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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Peace with Justice, Australia >  Need for a Negotiated Settlement

International Conference on the Conflict in Sri Lanka:
Peace with Justice, Canberra, Australia, 1996


Mr R Naidoo

Mr Naidoo is an Attorney at Law and is the Regional Director, International Mediation Services in South Africa. Mr Naidoo was previously active in the trade union movement and in politics.

What I have to say is the view of an impartial independent outsider. It is the view collaborated by the current international experience. I will not venture into the merits or demerits of the self-determination debate. Whatever the aspiration, whatever the ideal, whatever the expected outcome, is the result of a process, a series of events. It is on this process, this series of events that I choose to concentrate on. How does one manage the process to achieve the result you want?

Sri-Lanka is a divided society, culturally, economically and militarily. The Sinhalese majority is the "Goliath" in terms of numbers and military strength. The Tamil minority is the "David". Can "David" get "Goliath" to sit around the negotiating table, to acknowledge his aspirations and to agree to his terms? How do you achieve this?

Critics may argue that armed insurrection or guerilla warfare may force "Goliath" to concede to the claims of "David". With the superior military power of the Sri-Lankan Government one needs to carefully consider the prospects of success of this approach. I need hardly mention that cost of the conflict in Sri-Lanka, the cost in terms of human life, suffering and economic development.

The international trend is to achieve change and peace through dialogue around the negotiating table. Could this work for Sri-Lanka? How do you achieve it?

It worked for South Africa. While the regional specifics and dynamics of other countries may significantly differ from Sri-Lanka important lessons may be extracted from the experience of these countries. It is my considered opinion that South Africa did not become a democratic country through the innate benevolence of the ruling party. The ruling party was forced to make the transition. Two factors contributed to forcing the government along the road to transition viz, international pressure and secondly the growing unrest and discontent within the country.

While much of the world abhorred and condemned apartheid, some of the super-powers still supported the policies of South Africa and traded with it via the back door. Sanctions did not stifle the country, instead trade on the black market boomed. Our weapons industry increased in magnitude and sophistication. Despite the gross human rights violations the UN and other countries only publically condemned South Africa and did little else to improve this situation. Unless there is economic interest, foreign governments are loathe to intervene against the barbaric acts of government, be they the grossest violation of human rights. Currently the US is reluctant to condemn the appalling human rights record of China because China is one of its largest trading partners. The doctrine of domestic or internal affairs of the country is the oft used scapegoat to justify such inaction. Nigeria is another perpetrator that has emerged unscathed.

Very few if any foreign countries are likely to intervene in the conflict in Sri-Lanka. There is no economic or political interest for foreign governments in Sri-Lanka. Neither is there a large and strong cultural affinity between the citizens of Sri-Lanka and other countries. US is greatly interested in the Israeli peace process and its citizens exert pressure on the government to intervene. The interests of the US citizens are motivated by a shared cultural affinity. Tamilians throughout the world share the cultural bond with their counterparts in Sri-Lanka but their ability to influence their governments to intervene is limited. South Africa and all countries subscribing to upholding a fervent human rights culture will not unilaterally assist. Human rights yield to political expedience. These countries have to be pressured to intervene. A letter has been written to the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs urging intervention but aside from an acknowledgement no significant contribution has been made.

The road to peace is long and littered with many obstacles and dangers. The first step for South Africa was the establishment of dialogue, secret talks between Nelson Mandela who was in prison and the then President of South Africa, Mr F.W. De Klerk. These talks were held in secret and set the foundation for future negotiations. One wonders whether similar channels of communication between Mr Pirabaharan and President Kumaratunga should be explored. After the release of Mr Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of liberation movements, formal talks with government began. The miracle did not happen overnight. There was a long series of protracted talks. First we had talks about talks, then CODESA 1, CODESA 2 and Kempton Park talks (multi-party talks). All political parties, no matter how small, were represented at the initial talks. The purpose of the talks about talks was to level the playing field, to agree on issues of representation, procedure at the talks, voting rights etc.

The lesson to be extracted from this is that thorough preparation and consensus on the procedure and issues to be discussed is essential. The parties have to agree on the ground rules before the actual negotiation takes place. Failure to agree on these basic issues will result in costly delays, parties walking out of talks, parties shifting the goal posts and ultimately failure to reach consensus. Maybe the key to the Sri-Lankan conflict is to get the parties to agree to have talks about talks. At those preliminary meetings, which can take up to 3 months, the ground rules can be identified and agreed.

Pre-conditions like the cessation of the armed struggle can be discussed at these meetings. It is only when the parties are talking to each other can one find creative solutions to the problems, can one express your concerns and understand the other party's reservations. Talks about talks also give the Sri-Lankan Government an attractive option out of its present dilemma. It has indicated that it will not negotiate with the liberation movements until it renounced violence and guerilla warfare. Talks about talks say that we the government are not negotiating with liberation movements but are merely discussing the ground rules for future negotiations. It affords the government an opportunity to save face, an honourable way out.

The ANC also refused to cease the armed struggle prior to engaging in talks. Currently the IRA is refusing to renounce the armed struggle prior to talks. A phased in stage by stage programme can be drawn and it can be agreed that only after a certain stage will one party renounce the use of armed force. Central to the success of the negotiations is trust and it takes a long time to develop trust between arch enemies.

Who initiates contact? It is the general misconception that the party who initiates the contact is the weaker. One has to calculate what can be achieved or gained from the establishment of the contact. Invariably the initiator obtains the moral high ground insofar as the committment to the resolution of the conflict cannot be disputed.

South Africa is a heterogenous society made up broadly of 4 racial groups namely; "Blacks, Whites, Coloureds and Indians". The Whites are sub-divided into English and Afrikaner speaking communities. The Afrikaner minority wanted self-determination and their own homeland. They were party to the negotiations and the issue of self-determination was placed on the agenda. The negotiated Interim Constitution and now the Final Constitution provides for the establishment of a Volkstaat Council to assess the viability and the Afrikaner support for this idea.

A process was put into place which the Afrikaner feels is capable of satisfying his aspirations.

After years of bloody war, the Russian government and the Chechnyan Freedom Fighters have embarked on bilateral talks to secure peace. Bitter enemies have realised that war cannot bring peace and independence. Israel has been at war with almost all its neighbours since its independence in 1947. It is now involved in a peace process, a series of protracted negotiations with Palestine. This peace process is brokered by USA. Palestine has vowed to destroy Israel and never acknowledge it as a State. Now Yasser Arafat is sitting around the table with his sworn enemies. Peace can be profitable and if it is in the interest of all the people then no attempt should be spared in trying to realise this ideal. Israel has made peace with Egypt, shortly with Palestine and is looking to sign to peace agreements with Syria.

The ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Croatia have destroyed that country. The horrors will never be forgotten. The pain, hardship, suffering, humiliation and injustice inflicted on the people will never heal but the people and the leaders realise that one has to move away from the past and look to the future. It was not easy for the people in Bosnia and Croatia, for the people in Chechyna, for the people in South Africa, for people in Palestine, and it is not going to be easy for the people in Sri-Lanka but it has to be done. The people and the leaders realise that only by sitting around the table and negotiating these issues, can one hope to achieve a resolution to the problems. The historic DAYTON ACCORD brokered by the US brought relative peace to Bosnia and Croatia.

There is no guarantee that a mediated settlement is going to work. Parties may have to make compromises. There will still be problems. But in the circumstances this is the best option available. The advantage of this option is that you still have control over the process and if correctly approached one can achieve a win-win situation.

On numerous occasions the SA Talks floundered, parties would walk out, parties would openly attack each other and the negotiation process would be on the brink of collapse. Fortunately, the chief negotiators of the ANC and the government had developed a deep bond, understanding and committment to the success of the talks. Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer would negotiate behind the scenes, one on one and eventually persuade their parties to return to the talks. This behind the scene talks moderated the aggression displayed by the parties in public.

Such behind the scenes negotiations can start now. The Liberation Movement and the Sri-Lankan Government should carefully groom one or two persons to begin discussions. These persons must hold senior positions, be credible, enjoy the trust of their parties and be influential in directing the course their organisation takes. The low key behind the scenes role played by the Norwegians in the Middle East peace process vindicates the importance of this approach.

There may be merit in fostering peace moves and mediation efforts at grass roots levels. Individuals, organisations, religious groups, trade unions and NGO's could play a vital role in building bridges between divided communities. If the divided communities express a desire for peace this could provide the momentum required to initiate negotiations. In Ireland the OPSAHL Commission talk to thousands of people from all sides of the political spectrum and the published findings clearly demonstrated a deep desire for peace. If the majority of people in Sri-Lanka want peace, government has to respect the will of the people. Generally one is handicapped by a certain innate prejudices and we assume the worst. One needs to gauge the views of the people in Sri-Lanka and a similar commission may be helpful.

There may be strong polarisation along ethnic lines in Sri-Lanka. If one cannot get these divided communities to heal their differences and embrace peace, one should consider procuring the support of those Tamils and Sinhalese outside the country. Generally when a person is removed from the arena of conflict one can expect a more rational and less emotional response. If Tamils and Sinhalese outside Sri-Lanka can support the process this will lend moral impetus to the peace process.

It will also make the hardliners inside the country reconsider their views. Maybe the drive to bridge the differences between the divided communities should begin with the Tamil and Sinhalese persons outside the country.

In other parts of the world peace moves have been started at grassroots level long before politicians would be seen dead talking about talks let alone talking to liberation movements. Influential individuals, trade unions, business leaders, NGO's have initiated talks with liberation movements. Business leaders from South Africa had meetings with the ANC in Senegal prior to its unbanning. One needs to explore these initiatives in the light of the Sri-Lankan context.

I know mediation has been proposed in Sri-Lanka. The government may not be willing to consider mediation. Why should it? It is in power, it has the military strength to suppress any opposition, why should it risk losing its grip on power? The likelihood of settlement of the conflict in Sri-Lanka as a result of military action either by the Sri-Lankan government or the liberation movements is remote.

Government cannot allege that this is a small domestic problem when thousands of people are killed, displaced and disenfranchised, when the international community and civil society stops and takes notice. I believe the only solution lies in a negotiated settlement. I believe the liberation movements must take the initiative and open talks with the government. I believe the liberation movements must call for international mediation. This call for international mediation must be supported by foreign countries and the UN if it is to have any positive effect. No foreign country is going to voluntarily support your call and that is a challenge you have to face. How do you bring pressure to bear on foreign governments to respond to your call? Mobilising Tamilians and other people sympathetic to the human rights cause to pressure their respective governments to support your call maybe one option. There are number of other creative ways one can use to force governments to respond.

One can target specific foreign governments and request them to provide, at their cost, one international mediator. It is important to have competent mediators. One cannot over emphasise the strong and proactive role played by US mediator Richard Holbrooke in almost dragging the Bosnian parties to DAYTON. If 3 or 5 countries provide one mediator each, you have your mediation team. This proposal can be presented to the Sri-Lankan Government. It would be difficult for the government to reject the proposal because :-

1. the costs are already paid and they don't have to bear any costs.

2. these are impartial mediators from various countries and to refuse would be an insult to those countries.

3. it is in the interest of the government to resolve the conflict in Sri-Lanka.

4. it has failed to resolve the conflict for the past 13 years.

5. this is an ideal opportunity to display its committment towards resolving the conflict.

The conflict in Sri-Lanka can and must be resolved. The time for peace is now. The time to talk is now. Sieze the opportunity.



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