adventure is over - Now it must face Reality
1 February 2002
Third party mediation is now an established part of
the academic discipline of conflict resolution or conflict
management as it is now called. Much has been written on it but,
apart from the theory, it is very much a part of the world’s current
And for Sri Lanka, the practice holds far greater lessons than the
For anyone living in the UK it cannot be otherwise, for we have
lived through 22 months of a difficult third party mediation
exercise, which ended dramatically on Good Friday, 10 April 1998.
We know third party mediation at first-hand and in the immediate
Four third party mediations in intra-state wars have been concluded
They are: the Israel/Arab-Palestinian conflict in which the USA
mediated; the Bosnia conflict in which the USA mediated under UN
auspices; the Philippines/Bamgsamoro conflict in which the
Organisation of Islamic Conference mediated; the Northern Ireland
conflict in which the USA mediated through the on-the-spot presence
of ex-Senator George Mitchell.
The Israeli -Arab/Palestinian Accords.
Crucially, the third party mediator in this case was
not a disinterested or neutral party at all, but the chief supporter
and guarantor of one of the protagonists. The USA is the open and
declared supporter of Israel and the principal guarantor of Israel’s
continued existence. In this stand, the USA resolutely opposed the
entire Arab world, which sought the extermination of Israel. The
basic policy of the USA is, and continues to be, the peaceful
co-existence of Israel and its Arab neighbours. That policy
accommodated the long term interests of the Arab states as well.
US mediation proceeded in two stages.
First, the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt in which (for
the first time since the founding of Israel in 1948) an Arab state
(Egypt) acknowledged Israel’s right to a permanent and secure
existence within its territory. The second stage of the mediation --
the Washington Accord between Israel and the PLO -- was based on the
two-state solution which had been anathema to both parties for 45
Israel, under the courageous leadership of Itzhak Rabin, did an 180
degree U-turn in acknowledging that the surest guarantee of its
security and safety was not merely the strength of its own arms but
the existence of a stable, democratic Palestinian "authority" (the
euphemism for a future state) which could rein in Arab extremists of
The PLO, for its part, abandoned its basic goal of exterminating
Israel and recovering its forcibly expropriated homes and land, as a
quid pro quo for the eventual establishment of a sovereign
Palestinian State having the recognition of the international
community, including Israel.
The third party mediator succeeded in painstakingly leading the
protagonists to understanding and accepting the basic, bedrock
realities of their environment, a recognition which had been utterly
repugnant to both sides in the heat of the conflict.
The mediator could not change the realities, despite being the
closest and most committed ally of one of the protagonists (Israel);
all it could do was to lead both parties to a recognition of them.
The basic, bedrock realities of the environment were the invincible
strength of the Israeli nation and the equally invincible strength
of the Palestinian nation.
Neither side could exterminate the other or even subjugate the
There was no alternative to co-existence as equals other than
continuous war, which is not a rational option. The lesson of this
third party mediation experience is that the mediator could see the
basic bedrock realities more clearly than either of the protagonists
and could lead them to a recognition of those realities and their
inevitable consequences from which the desired goal of peace could
The Bosnian Conflict and the Dayton Accord
The artificial post-World War II state of Yugoslavia
dissolved into its five constituent national states under the
impetus of rising nationalism within each of them. That impetus
continued within Bosnia-Herzegovina which accommodated Serb, Croat
and Muslim cultural populations. They were ethnically one (Southern
Slav), spoke the same language (Serbo-Croat) but were separated by
religion and culture.
Even that shallow divide was enough to set off nationalist,
separatist aspirations especially among the Bosnian Serbs, who were
soon supported by their Serbian brethren in neighbouring Serbia. The
attempt to contain these tensions within the fragile new state of
Bosnia-Herzegovina proved too much for it. With remarkable speed, a
war of national secession broke out, cascading refugees into all the
countries of Europe. UN intervention followed the failure of the
European Union to do anything much and finally the USA -- after much
footdragging -- accepted the UN mandate to mediate.
This resulted in the Dayton Accord, arrived at after a powerful US
mediatory effort spearheaded by Richard Holbrooke, one of the "heavy
hitters" of the US State Department. The Dayton Accord seeks to
preserve the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, at the
same time, satisfy the nationalist aspirations of the Bosnian Serbs
for a state of their own.
The result is a fudge which is unlikely to survive for long.
The Serb-populated enclaves of Bosnia are now part of the Republika
Srpska, which has all the attributes of an independent sovereign
state (including an army and currency of its own) save international
recognition; Croat- and Muslim-populated areas have a state of their
own with similar attributes.
Overarching both is a federal government with a rotating presidency
which represents Bosnia internationally.
The Dayton Accord introduces a novel phenomenon on the international
stage -- a state which has lost the monopoly of armed might within
it, the monopoly which is the quintessential attribute of the modern
This has resulted from the inescapable necessity of recognising the
irreversible reality of the situation, namely, that the right of the
Bosnian Serbs to self-determination in the area of their domicile
and to organise their security therein cannot be overthrown by
military force and must find expression if the people of Bosnia are
to have peace.
Once again the lesson is the same -- the third-party mediator,
however powerful (the only superpower in this case) cannot alter the
basic bedrock reality of the situation, a reality which has had to
be reflected in the settlement whatever violence it does to the
classical form of the modern state.
Institutional structures, however sacred, have had to be transformed
to accommodate irreversible reality in order to secure peace. The
territorial integrity of Bosnia has been preserved notionally by a
fig-leaf of constitutional structures, while the reality is the
self-determination of national entities.
The Philippines/Bangsamoro Settlement.
The war of Bangsamoro Independence in The
Philippines lasted 28 years -- the second longest war in Asia this
century (the longest is the still-continuing war of tribal
independence in Myanmar now in its 51st year).
The third party mediation itself lasted 20 years from 1976 to 1996.
The third-party mediator in this case was The Organisation of
Islamic Conference (OIC), all of whose members had supported the
Moro independence movement in Mindanao throughout the conflict.
So, once again the mediator was partisan, being a direct supporter
of one of the protagonists.
The government of The Philippines accepted the OIC as the third
party because of the latter’s commitment to peace and its influence
over its protégé, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The whole process was possible only because of the government’s
eventual conviction that Moro nationalism could not be stamped out
by military force.
The settlement attempts, as in Bosnia, to preserve the territorial
integrity of The Philippines while accommodating the right of the
Moro nationalists to self-determination in the area of their
It does so by recognising an Autonomous Region in Mindanao
comprising 14 provinces and 9 cities.
The Autonomous Region is to have an Interim Council in which the
Moro nationalists have a majority and the Chairman of which is to be
Nur Misuari, the leader of the MNLF.
The MNLF merges some of its armed forces in the armed forces and
police of the government, but they remain within the Autonomous
Region with their government commanders acting in agreement with the
Chairman of the Interim Council.
This arrangement was possible in practical terms because there are
no ethnic or language differences between the two sides: as in
Bosnia the cleavage is only religious and cultural.
Most significant of all is the introduction of the principle of
parallel consent -- this means that any law passed by the Philippine
Congress will apply in the Autonomous Region only if, and when, it
is also passed by the Interim Council of the Region.
The settlement provides, too, for the holding of a plebiscite
(referendum) in the Autonomous Region in 1998, to decide whether
these arrangements should continue or whether the Autonomous Region
should secede from The Philippines and become an independent state.
The lesson of this third party mediation too is the same as that in
the two former cases -- the irreversible reality of the situation
dictated the nature of the settlement regardless of the violence
done to the classical conception of the state as a sovereign,
The ineradicable challenger is accommodated by being accorded
self-rule with a right to eventual secession.
This was the inevitable consequence of the military impossibility of
overwhelming and dissipating the armed challenge to the state.
Third party mediation only helped the protagonists to recognise the
basic bedrock realities of the situation and to develop a settlement
in accordance with those realities.
The existence, and indefinite continuance, of the armed nationalist
secessionist challenge -- grounded in its own territory -- was the
basic, bedrock reality that both the mediator and the government had
to acknowledge and accommodate.
The Northern Ireland Settlement.
The Northern Ireland scenario is more complicated
than a straightforward challenge to the state by a nationalist,
Here the majority of the population does not wish to secede. The
minority that does, seeks not independence but a joinder of the
province of Northern Ireland to the neighbouring state, The Republic
of Ireland, so that the island of Ireland could be a single,
The third party mediator in this case was provided by the United
States government in the person of ex-Senator George Mitchell who
handled with consummate skill and near-superhuman patience the
difficult quadri-partite negotiation involving the UK government,
the government of The Irish Republic, the Protestant Unionist
parties opposed to secession and representing the majority of the
population, and, finally, the Roman Catholic nationalist (or
Republican) parties seeking secession and joinder with The Republic.
The basic bedrock reality of the situation was that the UK
government could not overwhelm and dissipate by military force the
Irish Republican Army (IRA), which is the armed protagonist of Irish
nationalism in Northern Ireland.
28 years of unrelenting military effort proved this conclusively.
The settlement provides for the voluntary decommissioning (an
euphemism for surrender) of weapons after new legislative and
executive institutions satisfying the aspirations of all sides have
been set up and proved functional.
In the meantime, until such decommissioning is completed -- which
may be sooner or later or never -- the state co-exists with its
armed challenger, thus losing the sole monopoly of armed might
within its territory.
In the legislative sphere, the settlement introduces the concept and
practice of parallel consent for the first time within the UK.
In the new 108-member legislative assembly for Northern Ireland,
decisions require a majority of votes from each bloc -- unionist and
nationalist -- to be passed.
The requirement of a double majority effectively vests a right of
veto in each bloc.
The two governments also have to make significant constitutional
The Irish Republic, which has a written constitution, will delete
sections 2 and 3 thereof which advance a claim by The Republic to
the whole island of Ireland.
The UK government, which does not have a written constitution, will
legislate for the holding of a referendum in the province of
Northern Ireland every 7 years on the issue of secession from the
The right of a majority in the province to secede from the state is
thus legislatively recognised for the first time.
"Cross-Border" executive bodies are to be established -- jointly, by
The Irish Republic and the new Northern Ireland Assembly -- to
administer a limited range of subjects on an islandwide basis.
They will function under the joint supervision of The Irish Republic
and the Northern Ireland Assembly and will be the first experience
of administrative activity on an all-island basis.
The vexed issues of the British military presence in the province
and the allegedly partisan policing by the Royal Ulster constabulary
(which is said to favour the Protestant Unionist majority) are to be
reviewed by an independent commission with international
It is hoped that this will result in new, mutually acceptable
security arrangements which would enable the progressive reduction
of British military forces in the province.
These terms of the settlement were approved overwhelmingly at
referenda held in The Irish Republic and the province of Northern
Ireland on 22nd May ’98. Their implementation is now all set to
The experience of this most recent third party mediation underlines
the principal lesson of the three earlier cases -- that third party
mediation is unable to alter in any way the basic bedrock realities
of the situation.
The parties embroiled in the conflict had stubbornly refused to
recognise these realities and had indulged the forlorn hope that
somehow their preferred outcome would emerge.
All the third party mediator could do was to lead the parties
involved to a clear recognition of the irreversible realities, which
in this case were the unrelenting determination of the nationalists
for an united, un-partitioned Ireland on the one hand and the
imperative necessity of acting in compliance with the declared
wishes of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland on the
The settlement accommodates these realities by institutional
arrangements that are bound to present extreme difficulties in
implementation, and which do violence to the established concepts of
the supremacy of the state within its territory.
The British state co-exists on a settled basis with its armed
challenger within its territory and in that territory itself
sovereignity is shared with a neighbouring state i.e., The Republic
That is a price that has to be paid to secure peace in the context
of the irreversible realities of this particular situation.
The Sri Lankan context.
A striking feature of governance in Sri Lanka has
been the absence of a firm grasp of reality by every government that
has held power since independence. Even the strongest government,
that of J.R.Jayawardene, which had an overwhelming parliamentary
majority, unequalled before or since, manifested this failing.
It could not comprehend the nature of the national conflict that was
brewing; it took refuge in self-delusion in regarding the problem as
a "law and order" issue concerning an outbreak of terrorism; it
believed seriously that the LTTE could be forced to disarm in 72
hours as a result of Indian pressure; it was quite convinced that a
constitutional change within the state would assuage Tamil
nationalism and wean it away from its declared determination to
secure a separate state for itself in the area it regarded as its
Every one of these beliefs is now known to have been an egregious
The policies based on these beliefs have collapsed despite the huge
parliamentary majority of the government that held these beliefs.
They collapsed because they were based on fiction and not on fact.
The present ruling coalition has a negligible parliamentary majority
of its own and is kept in power by an heterogenous assortment of
Tamil parties which are not members of the coalition. In
parliamentary terms, it is the weakest government Sri Lanka has had
However, it is the equal of the J.R. Jayawardene government in its
failure to grasp manifest reality.
It is unable to understand the nature, vigour and rapid advance of
Tamil nationalism both within the island and within the powerful
international Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. It suffers from a pathetic
misapprehension of the military realities of the war in which it is
engaged. It has not the remotest suspicion that the longer the war
lasts the stronger will its adversary become, which is the universal
experience in all other theatres of such conflict without exception.
It believes the opposite of the world’s reality in holding the view
that the LTTE would be weakened with the passage of time. And
despite being one of the world’s poorest countries (with a per
capita g.n.p. of US $790 per annum) it believes it can win the war
where far richer countries have failed in exactly similar wars
against adversaries a small fraction of the size and power of the
The UK with a per capita g.n.p. per annum of US $18,900 failed to
overwhelm the IRA which is less than one-thirtieth the LTTE’s size.
The entire basis of the "War for Peace" is a belief in absurdities
far removed from the realm of reality. It is inevitable that
policies based on such egregious follies must collapse and end in
Already, the Sri Lanka armed forces have suffered massive reversals.
The present campaign alone (in the northern Vanni) has incurred
losses of 1,600 killed including 53 officers, 6,000 wounded and
around 18,000 deserters in the course of a single year.
The Sri Lanka army is not a battle-hardened army steeled to
absorbing such heavy losses and capable of replenishing them
routinely. Worse still, it fields a ridiculously inadequate ratio of
10 troops to 1 LTTE guerilla whereas elsewhere ratios of an 100 to 1
have failed after far longer periods of conflict.
The military adventure of the Sri Lanka government either has
collapsed already or is on the verge of collapse. The time has come
now to face reality.
The realities which third party mediation has to accommodate. The
most basic reality of the situation is that the state’s forces are
unable to overwhelm the LTTE and dissipate its armed challenge to
Ten years of direct conflict between the two sides have proved that
The second reality is that the longer the war lasts, the stronger
the LTTE becomes, despite all the losses it sustains. This too has
been demonstrated conclusively during the long period of the
This is not unique to the Sri Lankan case for it has happened in all
other theatres of similar conflict.
The long war has fomented the growth of Tamil nationalism in the
north-east province of Sri Lanka, in the international Sri Lankan
Tamil diaspora and in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
It could develop in the plantation areas of Sri Lanka as well in due
course when its present leadership is gathered in by The Grim Reaper
and the succeeding younger leadership sees a role on the larger
Tamil nationalist stage.
Tamil nationalism, and its declared determination to secure for the
Tamil nation on the island a separate sovereign state in the area of
its domicile, cannot be extirpated militarily and has to be a
cardinal factor in any settlement.
The Tamil nation in Sri Lanka has a specific area of domicile,
already legislatively recognised as the "area of traditional, but
not exclusive, Tamil habitation" which all Tamil political parties,
militant and constitutional, within Parliament and without, regard
as its homeland. This is a manifest and irreversible reality.
The Tamil people resident in the north-east province voted
overwhelmingly at the General Election of 1977 (the last General
Election before the outbreak of war) for a separate, independent,
sovereign state of their own in their homeland.
That public declaration of the Tamil national consensus was
reiterated unanimously by all Tamil political parties at the Thimpu
talks in 1984.
It has been repeated by the LTTE’s leadership from time to time and,
last, early this year.
Peace requires the negotiation of a viable relationship between the
two states to which these realities give rise upon the island.
The implications of third party mediation.
Third party mediation is possible only if both
parties to the conflict agree to it in principle and jointly request
Other issues such as who the mediator should be, the venue of the
mediation, the practical arrangements for it etc., depend on and
follow the first indispensable necessity of a joint request.
That first step presents a formidable challenge for the state and a
much less daunting challenge for the LTTE. The state has created
this difficulty for itself by investing all its resources --
political, material, psychological and moral -- on a military
victory. It has designated the war (however incongruously) as a "War
for Peace". Its current military campaign is code-named the Sinhala
equivalent of "Certain Victory". The country’s only general -- who
is a full member of the Cabinet of Ministers in another capacity --
has declared openly that the "War is 96% over". Never once in the
last 14 years of the conflict has any government given even the
barest hint that military victory is beyond its reach.
It is that entrenched (and oft-repeated) assertion that will be
overthrown by a request for mediation by a third party. Such a
request requires of the state a complete volte face on the central
premise on which the war has been waged, carrying with it the
inescapable consequence that the single all-island state inherited
from the imperial power is at an end.
The Sri Lanka government and the Sinhala people are no strangers to
such complete somersaults of policy -- every major policy of the
first 30 years of government since independence under the
Westminster type of parliamentary executive has been, and is being,
totally reversed under Presidential rule.
Even so, the psychological and political costs of this particular
reversal of policy are of a different order altogether.
The Sinhala people and their government have to confront the reality
that they have not the power to overwhelm an adversary one-eighth
their size, yet that is the manifest reality of the present
In addition, the future portends a military failure on a far graver
scale with consequences more damaging than can now be foreseen. It
is by no means an unique predicament, for far stronger states than
Sri Lanka have had to face the very same combination of manifest
present reality and impending future disaster. It is that which led
to superpower withdrawals from Vietnam and Afghanistan and the more
recent Russian withdrawal from Chechnya.
That is precisely where the Sri Lankan state is now. It can swallow
the bitter pill of third party mediation or continue in a fool’s
paradise, risking a more grievous outcome.