrawal?
Hanssen-Bauer: We cannot normally disclose the contents of any communication between ourselves and the negotiating parties but I can tell you this much: The government of Sri Lanka abrogated the CFA in a formally correct way. They are not obliged to give any reasons. The parties must only give us two weeks notice -- whether in writing or otherwise, and we got that.
SPIEGEL: The mandate for the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which was predominantly Norwegian, has come to an end. But the mission had long ceased counting cease-fire violations due to the large number of them since the situation began to sour in 2006. The international community has been unsuccessful in convincing President Mahinda Rajapaksa to allow UN human rights monitors to be stationed in the country. But if the situation is as bad as the SLMM says it is, what is the use of monitoring it further?
Hanssen-Bauer: Let me clarify that other countries, but not Norway, have been urging for the presence of a UN human rights group in Sri Lanka. Sure, it is necessary to monitor human rights. But UN monitors on the ground require the full cooperation of any government concerned. Human rights are the governments responsibility. It must first strengthen its own institutions to monitor crime. We have called for an appropriate role for the UN in the Sri Lankan conflict, whatever that may be. In any case, it will be difficult to get monitors of any kind to Sri Lanka at the moment. There is resistance even from the people.
SPIEGEL: The EU has expressed 'strong concern' for the plight of civilians in Sri Lanka. It is also unhappy with the end of the cease-fire. But for the past two years, the cease-fire agreement has existed only on paper. Since the resumption of armed hostilities in 2006, the Tamil Tigers have managed to collect funds across Europe and some 3,000 civilians have been killed with a further 213,000 being displaced. Isn't the EU's concern a case of too little too late?
Hanssen-Bauer: There is very little that the international community can do at the moment because the two sides have clearly defined their intentions. There is very little room to maneuver: Mr. Rajapaksas government has decided to weaken the LTTE further and even the LTTE has now announced that it will go to war. So that is that.
SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting that the international community resign itself to a renewed civil war in Sri Lanka?
Hanssen-Bauer: What can any outsider do? Override a democratically-elected government in Sri Lanka? Various countries are revising their policies for development cooperation and trade with Sri Lanka and naturally so, because the continuing violence has held up or stopped several developmental projects that were begun when the CFA existed and on the premise that the two sides were now building peace. Please note, I am not talking about sanctions, I am merely saying there is no access to some of the areas where development is needed the most.
SPIEGEL: Even though his government has abandoned the cease-fire, Rajapaksa says he is still open to negotiations with the LTTE. Do you think there is still a glimmer of hope?
Hanssen-Bauer: We remain committed to the promises and the pledges that were given to both Colombo as well as the LTTE, to help them with peace process whenever they wish. But clearly our services are not required at the moment -- we have not received any request for them right now. But I agree with Mr. Rajapaksa that war cannot solve conflicts and that there is a crucial need for negotiations to end this conflict.
SPIEGEL: But his actions seem to indicate that his words are not to be trusted. His air force has been pounding targets across northern Sri Lanka and since last November.
Hanssen-Bauer: Yes, I know. All I am saying is that if the Sri Lankan government wants to try talking again, it has our support. We made this commitment in 2000 to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE, and again last year to the current president Mr. Rajapaksa, when he repeated the invitation to Oslo to continue as interlocutors in the conflict.
SPIEGEL: Have you reiterated this to the LTTE since Sri Lanka withdrew from the cease-fire and all out war erupted all over again?
Hanssen-Bauer: Of course. We talk to them very often. But we need to go there physically and talk face to face. Right now, given the security situation there, that has not been possible. We hope it will be in the not so distant future.
SPIEGEL: For now, though, Sri Lanka is at war. Do you see this as a failure on your part to mediate successfully?
Hanssen-Bauer: I don't feel personally responsible, and neither does Oslo as a whole. The responsibility lies with the parties themselves. And after all, we have never worked alone. Please dont forget that even in 2006 when the situation looked entirely hopeless, we did manage to get the parties to two rounds of talks in Geneva and in Oslo. We have not taken any fresh initiatives since then, merely because we feel that neither of the parties wishes us to. In such a situation, it is impossible to achieve success. At the moment, all we want to do is to preserve the possibility of resuming talks as soon as possible.
SPIEGEL: Surely you must feel a sense of disappointment?
Hanssen-Bauer: What we feel is really not important. More important is the fact that a chance has been lost by and for the Sri Lankan people. This is a very negative development for Sri Lanka and civilians are the ones who will suffer. We are worried and concerned. There were a high number of internally displaced persons already last year. Most of those have been re-settled. I am afraid we may see a repeat of that in 2008.
Interview conducted by Padma Rao
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