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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Tsunami & Aftermath > Asymmetries in the peace process: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam > Selected Writings - Viswanathan Rudrakumaran
Asymmetries in the peace process: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
in Accord, Volume 16, June 2005
As Clausewitz observed, war is politics by other means. Negotiations
are a form of politics, but without some real or perceived symmetry
of power they will be an exercise in one side imposing its will on
the other. Power – i.e. the ability of one party to move the other
in an intended direction – is constituted by military resources,
economic leverage, international legitimacy, the moral basis of
one's position, mass support, leadership, etc. It includes 'hard
power' such as military coercion, as well as 'soft power', which is
defined by Joseph Nye as the ability to achieve one's intended
results through cultural or ideological 'attraction'.
Symmetry can be created between states and non-state entities by military parity, the drain on the state's economy, persuasion or coercion by large powers, etc. The power to persuade, in large part a soft power, is perhaps the most important power at the negotiating table and can help the negotiating table be a 'leveller' in terms of power symmetry.
However, when the parties are competitive to the point of being unable to meet and have discussions, symmetry of power will not yield a negotiated settlement unless the international system in which the negotiation takes place forces the parties to adopt cooperative attitudes towards each other.
It is often argued that a government and non-elected non-state actor cannot be treated equally because the former is 'democratically elected'. This argument may have merit in some cases, but it is not applicable with respect to national liberation movements fighting for self-determination. In national conflicts, liberation movements represent a 'people' who share attributes such as language, culture, a sense of oneness and a territorial relationship. The aggrieved people often neither voted for the 'democratically elected' government in power nor owe any allegiance towards it. While liberation movements are not elected through ballots, Judge Amoun of the International Court of Justice observed that, "the struggle undertaken in common, with the risks and even sacrifices it entails... is more decisive than a referendum, being absolutely sincere and authentic".
Unfortunately, as many scholars have rightly observed, the international climate in which most negotiations take place inherently fosters asymmetrical relations in favour of states, which have presumptive and elite legitimacy, allies (whether genuine or interest-based), membership in international organizations and the resources of a government. The Sri Lankan government's prevention of the UN Secretary General's visit to the areas most severely affected by the December 2004 tsunami because they were governed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is one illustration of the asymmetry between states and non-state entities in their relations with international institutions. This article will elaborate on the ways in which the asymmetrical treatment of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government by the international system has hurt the Sri Lankan peace process.
Negative effects of the state-based system
The impact that international institutions can have on the peaceful resolution of conflicts between states and non-state actors such as armed liberation groups is substantially diminished by this dominant pro-state bias. The state-based composition of international institutions has negative implications for their ability to engage successfully with all the parties in a national conflict. Thus, these international institutions are increasingly becoming less relevant to peacemaking in the contemporary world in which conflict between states and armed entities 'predominate and proliferate' to a greater degree than conflicts between states. Both the Report of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change and the UN Secretary General's proposal entitled In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All failed to address this asymmetry between states and non state actors.
Since the current international system is an inter-state one, states playing the role of the mediator or facilitator tend to treat the state and non-state entities in an asymmetrical manner. This third-party state is itself a member of the existing inter-state system and thus has a vested interest in preserving it. While there may be exceptions to this general statement, the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord is a clear example. Besides her geopolitical interest, India treated the Sri Lankan state as an equal and entered into an agreement with her. The LTTE, though a protagonist in the conflict, was not a party to the Indo-Lanka Accord. Its exclusion resulted in failure to address the Tamil issue satisfactorily and ultimately the failure of India's peacemaking effort.
Proscription and anti-terrorist legislation
Before the commencement of talks in the current peace process, the LTTE insisted that the Sri Lankan government remove its legal ban against them. Although the proscription of the LTTE did not have any tangible impact on the organization, the LTTE wanted the ban removed because both parties should perceive themselves, and be perceived by others, as equals. The LTTE viewed the de-proscription as a visible sign of power symmetry between the two. The government has historically fought any recognition of equal status vigorously, but taking into consideration the military reality on the ground, its economic capacity and the arguments of the international community, the Sri Lankan government removed the ban before the commencement of talks.
Despite the fact that ban had been removed, the peace process was ongoing and the ceasefire in effect, the US government invited only the Sri Lankan government to attend the Washington donor conference of April 2003 that was meant to address post-conflict resettlement, rehabilitation and development. The LTTE, which was governing 70 per cent of the north east, the area mostly affected by the war, was not invited. The Sri Lankan government characterized this conference as a preparatory seminar for the main Tokyo donor conference in June that year. The LTTE was upset and pointed out that the Sri Lankan government's attendance in Washington was a breach of the parties' commitment to seek developmental aid as joint partners. The US government's rationale for not inviting the LTTE was not that the conference was limited to state representatives, but that the US anti-terrorism statute did not permit LTTE members to enter the US, because of their designation as a foreign terrorist organization. Yet if that were the case, the conference could have been held in a country without such a list.
The whole exercise was viewed by the LTTE as an attempt to destroy the power symmetry between the protagonists and added to growing mistrust between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. The LTTE's exclusion contributed to their dismay at the lack of progress in negotiations and the Sri Lankan government's failure to implement its obligations under the Memorandum of Understanding signed almost a year before. On 21 April 2003 the LTTE suspended its participation in the talks and decided to boycott the Tokyo conference. The LTTE's chief negotiator and political strategist Dr. Anton Balasingham observed, "As a non-state actor caught up in the intrigue-ridden network of the international state system, the LTTE was compelled to act to free itself from the overpowering forces of containment". By failing to engage with non-state entities, third-party states were also lessening their ability to persuade or become fair arbitrators of the conflict.
Anti-terrorism legislation is another example of how artificial and unhelpful asymmetry is created between states and non-state actors pursuing legitimate armed struggles. Anti-terrorism statutes address terrorist acts by foreign non-state actors, but not by state actors. Yet there is no moral or legal reason for state terrorism to be immune from any anti-terrorism statute. The provisions of the Additional Protocol I and II of the Geneva Conventions refer to the "party" to the conflict, not the state in conflict, and thus cover conduct of both state and non-state actors.
Thus the rationale for limiting anti-terrorist legislation to
non-state actors only is flawed. The unreasonableness of the
anti-terrorism statute is demonstrated by the case of Sri Lankan
government whose armed actions against the Tamils resulted in the
mass murder of Tamils and their burial in mass graves. According to
the UN Human Rights Commission, in the period from 1980 to 2000 Sri
Lanka was second only to Saddam Hussein's regime in the number of
outstanding cases of disappearances. Yet the officers of the Sri
Lankan military establishment were able to come to Hawaii where the
US Pacific Command is situated, whereas the LTTE's political and
economic advisors were unable to enter the US as 'members' of a
'foreign terrorist organization'.
Another example is the Sri Lankan government's refusal to
withdraw from high security zones in violation of the Memorandum of
Understanding. This is a clear violation of humanitarian laws which
only recognize the right to a military occupation of civilian
properties for an "imperative need". Humanitarian laws do not accept
forced occupation of civilian lands and homes for the sake of
maintaining the balance of military power. Given the three-year
ceasefire and the peace process, the occupation of civilian land by
the military in the northeast is contrary to humanitarian laws and
clearly unlawful, yet the international community does not condemn