ASIA SPECIAL: Post-Conflict Sri Lanka Confronts Challenge of Peace Building

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By H. M. G. S. Palihakkara* in Colombo

When domestic processes fail to find solutions to internal problems, external forces find space to advocate or even impose solutions for their own political or strategic convenience. Sri Lanka is no exception. Leadership failures since independence by all governments and mainstream political parties contributed to externalizing the conflict from which Sri Lanka emerged in May 2009.

The instruments of externalization included a large and vocal expatriate community (or Diaspora as it calls itself) in a number of Western countries, as well as principals in the so-called "peace process" whose collapse eventually led to the military activity that eliminated the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as "the Tigers"). Norway was the facilitator of the peace process, with a group of Western donor countries serving as "co-chairs" in an oversight role.

Closer to home, India was a major contributor to internationalizing the Sri Lanka situation and providing intrusive military inputs in the periods before and after the ethnic violence of 1983.

External visibility to the conflict was increased, too, by an emerging trend among local political parties to canvass domestic governance issues abroad, to influence electoral strategy at home.

Last but not least, in a shrinking world where the forces of globalization and the power of information technology (IT) are both at play, no country remains isolated. Real time television, internet, remote sensing technologies, and armies of investigative journalists bring conflicts and humanitarian emergencies instantly to the drawing rooms of millions of homes all over the world.


It was in such an evolving international backdrop that Sri Lanka's security forces approached the final 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.

They also threw untrained and underage cadres to the battle, employed suicide bombers mostly among the unsuspecting civilians who were crossing over to government lines and, in fact, fired at civilians who were trying to leave.

In this scenario of imminent and massive blood-letting, the LTTE remained intransigent in its refusal to let the people go, despite calls by national and international leaders and bodies. Many international figures cautioned against an imminent "blood bath" on the beaches of Puthumathalan on the country's Eastern sea board. The LTTE and its Diaspora lobby dramatized this to good effect by threatening "collective suicide" at Puthumathalan.

The crisis created an unprecedented foreign policy challenge for Sri Lanka -- the most formidable, since independence -- when it received the attention of the UN Security Council. This was the first time that any issue concerning Sri Lanka's internal affairs, especially its security and integrity, went to the council.

The Security Council is the only organ of the UN which can issue a legally binding directive to halt a military operation in its tracks. A Security Council decree is qualitatively different from other similar calls, including a resolution in the Human Rights Council in Geneva which could only make a non-binding recommendation. Therefore, Sri Lanka was challenged to prevent the UN Security Council from issuing such a decree, because that would have given the LTTE leadership time to re-group, re-arm and resume their terrorist campaigns.

Any mandatory external intervention under the fiat of the 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.

Sri Lanka was able to meet the challenge by employing a multi-pronged strategy that harmonized military, humanitarian and diplomatic action. No resolution or any other decree was adopted by the Security Council directing the Government to end its action that was directed at bringing the conflict to an end.

Having successfully achieved the complicated diplomatic task of preventing intervention during the conflict, Sri Lanka is confronted with more challenges in handling the less complex diplomatic dimension of the post-conflict peace building task. Some of the post-conflict challenges are examined below.


Challenge of reconciliation and accountability: One of the key post-conflict issues projected at home and abroad is accountability or the question of compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the final 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 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 pro-LTTE lobby groups abroad, and their clientele, have sought to side-step or even undermine this larger domestic reconciliation effort which encompasses both reconciliation and IHL. They have called for international scrutiny on the magnitude of the humanitarian and human rights issues that were manifest in the last stages of the conflict, and connected aspects of "accountability".

The pressure for such an inquiry has become greater, precisely because Sri Lanka was able to prevent action by the Security Council to halt the military operation which would have enabled the LTTE to remain a key player.

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.

Sri Lanka needs to safeguard its national interests, the aspirations of its people of all communities, and the country's reputation as a long standing democracy. Towards this end, Sri Lanka needs to work with all countries, especially with those who may disagree with us on some 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 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 military operations, that the Government is responsive to conflict related grievances as well as their root causes.

Diplomacy is crucially important in these efforts, because diplomacy is all about dealing with people with whom you disagree or agree to disagree, and about seeking common ground where none seems to exist.
This is especially so when such common ground may eventually bring benefits to the nation not only in terms of investment and economic activity, but also in the form of its image and reputation as a civilised society where peaceful dissent is seen as an enriching experience and an exciting democratic challenge -- not an act of treachery or treason.

The message to be emphasized is that the nation after emerging from an injurious and costly conflict still retains the strength of character and the political will to undertake remedial measures and course correction. We should not, instead, seek to market a message of infallibility.


Challenge of Sovereignty: Defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation is fundamental to the foreign policy of any independent nation. It is the bounden duty of any diplomat to do so. This is because the notion of sovereignty is the bedrock on which the nation state system of the current world order lies.

Recently, there has been a resurgence of the sentiment of asserting the Sri Lankan sovereignty. This is justifiably so, considering the nearly three decades of terrorism inflicted by the LTTE upon the sovereignty and integrity of the nation in both diplomatic and territorial terms.

Our soldiers and the political leadership provided by our President enabled the country to free itself from this manifest threat to its sovereignty and integrity. The nation reasserted the jurisdiction of the elected Government throughout the island, thereby exercising the sovereignty vested in the people as per our constitution. However, can we safeguard our sovereignty so valiantly reestablished by our soldiers, simply by sloganeering it?

There are several aspects to ponder. Firstly, sovereignty is something that cannot merely be preached but must be exercised. Sovereignty carries with it duties towards a country's own citizens. Where there is failure to discharge such duties, fertile ground is created for unwelcome intervention.

It is a fundamental tenet of sovereignty that the Government and its security agencies must have the monopoly of the use of force within its jurisdiction and no other entity within or outside the country can be allowed to impair that authority thereby undermining the rule of law. When a Government is unable to or unwilling to exercise that authority for whatever reason, certain crimes go unpunished; certain offenders enjoy impunity; and certain investigations waver.

When that happens, the principle of asserting the monopoly of the use of force and upholding the rule of law will be undermined and correspondingly, the exercise of sovereignty will be impaired.

It is therefore imperative that illegal carriers of arms and irregular groups who undermine the rule of law and tarnish the good name of the legitimate security forces be brought to book, thereby consolidating the sovereignty rescued by the soldiers. A vigorous program of punishing offenders and upholding the rule of law is required for meeting this challenge.


Another consideration that needs to be borne in mind is, like everything else in the world of Einstein's physics, sovereignty too is not absolute. Although in the post civil war era of Europe, the popular belief was that sovereignty was almost absolute and enshrined so in the Peace of Westphalia treaty that has not been matched in practice. Moreover, the forces of globalization and wonders of technology, especially IT and connectivity explosion throughout the world, have rendered sovereignty a porous concept.

We therefore have to understand that in the modern world our sovereignty can be safeguarded only to the extent that we learn to live with other nations in an inter-dependent way, not in an adversarial way. Sovereignty has thus become a truly relative notion.

Sri Lanka has signed international treaties and other agreements, each of which require us to share with other countries and multilateral institutions reports and rationale for some of our sovereign decisions. This certainly is not a subjugation of our sovereignty to anyone else. This is an act of exercising our sovereignty, and expressing the strength of our system to be transparent, accountable and reasonable, first to ourselves and then to others.

Similarly, we as members of the same multilateral bodies, which look into the reports of other member states, have equal rights to observe and comment on others' reports, which are also expressions of the sovereign rights of those countries. In the modern world therefore we have to use the notion of sovereignty as a tool for dignified engagement and not as a cover for unilateral isolation.

Sri Lanka has always been up front in presenting itself to the outside world and has had a diplomatic profile quite disproportionate to its geographic or demographic attributes and military or economic clout. As a resurgent nation brimming with hope following the elimination of a terrorist menace, we should therefore look forward to asserting our sovereignty amongst ourselves and exercise it with other nations.

We can do so most effectively when we are at peace with ourselves and when we invest our military gains in sustainable political and socio-economic processes. Harmonizing our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society without pandering to elements of polarization is the way forward. Projection of this wholesome approach as the articulation of our sovereignty is indeed a priority task for our foreign policy establishment. (To be concluded.)
*The writer, a retired foreign service officer, was formerly Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary, and has held several posts of ambassador. He is a member of the Sri Lanka's Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. - IDN-InDepth NewsSpecial

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