Geneva and beyond

The profound consequences of peace talks are not to be belittled. Last week, this author explored the need to support the larger peace process as opposed to a narrower focus on peace talks. In the interim, the Government and LTTE have met in Geneva. Early reports suggest that the meeting ended on a note better than what was expected, with dates set for another round of talks in late April this year. Obviously, some measure of trust was built in two days between the Government and the LTTE to bring about the confidence to express the next round of talks two months hence.

The statement by the Norwegians at the end of Sattahip expressly mentioned a step-by-step approach to the negotiations process. At the time, this was assumed to build stronger ties between the UNF and the LTTE in support of negotiations and long term peace process. These ties proved brittle and ill-suited to meet the challenges of Southern politics writ against the demands of the LTTE in the negotiations process, leading to an eventual collapse of the peace talks. As I wrote last week, current negotiations are of two antagonists meeting to discuss issues related to the implementation of the CFA. Whether this inherent antagonism will last and result in a creative friction that drives peace talks forward remains to be seen, keeping in mind that peacebuilding theory warns us of the truncated life span of a process that does not qualitatively enhance trust between the parties in a negotiation.

Furthermore, whether these initial discussions on the CFA lead to further talks that will explore in more details the core political issues that form the bedrock of a final solution remain uncertain. The cynical view of the present peace talks is one that sees them as a foil for strengthening the capacity of both sides to engage in military offensives. Another view is that a protracted process of negotiations is better than open conflict. Serving the myopic interests of both the Government and the LTTE, such a process would be based on discussions on various agreements and measures of confidence and trust-building intended to demonstrate the commitment to peace talks to a larger audience including the international community whilst raking up violence and unrest on the ground.

This is peace talks in the worst sense – a process that becomes an excuse for conflict instead of a process that genuinely explores avenues for peace. Peace talks, seen as a process through which, independent of a final agreement, the composition of power in Sri Lanka will be deeply contested requires us to devise initiatives that support the process of negotiations through initiatives that strengthen basic democratic governance in Sri Lanka. This requires us to challenge the centrist political architectures in the South and the totalitarianism of the LTTE with every round of peace talks. Herein lies the greater challenge of a negotiations process – that peace talks are in a symbiotic relationship with processes of socio-political transformation.

Such transformation requires foresight and long-term strategies. The end of Geneva is the beginning of a longer road, one that both parties are demonstrably skittish about taking. Markers of progress on this road call for a greater emphasis on human rights, democracy, pluralism, respect for and strict adherence to the rule of law including equitable access to justice, addressing systemic corruption and the full implementation of recommendations related to language equity and minority rights in support of a plural and multi-ethnic polity and society. Such large scale reform is well beyond the lifespan of a single tenure of government. The danger that hides in the optimism generated after the positive announcements in Geneva is the brevity of governments in the South who consider the peace process and the negotiations process as their own fiefdom. This territorial nature is not just bestial, it is ultimately self-defeating, since the inability of successive governments in the South to establish a multi-partisan approach to the peace process does not bode well for the future. In this light, it’s interesting that the peace process in Sri Lanka has already witnessed two first rounds of peace talks! It’s tragic that the lack of continuity in the form of a roadmap for peace-talks requires each new effort at negotiations to re-invent the wheel and start from scratch. The lack of institutional memory, the lack of strategic foresight, the lack of future scenario planning to shape negotiations strategies all contribute to a muted enthusiasm of peace talks and cautious optimism of their long term success.

A brief analysis and comparison of statements at the end of peace talks in Geneva and in Sattahip in 2002 (between the UNF and the LTTE) is useful in light of the ideas expressed above.

After Geneva, both parties are committed to uphold the CFA and cooperate with the SLMM. No mention is made by the Head of the Government delegation on the mediation or role of Norway at the beginning of the talks – qualitatively different to the appreciation of Norwegian support to the peace process made by G.L. Peiris and Anton Balasingham in Sattahip in 2002. Mention of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim civilians is made in the statement at the end of the talks in Geneva, echoing the Norwegian statement at the end of Sattahip that flagged the need to look seriously at the grave humanitarian concerns of those on the ground in parallel to a process of negotiations. In Geneva, issues of child recruitment feature in the Norwegian statement while no such emphasis was placed on the issue after Sattahip. The Geneva statement is also far less ambitious in its scope and timelines for future activities in comparison to that which was issues after Sattahip – there are dates for one further round of peace talks, as opposed to three after Sattahip.

These differences are indicative of a qualitative shift of focus from a partnership for peace to the responsibilities of two dissimilar entities to uphold an agreement (the CFA) that underpins the peace process in Sri Lanka as seen by them. This then begs the question as to how the process of negotiations will grapple with the significant developments on the ground after the CFA was signed. Words on paper that commit the Government to disarm armed groups stands far removed from the political fallout of enacting such a strategy. In this light, the current peace talks inadequately heed the art of the possible on the ground. What this means is that the inability on the part of the government to adhere to these commitments risks being perceived as an inherent insincerity to the process of negotiations, giving the LTTE enough reason to play truant. Furthermore, the CFA speaks of commitments of the Government and LTTE towards the creation of a foundation upon which peace talks can progress. This foundation was never as firm as the architects of the CFA wanted it to be. The challenge of the present round of peace talks is to animate once more this document to reflect the need for a negotiated peace in Sri Lanka.

In all, it’s important to felicitate a fledgling Government negotiation team on engaging with the LTTE despite statements made against the CFA, the Norwegians and the peace process in general in the run-up to the Presidential elections. The LTTE also need to be commended for engaging with a government widely perceived to be against its core set of demands for a negotiations process.

Beyond the heady optimism and self-congratulatory note of Geneva lies, as I wrote last week, the greater challenges of both the peace talks and the peace process. For example, the CFA required the UNF Government to disarm all Tamil paramilitary ground 30 days after it was signed. The incumbent has a little under twice that time to do the same.

These are not easy challenges and are central to the political credibility of the Rajapaksa government in the future. With the JVP still a strong voice in the government and in general in a froth over what they see as a pyrrhic peace process, the challenges of these new negotiations are in essence too large for government alone. As citizens, we need to be clear about what we seek to see through these peace talks and communicate this to those in Government and the LTTE. It is only through clarion call of peoples across Sri Lanka for the two key antagonists to adhere to the words they set down on paper that we can truly construct a process worthy of taking forward our aspirations for peace and justice.

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