Back to 2002

February 2002 was the month of a miracle. A war that had seemed unstoppable was suddenly halted with the signing of the Norwegian-facilitated Ceasefire Agreement by the government and LTTE. The security checkpoints covering the country, particularly the northeast, were dismantled. Thousands of sightseers from the south flocked into previously out-of-bound regions, and thousands more flooded southwards to transact business in Colombo. But by January 2006, the situation had threatened to reverse itself completely, as violence again turned the northeast into a virtual battleground. This was the context in which the Geneva talks of 22-23 February 2006 took place.

When the media conference at the conclusion of the two-day Geneva session was delayed for three hours, speculation was rife  that the government and LTTE had been unable to reach an agreement. Norwegian facilitator Erik Solheim had already warned of the need not to ratchet up expectations, because trust was low between the new team of government negotiators and the LTTE.

Indeed, the odds were clearly stacked against success. Government and LTTE representatives had not met in direct talks for three years. The Colombo delegation was new to peace talks; in the run-up to Geneva, its ministerial component had undergone a crash-course in negotiations. The lack of trust was not simply that of strangers, but of two sides who had directly or indirectly contributed to the loss of over 150 lives in the previous two months. Both showed up to the talks with extremely large support teams, attempting to bolster their individual strengths.

But when the two delegations, accompanied by the Norwegian facilitators, eventually arrived at the media session, the delay turned out to have been for a positive reason: to secure agreement. Best of all, they had agreed to meet again within two months, with the aim of reviewing and progressing the peace process at that time. In addition, the two sides had agreed to respect and uphold the February 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), and to ensure a cessation of the violence that had continuously eroded its credibility over the previous four years.

Tough talks
Those who participated in the talks say the negotiations were full of tough – but usefully honest – talk from both sides. This was particularly beneficial to a government delegation that spanned the spectrum of Sinhalese opinion, from those who had previously taken up nationalist Sinhalese positions, to those of more liberal disposition. The government's opening statement clearly reflected the nationalist Sinhalese view, arguing that the CFA was unconstitutional. The LTTE delegation responded  that the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, in its verdict on the joint-tsunami mechanism that allowed international aid groups into rebel-held areas, had already accepted the CFA's legality.

In the end, both the government and the LTTE agreed to uphold the Ceasefire Agreement. The liberal element within the government delegation clearly would have pushed this decision; but it is to the credit of the nationalist contingent that they chose continuity in the peace process, rather than risk a sharp break that might have left the country without a ceasefire at all. This resulted in the removal of a major stumbling block to peace – President Mahinda Rajapakse's electoral pacts with the Sinhalese nationalist JVP and JHU, which had called for the abrogation of the CFA.

Both sides gained as a result of the two-day meet, albeit a very short time to address the problems that have cropped up over three years without talks. Both the government and LTTE were able to present their list of grievances against the other, as well as to put forward their own concerns. Each was able to achieve agreement on the two most important issues that had separated them, as well as to score other minor face-saving victories.

Mutual victory
In Geneva, the LTTE's position was that the government needed first to commit itself to the 2002 CFA. While that stance appears to have prevailed, the government's acceptance of it does not mean that the agreement cannot be amended as per the government's insistence. Indeed, the CFA contains provisions for its own amendment. Should the government wish to seek such changes, it would be allowed to do so only within the procedures laid down in the agreement.

But the biggest victory for the government was not only that it was able to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table for the first time since March 2003, but that it has now kept them there until at least the next round of talks, in April. The government was also successful in convincing the LTTE to back down from its insistence that the break-away rebel group of former LTTE commander 'Karuna' be described as a 'paramilitary' organisation. Instead, there was reference made to restrictions that would be placed on "armed groups".

What will count to the country and its people, however, is not who gained a face-saving victory or suffered a verbal defeat. What will matter is that the Ceasefire Agreement is respected and upheld in both word and deed, and that the violence that has threatened to plunge the country back into war is ended forever. This will be the acid test of the success of the Geneva talks. The agreement reached puts the responsibility for the continued peace on the shoulders of both the government and the LTTE.

In their opening statement, the Swiss government hosts had urged that human rights be a basic part of the new peace process, and that Sri Lanka find its political solution as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country. The integration of these values has been necessary since February 2002, but that has not taken place; this time around, it must. In addition, civil-society groups that have been overly concerned with preserving the relations between the government and LTTE need to give more attention to the interests of the people. All involved can learn from past mistakes and experiences. The new beginning was positive in Geneva, but now it must be monitored carefully and seen through to a conclusion that will work for all Sri Lankans.

~ Jehan Perera is a contributing editor to the magazine.

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