Sri Lankan Peace Process Would Have Benefitted from Greater International Effort, says Former Negotiator

A broader international commitment would have ensured the success of an effort to end an over two-decade-long war between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil separatists, Erik Solheim, a former peace negotiator, said at the Atlantic Council on January 14.

In the absence of such a commitment, the Sri Lankan military continued a fierce offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters as ceasefire agreements between the warring sides collapsed. In May of 2009, the government announced that it had defeated the separatists, bringing the curtain down on a 26-year war. More than 100,000 people are believed to have lost their lives, at least 40,000 of them in the war’s final days.

India, Japan, and Norway offered diplomatic and logistical support during the effort to broker peace between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. But, Solheim said, “a broader and stronger coalition of outside international players was needed.”

Solheim, a Norwegian politician and former chief negotiator in the Sri Lankan peace process, participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. Richard L. Armitage, who has served as Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration; and Mark Salter, author of To End a Civil War, which recounts the mediation efforts in Sri Lanka, were also part of the panel. Bharath Gopalaswamy, Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center moderated the discussion.

Until its full disbandment in 2009, the LTTE was a highly effective militant organization that specialized in using terror tactics to execute its secessionist operations against the Sri Lankan government. Solheim led a team of negotiators in 2002 to oversee ceasefire talks that broke down in 2006.

In dealing with such an entrenched, polarized, and drawn-out conflict, Solheim said patience was paramount from the first day on the ground: “Only if you can be patient and accept that there will be ups and downs then you can potentially have some impact on the path to peace.”

Solheim identified specific challenges surrounding the diplomatic mission—namely, the dearth of information his team had on dealing with senior officials in both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. “We needed a bigger team to tap into Tamil-Sinhala relationships and more importantly, we needed to gain insight into the unique leadership of the Tamil Tigers,” he said. “At the end of the day it was about this.”

A broader coalition of international players would have also helped this effort, he added.

Armitage said constant antagonism and negligence from senior Sri Lankan and LTTE leaders prevented the peace process from seriously progressing. “The lesson from Sri Lanka for all of us is that you can’t want peace more than the participant parties want peace,” he said.

Further, Armitage discussed the importance of engaging all parties in diplomatic discussions despite their combat tactics. Salter agreed. “For all the political rhetoric against engaging terrorist groups in diplomatic discussion, the reality on the ground…for this particular conflict was that was precisely what was required,” said Salter. In the end, the Norwegian-sponsored peace mission depended on bipartisan unity between the government and the LTTE. In order to achieve this unity, more legitimate engagement with the LTTE leadership needed to occur, he noted.

While Solheim, Armitage, and Salter agreed on maintaining contextual priorities throughout the Sri Lankan peace mediation, they all understood crosscutting political engagement and proper expertise as cornerstones for civil conflict resolution.

“The idea of political settlement…is about applying international pressure, diplomatic expertise, and foreign assistance,” said Salter.

The Sri Lankan army has been accused of committing mass murder of civilians during the war. A United Nations panel of experts found that “multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out” in the war’s final days. A Sri Lankan government estimate, however, put the figure at around 9,000.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to look into the allegations against the military. The commission cleared the military of any wrongdoing, a conclusion Amnesty International dismissed as “flawed.”

Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, has, however, been credited with advancing the reconciliation process since the end of the war. On Sirisena’s first anniversary in office this month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is “encouraged by the government’s commitment to a broad reform agenda that aims to realize durable peace, stability and prosperity for the Sri Lankan people.”

Despite the ramifications of the failed peace process, including allegations of government corruption and potential war crimes, Solheim remains optimistic.

“We are now in the most hopeful time in modern Sri Lankan history…There has never been a better chance at getting it right,” he said.

Mitch Hulse is an intern at the Atlantic Council.

Image: From left: Bharath Gopalaswamy, Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, moderates a discussion with Mark Salter, author of To End a Civil War; Erik Solheim, a former chief negotiator in the Sri Lankan peace process; and Richard L. Armitage, who has served as Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, at the Atlantic Council in Washington on January 14. The panel discussed efforts to end the war in Sri Lanka. The war ended with the defeat of Tamil separatists in 2009. (Atlantic Council/Ben Polsky)