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

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Selected Writings

Visvanathan Rudrakumaran

Power Symmetry is a Prerequisite for Successful Negotiations

Transcript of speech at a
Conference of the Royal Institute for International Affairs,
Chatham House, London. 15 October 98


In the last few years the international community has witnessed a number of advances in the peace process many parts of the world. There have been negotiated settlements between Eritrea and Ethiopia; and between the African National Congress and the Afrikaner government; and also the Dayton Peace Accord, and the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement.

Kosovo & Tamileelam:

Today, having witnessed the massacre and persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by the Serbian government, the international community has committed to the protection of the ethnic Albanians and to bringing about a negotiated resolution for the Kosovan conflict.

The situation of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo has numerous parallels with that of the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka:

The international community regards both Kosovo and the northeastern territories of Sri Lanka as integral parts of Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka, respectively.

Ethnic Albanians constitute a numerical minority in Yugoslavia as a whole but form a numerical majority in Kosovo, while the Tamils constitute numerical minority in Sri Lanka as a whole, but form a numerical majority in the Northeastern territories of Sri Lanka.

The autonomy enjoyed by the Kosovans was unilaterally stripped by the Serbian government in 1989 and, in a similar manner the constitutional protection agreed to by the numerical minority Tamils at the time of Sri Lankan independence from the United Kingdom was unilaterally stripped by the Sinhala majority in 1972. (The provision which was Article 29 of the Constitution drafted by Lord Soulbury at the time of Sri Lankan independence has been characterized, as a "sacred covenant" between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, by the United Kingdom's Privy Council.)

Failure of peaceful methods resulted in the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army in Kosovo. Similarly the failure of nonviolent methods gave birth to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a "National Liberation Movement" - as understood in international law.

The Serbian President Milosevic has sent 40,000 security troops to Kosovo, which use excessive and indiscriminate force to put down the political aspirations of the Kosovans. In Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumarathunga has deployed over 100,000 troops, which also employ excessive and indiscriminate use of force to put down the political aspirations of the Tamil people.

Further the Serbian President has used food as a weapon of war and has attempted to starve Kosovans. Similarly, the Sri Lankan President has employed food as a weapon of war and has attempted to starve the Tamils into submission.

The Serbian President has denied NGOs free access to Kosovo, while the Sri Lankan President has prohibited most NGOs access to the northeastern territories in Sri Lanka.

There are nearly 400 persons missing in Kosovo; while according to Amnesty International 600 people are missing since the occupation of the Northeastern territories of Sri Lanka by government troops.

According to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances Sri Lanka ranks second highest in the world, after Iraq, in its total number of recorded disappearances and Sri Lankan still ranks second highest in the world after Sudan for its number of unresolved disappearances.

The UN Security Council has reported that torture is prevalent in Kosovo, while the torture is routinely practiced by the Sri Lankan government forces on the Tamils as part of its policy of subjugation.

There are approximately 260,000 refugees and internally displaced people in Kosovo; while there are 1,000,000 (1 million) Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and internally displaced people in Sri Lanka due to persecution and the militarization of the area by the Sri Lankan government.

No mass graves have surfaced in Kosovo yet; while in Sri Lanka a Sri Lankan soldier has recently described in court a mass grave.

It is estimated that this mass grave, located in Chemmani, contains the remains of at least 400 Tamils arrested and then later killed by Sri Lankan government personnel.

The Serbian government has not yet banned journalists from Kosovo; the Sri Lankan government has denied journalists access to the northeastern territories and has further imposed tight censorship under the direction of military censor.

The Serbian government has branded the Kosovan Liberation Army as terrorists, while the Sri Lankan government refers to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as terrorists.


There are many similarities between the situations of the two conflicts, yet the international community's response to them has been markedly different:

First of all, a number of western powers and NATO have agreed to deploy force in order to persuade Serbia to seek a political solution in Kosovo; while Western countries provide the Sri Lankan government with arms and military training thus, in fact, supporting its military solution to the Tamil question.

The United Nations and NATO have threatened deployment of their forces to persuade the Serbians to withdraw their troops from Kosovo, while the LTTE's call for withdrawal of government troops from Tamil areas has fallen on deaf ears.

The UN and NATO have also threatened use of armed force to persuade the Serbians to allow food and medicine supplies to Kosovo, while nothing of the sort has been contemplated by the international community with respect to the food and medicine embargo imposed by the Sri Lankan government upon LTTE-administered areas.

The excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the Serbians has been characterized by Hon. Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary as " cold blooded murder"; but no one has voiced any such condemnation about the similar actions of the Sri Lankan troops against Tamil civilians which have occurred on a routine basis for many years.

The Kosovan situation has been characterized by the Prosecutor of the International Crimes Tribunal as an 'armed conflict' as defined by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia thereby distinguishing it from terrorist activities, while the situation in the Northeastern territories has been characterized as "terrorism".

The Kosovan claim for independence has not been rejected, but is held in abeyance for 3 years subject to the US government's search for a political solution within that period. However, the Tamil claim for self-determination - let alone that for secession- has been flatly rejected.

The dissimilar responses of the international community can be attributed to either the West's geopolitical and/or commercial interests.

It could also be attributed to Milosevic's failure to use a "political package" as another weapon in his arsenal to mislead the international community while actually pursuing a military solution. As Mr. Thirunavukarasu attorney at law from Sri Lanka pointed out, such a misleading political package was used by the Sri Lankan government in its policy termed "war for peace" and pursued by it since 1995.

The Government claimed a constitutional reform proposal granting some autonomy for the Tamils, which it has used to justify massive militarism directed against the Tamil community. Thus, the proposed constitutional package provided an anchor for massive militarism which has failed to achieve its objective of the subjugation of the Tamils and has now reached a phase where it has begun to dig its own grave.

The timing of the resumption of military action by President Kumarathunga that commenced in July 1995, and the release of the political package by her in August 1995, and the Sri Lankan government's failure and/ or refusal to formally present the political package to the LTTE thus far, clearly demonstrates that the political package is nothing but a political weapon that is supportive of the military weapons being used by the Sri Lankan government in its pursuit of a military solution to the Tamil question.

Also, the fact that while military action was commenced and pursued to date no meaningful effort has been made to present and pass a constitutional reform package in Parliament supports the claim that the political package is nothing but a canard to cover the military solution sought.

Further, the fact that even the original political reform package did not address the Tamil aspirations articulated in Thimpu - that the Sri Lankan Tamils be recognized as a distinct nationality; that the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka be recognized as the historical and traditional homeland of the Sri Lankan Tamils people; that the right of the Sri Lankan Tamils to self-determination be acknowledged; that the Plantation Tamils, though outside the Eelam formation, be restored full rights of citizenship and franchise - and the subsequent substantial weakening of it, provide corroborative evidence that the so-called political reform was used to justify the military subjugation of the Tamils in the eyes of the international community.

The Sri Lankan government's pursuit of a military solution has resulted in the deaths of more than 60,000 Tamils and the displacement of more than 1,000,000 refugees.

If these numbers are not sufficient to raise the conscience and moral abhorrence of the international community, then clearly the overflow of refugees into other countries shows that self-interest alone should encourage the involvement of the international community towards a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka which continues to heighten in intensity with time.


"Every war has a political solution," said King Hassan of Morocco. Enduring peace for the island only be will brought through a negotiated settlement that mutually satisfies both the Sinhala people and their government, and the Tamils.

But, for successful negotiation certain prerequisites must be met.

Conflict resolution experts have long held that power symmetry is the condition most necessary for mutually satisfying negotiations and the efficient attainment of optimal results. Kurt Lewin and Professor William Zartman noted that a balance of forces is necessary, if not sufficient, to guarantee successful negotiation. When power is roughly equal, negotiation takes place in a state of equilibrium and there is no apriori basis for one party to attempt to dominate the other. Power symmetry also creates an atmosphere of equality.

A difference in power invariably affects the manner in which negotiations proceed as well as their final outcome. The more powerful the parties are the better able they are to control the negotiation process and to obtain results more to their liking. In negotiations between a larger power and a smaller power the former tends to manipulate and exploit the process. In such a situation one side has power and the other side is left vulnerable.

In a situation where there is asymmetry of powers the intervention of a powerful outside party can alter the balance of power by using its resources in compelling the competing parties towards the negotiating table. In Bosnia, coercive diplomacy in the form of the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs brought the warring parties to the negotiating table and produced the Dayton Peace Accord. Similarly, external support for the smaller power will level the negotiating field. In the case of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation the United States involvement played a critical role in the balance of power.

Withdrawal of Sri Lankan troops from the occupied areas will reduce the asymmetrical relations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils and will contribute to a climate for successful negotiations between the parties.

Withdrawal of government troops from occupied areas as prelude to peace talks is neither a novel concept nor an aberration. The pledge made by Honorable Andre Presharma, President of Columbia, for the withdrawal of government troop from occupied areas when he was a member of the Opposition, and the subsequent endorsement of this pledge by the Colombian population upon his election is one example; and another example is the insistence of the United Nations for withdrawal of Serbian troops and special police from Kosovo illustrate the legitimacy of the call for withdrawal of government troops from the occupied areas as a prelude to negotiations.

Withdrawal of troops will not only reduce asymmetry of power and pave the way for negotiation, but such a move is also consistent with inevitability and will additionally provide peace and security to the Tamil people.

One of the rationales put forward by the Colombian President was that the occupied areas were under the control of the rebels before military occupation and more likely will also be left in the hands of the rebels upon conclusion of successful negotiations.

Thus, the above rationale and the fact that occupation by Government forces creates a hostile environment for negotiation and results in unnecessary loss of lives, coupled with the notion that peace and security of the region and that of the people can be better protected by an armed forces representing members of that ethnic community rather than one comprising of members of the alien community makes real sense in this context. Hence, peace and security in the Tamil homeland can be better maintained by the LTTE than by the Sinhala armed forces that are guilty of persecution of the Tamils.

The symmetry of power is not always manifested in the form of force and resources but also includes elements such as the legitimacy of the parties involved and the legitimacy of their positions. The reception of Mr. Gerry Adams and ethnic Albanian leaders at the White House by President Clinton was part of the overall process launched by the West to legitimize the smaller power parties in the respective conflicts in which they were involved.

Unfortunately, however, the international community's attitude towards the smaller power party in the Sri Lankan conflict runs counter to its practice in similar conflicts elsewhere. The international community's sale of arms and the training provided to Sri Lankan government troops only adds clout to the larger power group, thus encouraging its adherence to a rigid position and inhibiting the motivation for seeking a negotiated solution.

Similarly, the characterization of the LTTE as a "terrorist organization" � leaving aside for the moment the issue of a legal and moral basis which I believe does not exist � in terms of the negotiation process continues to perpetuate an asymmetrical relationship and injures the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

Legitimization of the LTTE, on the other hand, will not only pave the way for a symmetrical relationship between the competing parties, but will also establish beyond doubt the negotiating party which can be the genuine representative of the Tamils; and consequently has the capability of implementing the negotiated settlement when it is reached. One of the current problems in Kosovo, as observed by Honorable Richard Holbrooke, is the absence of an Albanian leadership, which can also negotiate on behalf of the Albanians. In the island of Sri Lanka, however, there is a legitimate Tamil leadership that is already in existence and its position needs to be fortified by the international community in the interest of real politick and peacemaking.

The legitimization of the smaller party's cause will also contribute to the symmetrical relationship between the two opponents. How one defines a problem is the beginning of the determination of what to do about it. The definition of the problem determines the policy.

The main reason for the failure of the Thimpu peace talks was that the Sri Lankan government refused to recognize the Tamils' right to self-determination.

The recent events in the international arena clearly strengthen the proposition that the right to self-determination is not limited to colonial situations, but is also applicable in the post-colonial context. Recently the Canadian Supreme Court unequivocally stated in its opinion pertaining to the secession of Quebec that the right to external form of self-determination exists in the non-colonial context. The Court also stated the following with respect to the recipient unit of the right to self-determination namely, the "people":

"It is clear that 'a people' may include only a portion of the population of an existing state. The right to self-determination has developed largely as a human right, and is generally used in documents that simultaneously contain references to 'nation' and 'state'. The juxtaposition of these terms is indicative that the reference to 'people' does not necessarily mean the entirety of a state's population. To restrict the definition of the term to the population of the existing states would render the granting of a right to self-determination largely duplicative, given the parallel emphasis within the majority of the source documents on the need to protect the territorial integrity of existing states, and would frustrate its remedial purpose."

It should also be observed here that the position taken by Mr. Suresh Manickavasagam with respect to the Tamils' right to self-determination in Canadian Proceedings in his case, which - was held prior to the Supreme Court opinion - was consistent with the advisory opinion.

Also important to observe here is the West's response to the Kosovan claim for independence that is an external form of self-determination. The ethnic Albanian claim for an external form of self-determination was not thrown out or rejected outright; rather it has been held in abeyance for three years in recognition of the fact that one of the warring parties will not stop fighting if its right to self-determination is denied.

In Sri Lanka, however, all that was asked by the Tamils was the recognition of their right to self-determination; which need not be exercised exclusively in the form of external self-determination.

It is the political obligation of the Sinhala political elite to inculcate a national consensus or at least a majority opinion among the Sinhala people with respect to the recognition of the Tamils' right to self-determination as a necessary prelude to successful negotiations.

The recognition of the Israeli right to exist by the PLO in 1988 created an impetus for the negotiation process between Israel and the PLO. While it is heartening to see evidence of such political courage in domestic Sri Lankan Non-governmental organizations, the acceptance of such an approach is glaringly absent in the major Sinhala political parties. What should be expected of the Sinhala political leadership at this juncture is the political courage to conduct a national discussion, which informs the Sinhala people that the recognition of the Tamils' right to self-determination is not a threat to their interests, but instead promotes peace and stability.

In this regard, the legitimization of the Tamils' right to self-determination by the international community will help the Sinhala political elite to marshal public support for the above proposition � which will also reduce the asymmetrical relationship between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils and contribute significantly towards a successful negotiated settlement.

Conclusion: If I may paraphrase Prime Minister Blair I would like to say that the 'hands of history rest on our shoulders.' The responsiveness of the international community to their plight � inspired by its conscience, sense of justice and righteousness, and the principle of consistency which demands equal treatment of similar situations in disparate places � is all that the victimized Tamils hope for at the moment.




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