Post-conflict foreign policy challenges for Sri Lanka

Saturday, 19 February 2011 00:19 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Former Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara delivered the Prof. J.E. Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture on 14 February 2011. We reproduce a part of the speech below, the remainder of which will be published in Monday’s (21 February) edition of the Daily FT:

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara

I wish to thank the hosts of this event for asking me to speak in memory of Professor J.E. Jayasuriya. To state that Professor Jayasuriya was an icon in the realm of education in Sri Lanka would, of course, be saying the obvious.

Many who paid tributes to Professor Jayasuriya now and then have spoken comprehensively about his seminal contributions to almost all facets of education in Sri Lanka, be it in policy formulation, textbooks, curriculum development, research, and last but not least, in the noble profession of teaching, including educating the educators.

I can hardly add to these eloquent testimonies to Professor Jayasuriya’s untiring professional work towards advancing education in Sri Lanka. However, those of us who have had the fortune of being taught by Professor Jayasuriya will, I hope, be forgiven when we pay particular homage to him for we have personally experienced his commitment and ability to contribute so much for so long, on so broad a front.

He did so while remaining focused all the time on the fundamental tenet of his profession – the centrality of ‘teaching’ in the complex enterprise we call ‘education’. For me personally, this was an experience that spanned my learning curve not only as a student of Prof. Jayasuriya’s pioneering BED venture at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya but also, perhaps more importantly, as a pupil in a small school in the rural south.

A great teacher and a great textbook

During a good part of my primary school life, my scores in arithmetic had been pretty consistent. My consistency, however, had been in scoring embarrassingly low marks as compared with other subjects in which I scored significantly high marks. As we moved into Grade 9, this track record was disturbed. Our arithmetic class was rather unexpectedly blessed with a rare combination, the combination of a great teacher and a great textbook.

The textbook that provided inspiration to the teacher was one written by a gentleman called J.E. Jayasuriya. It turned out to be, at least for a few of us in that class, a perfect prescription for our arithmetic allergies.

The arithmetic class was no longer a torture session of painful number crunching and computing. It became a venue for a learning process of breaking down issues and working out solutions. That process helped us understand the components of a problem before trying to conceive solutions thereto.

I ended up with a distinction pass for arithmetic, one of the two D passes that year if my memory serves me right, at our SSC examination in 1961. But more importantly, perhaps at least some of us in that class were beginning to acquire the analytical skills needed to address real life issues later.

In retrospect, that textbook was the instrument that demonstrated to me it was possible to transform seemingly complex computing questions into seemingly simple problem solving formulae. It was this unique ability of Professor Jayasuriya to extract simplicity from complexity and his talent as a good communicator that enabled him to win the hearts and minds of many students.

He did this with great skill and acceptance on a broad spectrum of subjects ranging from simple arithmetic in junior school to child psychology and personality building taught at the Peradeniya University, that hallowed institution many of us still recall with pride and nostalgia.

A great human being

Apart from being a great educator, Professor Jayasuriya was also a great human being. He addressed his students with a warm heart and a cool head. But he was frank in telling us the truth that at the university, one acquires knowledge and skills in order to be analytical in drawing conclusions, but one acquires wisdom only when these acquisitions are successfully applied to the challenges of real life situations, be it professional work or family duties.

In that sense, Professor Jayasuriya was a ‘no nonsense’ teacher. He emphasised that as a teacher he can help you to get knowledge and skills but acquisition of wisdom is your own business. In my stint as a public servant from1969 to 2009, I found this truism more applicable to diplomacy than in any of the other disciplines I had to dabble in. This brings me to our topic today.

Intra-conflict diplomatic issues

In discussing the post-conflict foreign policy challenges, I would like to briefly touch upon the intra-conflict diplomatic issues that confronted Sri Lanka, especially in the terminal phase of the military operation against the LTTE. This is a perspective necessary to facilitate a better appreciation of the post conflict diplomatic challenges facing Sri Lanka.

Before I do that, let me confess that I use the term "conflict" lightly. I do so because precision about 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 of 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 externalised 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.

Contributory factors

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 externalised 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 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 internationalising 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 looks. It is likely to manifest in more sophisticated but perhaps non-military 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 capitalise 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.

The 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.

Shrinking world

Last but not the least, one must also bear in mind that in a shrinking world where the forces of globalisation 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 WikiLeaks 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 has been said, (and the jury is still out there on this issue) that the world has just witnessed the first ‘Facebook revolution’ in Egypt, a phenomenon basically driven from cyberspace.

Terminal phase

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 minimise 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 blackmail the notion of ‘civilian protection’ for their cadres’ safety. 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 Nation 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 security available to their top leaders. Many international figures cautioned of an imminent ‘bloodbath’ on the beaches of Puthumathalan on the eastern sea board. The LTTE and its Diaspora lobby further dramatised this to good effect by threatening ‘a collective suicide’ on the Pudu Mathalan beach.

Unprecedented challenge

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 regroup, rearm 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 a 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 multipronged strategy that harmonised military, humanitarian and diplomatic action.

This multifaceted approach ensured the provision of humanitarian support, assistance and protection to the people victimised 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 its independence. Any mandatory external intervention under the fiat of the UN Security Council could potentially have resulted in adverse, far-reaching implications on the fundamentals of the Sri Lankan nation state, i.e. its territorial integrity and sovereignty of its people.

Having successfully achieved the complicated diplomatic task of preventing intervention during the conflict, Sri Lanka seems to be confronted with more difficulties in handling the less complex diplomatic dimension of the post conflict peace building task. This dilemma is seen in even sharper relief in the context of the comprehensive and concerted effort undertaken by the Government in the fields of resettlement, rehabilitation, livelihood, infrastructure development, etc.

In my brief remarks today I would like to refer to a few areas where this challenge is clear and present and make some observations thereon. I must hasten to add that this is not an exhaustive or complete list but a highly selective listing.

Challenge of reconciliation and accountability

One of the key post-conflict issues that has been projected here and abroad, some say in a rather contrived manner, is the debate on accountability or the question of compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the terminal phase of the military operation. The journalistic short-hand usually poses this complex question as the ‘war crimes’ issue. The Government has established a Commission on Reconciliation which is expected to address a broad range of issues that straddle the conflict and post-conflict period, including the humanitarian issues relevant to the conduct of the war.

However, certain lobby groups abroad, particularly the so-called Diaspora elements sympathetic towards the LTTE and their political constituencies in certain countries, have sought to sidestep or even undermine this larger domestic reconciliation effort – an effort that encompasses both reconciliation and humanitarian law aspects while the Diaspora-backed effort is focused only on the latter.

They have called for an international scrutiny on the magnitude of the humanitarian and human rights issues that were manifest in the last stages of the conflict, and the relevant accountability aspects. The pressure for such an inquiry has become greater, precisely because Sri Lanka was able, as I described earlier, to prevent action by the UN Security Council to halt the military operation and thereby provide room, wittingly or otherwise, for the LTTE to remain a key player in a possible negotiation attempt later.

This is a challenge that needs to be handled in a careful and calibrated manner in which policies and institutions relevant to governance, the rule of law and diplomacy must work with each other rather than work at the expense of each other. On the one hand we need to safeguard Sri Lanka’s national interests, aspirations of its people of all communities and our image and reputation as a long standing democracy. On the other hand Sri Lanka needs to work with all countries, especially with those who may disagree with us on certain issues, in order to project ourselves as a nation at peace and a venue for secure investment and good business during this post-conflict period.

We need therefore to preserve the independence of the local mechanisms created and to show to those who voice their concern on accountability issues, that the Government is serious about addressing them. Most importantly, the Government needs to show the victims of the conflict, be they victims of LTTE terrorism or of the military operations, that the Government is responsive to conflict related grievances as well as their root causes.

It is in this manner that one can meet the current challenge thrown at us by those critics of Sri Lanka, rather than hurling abuse at our critics. Diplomacy is all about dealing with people with whom you disagree or agree to disagree. Diplomacy is therefore not a zero sum game of cultivating one or one set of friends at the expense of another. Diplomacy is also about seeking common ground where none seems to exist. This is especially so when such common ground may eventually bring benefits to your nation not only in terms of investment and economic activity, but also in the form of its image and reputation as a civilised society – a society where peaceful dissent is seen as an enriching experience and an exciting democratic challenge and not an act of treachery or treason – a polity where equity and egalitarian ethos prevail in governance and society. Our sovereignty is best protected in this manner rather than sloganeering it to unreceptive audiences.

The Government has done well by establishing an independent mechanism for reconciliation. It is important to show that the nation, after emerging from an injurious and costly conflict, still retains the strength of character and the political will to introspect; look at its own track record and see if we had gone wrong somewhere and if we had, what remedial measures can we, as a civilised society, undertake and what course corrections should be made.

This message is the one we can and should market in meeting this challenge rather than marketing a message of infallibility cast in a notion of sovereignty which is slowly but surely fading away.