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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Peace with Justice, Australia >  The Role of the International Community

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

The Role of the International Community

Bryn Wolfe

Executive Secretary of the NGO Forum on Sri Lanka based in the UK. Mr. Wolfe was in Sri Lanka from 1988-1991 as a member of the Quaker Peace Service. He was also the Medical, Health and Relief Program representative for Sri Lanka.

I have been asked to speak on the Role of the International Community. The title of this conference is Peace with Justice so I will focus on the potential role of the International Community in bringing about a negotiated settlement of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Before I begin the main part of my speech I will explain a bit about the NGO Forum on Sri Lanka. The Forum is an international network of organizations concerned with the promotion of social justice and development in Sri Lanka. The Forum aims to be an objective observer and is not pro or anti LTTE. Neither is the Forum supportive or opposed to the Government of Sri Lanka. If the Forum has a bias it is for the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka. The concern of my organisation extends to the displaced people in the Vanni as well as the mothers and families of the South for whom a homecoming increasingly means another young man returning to his village in a box.

Since the latest round of fighting began in April 1990, the reaction of the international community has been to treat the war as an internal conflict, and to adopt a policy of non-interference in Sri Lankan affairs. The Forum believes this broad international consensus is based upon two misconceptions about the conflict; first, that the war can be contained within the Northeastern areas of the island and, second, that the Government of Sri Lanka can achieve an outright military victory or impose a settlement by force.

What underlines this policy is the perceptions of the combatants. The LTTE are perceived as the aggressors, who unilaterally broke off the peace negotiations. The LTTE is seen as a formidable military or terrorist organisation which lacks the political maturity to convert its military successes into realistic political concessions on regional autonomy. The international community has increasingly come to question the LTTE's sincerity in calling for fresh negotiations since all previous talks seem to have been utilised as a classic Maoist breathing space or a period in which to rebuild its fighting strength.

By contrast the People's Alliance Government led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga is seen as a reforming government which came to power committed to a programme of introducing constitutional reform, strengthening human rights safeguards, and negotiating a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict. For the past two years international observers have continued with this assessment despite the government's failure to implement any of the promised reforms.

The Forum has always consistently argued that it is a pointless exercise to apportion blame for the failure of previous talks. The priority should be trying to find a means of restoring an atmosphere conducive to resumed negotiations. The human rights record of both parties to the conflict remains appalling and the intensification in the conflict since April 1995 has led to a serious increase in the atrocities and violations committed by both sides. In January of this year the bomb attack by an LTTE team on the Central Bank in Colombo led to the deaths of 100 people and the wounding of over a thousand. However, during the same month 24 civilians were massacred by government soldiers at Kumarapuram, near Trincomalee. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances reported 36 cases under the urgent action procedure in 1995. The Working Group concluded its report by stating: "...it is alarmed at reports according to which the previous pattern of systematic disappearances seems to be re-emerging in Sri Lanka."

The response of the international community to the dramatic changes in Sri Lanka over the past 12 months has continued to be tempered by an analysis diplomats made immediately after the election of the PA Government in 1994. The international community has continued to cite the Government's commitment to peace and human rights reforms made nearly two years ago. Ignoring the fact, that in many instances, the Government has either failed to implement these reforms or followed a course of action that contradicts the original, stated intention of government policy. The assessment made of the Kumaratunga Administration is that it is a government with only a one-seat majority in Parliament, struggling to satisfy the aspirations of both nationalistic and pro-reform elements in the Sinhalese polity, yet remaining committed to democratic governance. The international community has therefore been reluctant to make any intervention into the ethnic conflict which might result in undermining the authority of the present regime.

The diplomatic community also consider the government to be confronted by an guerrilla force which unilaterally broke the ceasefire, and withdrew from Peace talks, and since April 1995 has continued to unleash wanton destruction against both civilian and military targets throughout the Island.

The political analysis of Sri Lanka by the diplomatic community , far from encouraging both sides to return to negotiations has in fact led some countries such as Britain, to inadvertently promote a continuation of the war by lifting the embargo on arm sales to the Government. The Forum is convinced that increasing the technological capability or the size of the arsenals deployed by either side will not resolve the conflict but will only prolong the war and the suffering of civilians.

There have been several notable exceptions to the international policy of non-intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict. The governments of Australia, Canada, and Norway have all offered their services as mediators. It must be noted ,that while both parties to the conflict continue to make public statements about their willingness to negotiate, neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the LTTE have formally accepted any of the overtures from foreign governments to facilitate a new series of peace talks. Indeed, the conclusion of the international community is that despite the unprecedented suffering and destruction over the past year neither party truly wants to return to negotiation, at this time. The Forum believes that a facilitating role by one or more neutral countries is essential to the success of any new political negotiations.

Whatever the assessment of the current policies of the warring parties, it is clear that the majority of the international community have decided to remove Sri Lanka from the international agenda and to relegate the armed conflict to the status of a forgotten war. The result can only be the needless suffering and deaths of more Sri Lankans. What is also clear, is that the present expenditure of US$ 2.2 billion on the war is unsustainable. This represents some 22% of the 1994 GNP total of US$ 10 billion. The Government is also reported to have 50,000 troops currently deployed in the Jaffna which is roughly one-half of the army. It should be remembered that the LTTE successfully resisted the much larger Indian Peace Keeping Force contingent of 70,000 troops at its peak in 1990. Equally predictable , given the ideology of martyrdom which sustains the LTTE, is that any continued military setbacks will not result in capitulation but in more merciless acts of terrorism in the South. The recent trend in the country's human rights record also indicates that any increase in terrorist activity will be met by an equally draconian response from the security forces, raising once again the spectre of the 1989/90 extrajudicial strategy, of harassment, torture, and summary execution of suspects. All of these factors will contribute to a further destabilisation of Sri Lanka and make any future political settlement more difficult.

Recently the international community has witnessed other efforts to resolve protracted internal conflicts around the world. Events in South Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland have demonstrated that there is rarely an appropriate moment for peace initiatives but concerted international action can affect the internal dynamics of such conflicts.

For over a decade the international community has provided several million dollars in economic aid and investment for Sri Lanka each year without forging a similar alliance of concerned governments to promote a just resolution of the country's civil war. The NGO Forum on Sri Lanka calls upon the international community to match its economic commitment with a diplomatic initiative to bring about a negotiated settlement of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

The creation of international peace and security is one of the primary responsibilities of governments. This role is acknowledged through operations of the United Nations, regional mechanisms for peaceful cooperation and bilateral agreements designed to foster stability and cooperation. Governments have also worked together to find solutions to internal conflicts which may or may not have an international dimension, on the grounds that humanitarian concern transcends geographical, racial or religious boundaries and is one of the global responsibilities which nations accept.

The NGO Forum on Sri Lanka does not play a role which would permit it to prescribe the precise initiatives which governments should take to further the cause of peace in Sri Lanka. Such decisions must rest with governments alone. Indeed, it is governments themselves which are uniquely placed to bring the required expertise and resources to bear in resolving such conflicts. What the Forum does seek is an end to the apparent international policy consensus of allowing this debilitating and disastrous war to continue. What is needed is a genuine, energetic and determined effort on the international level to foster the conditions that will restore peace to Sri Lanka.



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