Lakshman Kadirgamar and problems of the post-colonial world

31 December 2013 06:30 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


On December 16, 2013  a seminar on ‘Democracy, Sovereignty and Terror: Lessons from Sri Lanka on conflict resolution’, was held at the Nobel Institute in Oslo Organized by NOREF – Norwegian Peace-building Resource Centre  in memory of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The speech was delivered in the hall where the Nobel speeches are delivered. The following are excerpts from the speech made by Sir Adam Roberts (Emeritus Professor of International Relations, Balliol College, and Oxford University) at the seminar.

The central issue that I want to address today is simple. What can we learn from the case of Sri Lanka – and particularly from controversy-ridden way in which the armed conflict ended – about the problems, and possibilities, of attempts at conflict resolution more generally? In particular, what can we learn about the establishment of ceasefires and safe areas, and the roles of outsiders in peacekeeping, monitoring and humanitarian work?

For reasons that are perfectly understandable, there has been a tendency for the outside world – especially Western governments, international organizations and NGOs – to view, and sometimes to judge, Sri Lanka by well-established international standards, but with little reference to the history of how opinion evolved and events unfolded in Sri Lanka itself. It is almost as if the government deliberations, the political debate, even public opinion itself, was a black box. I am no specialist on Sri Lanka, but I felt instinctively that I should try to see the conflict through the eyes of Sri Lankans.

I will begin addressing what we can learn from Sri Lanka by considering the role of one distinguished Sri Lankan who had clear views on the conflict. The reason why I did a book on Lakshman Kadirgamar is not just that I knew him, but also that I found his views on many of the issues of our time both intellectually coherent and challenging. After saying something about his role, I will then refer briefly to the events in Sri Lanka since 2009, and I will ask three questions about conflict resolution that arise from those events. These questions, and any responses to them, may have resonance beyond the shores of Sri Lanka.

Lakshman Kadirgamar and the problems of the post-colonial world

Lakshman Kadirgamar – foreign minister of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2001, and again from 2004 to 2005 – was assassinated eight years ago, on 12 August 2005. This lawyer-turned-politician is an interesting and important figure, worth remembering today, for a number of reasons:

He was a symbol of the hopes that the end of empire would lead to a better order in newly decolonized countries. As a distinguished athlete (a relay-runner of international standard) he took part in a famous relay from the four corners of Sri Lanka in 1952, symbolizing the unity of the peoples of the country.

He was also a symbol of the subsequent disappointments as the post-colonial order proved problematic – and of courage in facing those disappointments. As a prominent Tamil who believed in the unity of Sri Lanka, he knew that, he was likely to be assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and faced that threat with extraordinary bravery. He was cremated on the very square where Sri Lanka’s independence is celebrated.

He thought more deeply about terrorism – and spoke about it more articulately – than any other minister anywhere dealing with the problem. He took a consistently tough line on terrorism – warning the British as early as 1998 that they were to tolerant of international terrorist organizations in their midst; and in 2003 he spoke eloquently about the adverse consequences of the cease-fire agreement with the LTTE. However, alongside this toughness, he was very nuanced in his approach, recognizing that the struggle with terrorists was a struggle for legitimacy. His combination of toughness and flexibility was unique – and valuable.

He believed that the struggle against terrorist movements had to be conducted on the basis of respect for the sovereignty of states; strengthening rather than undermining democracy; and observing human rights law and the law of armed conflict.
He was a strong advocate of human rights, and (in 1963) conducted the first-ever report for Amnesty International on the situation in a particular country – namely South Vietnam.

I had known him and his work since 1963, when we corresponded over his Amnesty report; and I got to know him again forty years later, when I belatedly discovered that he had been a student at Balliol College – the Oxford college where I was now teaching. We met several times in Oxford, and also in Colombo, where I saw him both at work and at home just a few months before his death.

As Kadirgamar was only too well aware, international order today rests on foundations which, while not wholly new, contain some new elements. The problems with which he grappled continuously as foreign minister were problems that are all too typical of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I will briefly outline ten features of twenty-first century international order. All of them have implications for conflict resolution.

It is conflict within states, not war between them, that poses the greatest problems in the everyday lives of millions of people, and in the conduct of international relations. Such conflict – which has taken many forms, from coups d’état to civil wars – is a reflection of difficulties inherent in the process of creating, in the wake of empires of various kinds, states with legitimate governments, borders, constitutional arrangements and strategies for development. Ethnic and regional divisions within states often contribute to these difficulties.

Largely because of such difficulties, post-colonial states of the Third World have had to recognize that the threats faced by contemporary international society lie as much in their midst as they do in distant great powers and power blocks. In these circumstances the rhetoric of non-alignment, while by no means abandoned, is of reduced relevance.

Widespread unemployment and emigration exacerbate tendencies to view the state as illegitimate, and provide a basis for insurgencies and other challenges to the state. Diaspora communities sometimes become militantly opposed to the state from which they fled, thus contributing to its difficulties in establishing its legitimacy.
The capacity of outside powers to understand, and to take action regarding, conflicts within post-colonial states is distinctly limited, with ambitious attempts at intervention often resulting in humiliation.

Terrorism and the international struggle against it have become central preoccupations of many states. This has created new pressures for close cooperation between states. However, it has also raised difficult questions about whether, in pursuing the cause of countering terrorism, it is justifiable to invade and occupy sovereign states, and also to violate certain basic human rights, including freedom from torture.

Multiparty democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights are now the most widely accepted principles for the organization of human societies, yet they are far from being universally accepted or respected, are not a cure for all problems, and are hard to establish in some societies.
Global international organizations, especially the United Nations, play a more important role in international politics than ever before, and are essential if global problems are to be tackled effectively. Yet their role is unavoidably limited and selective, and is sometimes unsuccessful. This leaves a range of problems to be addressed at the level of individual states, or by other international bodies.

Regional groupings of states have sought to overcome some of the many problems – relating above all to economic issues and international security – resulting from the division of the world into sovereign states. Such groupings have made most progress in Europe, with the development of the European Union (EU), but are much less developed in other regions, including South Asia. Everywhere they have run into problems about the extent to which they can modify or even transcend the role of states.

Religions have a larger role in international politics than many advocates of secularism and modernization had anticipated: religious beliefs and organizations have been critically important in many positive developments, such as the civil resistance of the Buddhists in South Vietnam in 1963, as well as in exacerbating certain armed conflicts and terrorist campaigns.

New powers are emerging, raising the critical question of whether such a process can happen peacefully or must, as so often in the past, lead to war.
In many speeches, especially in the years from 1994 to 2005, Kadirgamar addressed all of these enduring issues in international politics, and he did so in ways that were clear-sighted and articulate. Yet his position was not free of what critics would call contradictions, and others would more respectfully call creative tensions.

He was a lifelong advocate of democracy, but at the same time consistently sought to maintain good relations with certain non-democratic states. He was a human rights advocate, but vigorously defended his own country despite many problems in its human rights record. He was a particularly strong and committed opponent of terrorism, but at the same time a critic of the idea that the cause of counter-terrorism justified military interventions in states and foreign occupations. He was a strong believer in the role of international organizations, but was concerned to keep the UN at arm’s length from involvement in Sri Lanka’s internal conflict.

And he was a passionate believer in diplomatic solutions, but became the foremost critic of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement – negotiated with Norwegian help, between the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE – because of specific flaws that he exposed forensically.

The list could be extended, but its underlying core is clear: he embodied many of the apparent contradictions that any able and conscientious person must face when dealing with international politics. To put it all more simply, he was both an idealist and a realist, both a thinker and a man of action, and therefore much more interesting than those who can be tidily classified in only one of these categories.

Implications of Kadirgamar’s approach for conflict resolution

Grappling as he did with problems such as these, Lakshman had a strong and thoroughly realistic sense of the problems that many countries, including his own, faced. In particular, he had a strong and justified sense of how destructive, and deep-rooted, political violence can be – and how it can threaten the very foundations of a vulnerable post-colonial society. He recognized the importance of conflict resolution.

He viewed the armed hostilities with LTTE, which had begun in July 1983, as part of a deeper problem of the tendency to political violence in Sri Lanka; and he had a strong belief in the inherently political nature of the conflict with the LTTE. It had begun, at least partly, as a result of some real grievances over language and other issues. It followed from this that he believed that an eventual settlement of the conflict – however it came about – would have to take into account the needs and concerns of all the communities on the island, including of course the Tamils. As we will see, this did not mean that he favoured a negotiated peace above all other approaches. The use of military force could be a necessary factor in bringing an insurgency to an end.

Three questions arising from the conflict in Sri Lanka

The major international public controversies today concerning the Sri Lankan conflict do not relate directly to Kadirgamar. They focus on events three or four years after his death in 2005. There is continuing controversy, including in Norway itself, about the roles of the Norwegian-led monitoring mission and its ending in 2008.

There is also continuing debate about the decision in September 2008 to withdraw UN personnel from the conflict zone in the north of Sri Lanka. And above all there is the evidence concerning the terrible and tragic events in the last months of the war in 2008–09, including the evidence of war crimes by both sides. I will touch on these, but my purpose here is not to go into detail about these extremely contentious issues. Today, especially in light of my study of Kadirgamar, I want to ask three more general questions, which arise from Sri Lanka but have more general application.

1. Are cease-fire agreements

necessarily the right approach?

Calls for ceasefire agreements have become an almost standard response of the international community to ongoing armed conflicts.
They feature in countless resolutions of the UN Security Council and of regional bodies, as well as in pronouncements of individual states. Ceasefires have an important place in the management and resolution of conflicts. However, there is a question about whether calls for ceasefires are always the right approach. Have they sometimes been adopted more out of habit than from a realistic appraisal of a particular situation?

In the Sri Lanka conflict there were three ceasefire agreements:
29 July 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, signed by India and Sri Lanka, but not by the LTTE. The violence did not stop, and by 1990 the ceasefire had completely collapsed.

" This leaves a range of problems to be addressed at the level of individual states, or by other international bodies"

January 1995 ceasefire agreement – lasted only until April.
22 February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), negotiated through Norwegian facilitation, and signed separately by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan.

Kadirgamar, who was on the opposition benches in parliament at the time, and had not been involved in the negotiation process for the 2002 CFA, gradually came to see it as structurally flawed, as vulnerable to violations by the LTTE, and as failing to lead on to any broader measures of conflict resolution. His critique of the CFA in his speech in Parliament in Colombo on 8 May 2003 presents a uniquely coherent, even forensic, criticism of this agreement. He did not spell out exactly what the alternative to the CFA might be, but that was evident enough: it was a continuation of the war involving the application of relentless military, economic and political pressure on the LTTE.

This CFA’s record was indeed problematic. From almost the moment of its signing in 2002 it was observed very unevenly, with violations on both sides – the majority committed by LTTE. The fragility of the arrangement was illustrated by the fact that no official maps were published at the time, so it could be difficult to establish exactly where the front lines between the two sides ran.  From 2006 onwards the agreement was virtually dead. On 3 January 2008 the government of Sri Lanka officially withdrew from it, following this up with the Sri Lankan Army’s assault on the LTTE’s strongholds culminating in the Tigers’ defeat on 18 May 2009.

When Kadirgamar criticized the CFA, he did not generalize his criticisms to all calls for ceasefires. On the contrary, he clearly viewed ceasefire negotiations as an important instrument of statecraft and one valuable mechanism of conflict resolution. Yet legitimate questions can be raised about certain other calls for ceasefires. The Western calls for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka in 2008–9, as the war was nearing its end, were expressed in very general terms, and fell on completely deaf ears in Sri Lanka, where there was a prospect of a government victory that could at last end a war that has imposed pain and death for a quarter of a century.

In general, and whatever their short-term appeal, calls for ceasefires deserve to be viewed critically. Everything depends on context and timing. In some circumstances, such calls can have negative effects: they may simply reinforce a nationalist tendency to dismiss outside opinion as lacking a basis in understanding of the actual situation. Worse, calls from powerful states for a ceasefire can lead to pressure on belligerents to use maximum force to achieve a quick victory at any cost before pressure to impose a ceasefire becomes irresistible.

2. Are external roles in internal conflicts bound to run into difficulties?

In the Sri Lanka conflict there were, broadly speaking, three types of external involvement that were aimed at reducing violence and/or assisting the hard-pressed populations of conflict areas. All three ran into difficulties.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was deployed under the terms of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, sought to impose the disarmament provisions of the agreement on the LTTE, which was not a party to the agreement. The IPKF suffered terrible losses: about 1,200 Indian soldiers died. The mission ended in failure in 1990, with India remaining clear that it did not wish to repeat this experience.

The Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), established within weeks of the signing of the CFA on 22 February 2002, had a strictly defined monitoring role.  After operating for six years, its activities were terminated on 16 January 2008, just two weeks after the Sri Lankan government’s withdrawal from the CFA. Like the CFA to which it was inextricably linked, it was extensively criticized during its active years and subsequently. As a Norwegian report issued in November 2011 stated, some LTTE sympathizers blamed the Norwegians ‘for being complicit in a process that weakened the rebel movement’; while among Muslim and Sinhala constituencies there was ‘perceived Norwegian appeasement of the LTTE’.  Within Sri Lanka a damning critique of the SLMM was included in the December 2011 report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.  Irrespective of such questions of blame, a key issue is whether this was an impossible mission granted the reluctance on both sides to accept either compromise or stalemate.

The third main type of external involvement was the presence of UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs in and near the front lines. Kofi Annan does not mention Sri Lanka in his memoirs.  That omission is understandable as the main controversies concerned events that occurred after he had stepped down as UN Secretary-General on 31 December 2006. The main controversy was about the departure of most personnel connected with these bodies after the Sri Lankan Army announced on 3 September 2008 that it could no longer guarantee the security of aid workers. It was deeply problematic that the inhabitants were left without external assistance, and that there were so few witnesses to the events that followed. There was also concern that such information as was still conveyed out of the conflict zone was not transmitted onwards effectively by the UN Resident Co-ordinator, based in Colombo, who was the senior UN official in the country. All this needed investigation. The 2012 UN report by Charles Petrie and colleagues presents a highly critical picture of UN operations in the final months of the war.  John Holmes, who was the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, has provided a defence of his actions in his book published earlier this year on The Politics of Humanity. He states: ‘My view was that a frank private dialogue was better than a furious public row. I could go out in a blaze of temporary glory of denunciation of the government – but I might well take the humanitarian operation with me.’  The difficulty of this position is that the humanitarian operation was lost anyway, so the controversy is likely to continue.

The UN-adopted doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ adds an element of complexity to the debate about external roles in internal conflicts. There has always been a problem of how exactly the UN is to exercise its responsibility when it is faced with a powerful government that is determined to pursue a particular policy. The doctrine of ‘R2P’ tends to raise expectations about the capacity of the UN to act that are doomed to lead to subsequent disappointment. Although it was never officially invoked in the Sri Lanka crisis, it was mentioned – with no useful result.  Its ineffective or even counter-productive role confirms that a response to the question of whether external roles in internal conflicts are bound to run into difficulties should at least start from a recognition that they do very often do so.

3. Are safety zones inherently

What went wrong in the No-fire zones in Sri Lanka that had been unilaterally proclaimed by the Sri Lankan Army? They proved in the end to be a death trap for many who had fled there. Far from being safety zones, they turned out to be extraordinarily unsafe. Why was this so? From a variety of sources we now have a picture of zones where there were repeated shellings, including many on or in the area of hospitals.

There is persuasive evidence that there was a strong LTTE presence, and that the LTTE did not permit civilians to leave. This is not the first time that safety zones have proved problematic. Srebrenica, a designated ‘safe area’ in Bosnia, was the scene in 1995 of one of the most horrific mass killings of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

  Comments - 1

  • dharmapala Wednesday, 01 January 2014 04:29 AM

    formar foreign minister mr kadigramar, he was cause for his death,he undernine his own community.

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