Thanks to the facilitators

When President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced in late 1998 that the Norwegian government would be acting in a third party capacity to help resolve Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict, a crucial building block in the search for permanent peace fell into place. Given the level of mistrust that existed between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), especially after the abortive attempts at peace of 1990-91 and 1994-95, there was an indisputable need for a third party that could be trusted and would be capable of communicating effectively with both sides.

In the following years, the role of the Norwegian facilitators in Sri Lanka's peace process has steadily increased. In mid-March, at the latest round of peace talks, held in Japan, the government and the LTTE agreed to strengthen the mandate of the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). This was to safeguard the ceasefire agreement on the ground from clashes between the two forces, which have often proved fatal. The SLMM's presence has helped to defuse tensions that might otherwise build up. By risking the lives of its members, and by making impartial rulings, the SLMM has won the respect of the two parties.

But, fortunately or unfortunately, the Norwegian-led international monitors have not been more active in identifying those responsible for violations and penalising them. On the one hand, there is a desire that guilty parties be apprehended and punished. On the other hand, the peace process needs to move forward. The mandate of the monitors has so far been a limited one. It does not entitle the SLMM to act as a court of law, making judgments and handing down punishments. This is because the ceasefire signed by the government and the LTTE is a voluntary agreement. There is no external authority that can enforce it.

Despite this notable weakness, the ceasefire has held for over a year and yielded positive benefits to the island's people. This is why the vast majority of Sri Lankans strongly support it, as indicated by numerous public opinion polls. At the latest round of talks, the LTTE's expressed willingness to have all-party local government elections in the north and east indicated a forward movement in the democratisation process. The overall success of the ceasefire agreement is evidence that the Norwegians have played an invaluable role.

In a recent address to the Presidential Task Force on Ethnic Affairs and National Integration that she appointed in 2000, President Kumaratunga said that Norway had been selected because it was a small country and could not unilaterally impose its will on Sri Lanka. The memory of Indian third party intervention in the 1980s and its consequences may have influenced her. But there are likely two other reasons why Norway was selected: its motivation, and its capacity to give constructive assistance.

When considering Norway's peace-making efforts in different parts of the world, it is difficult to identify a powerful political or economic rationale for the country's interventions. Guatemala in Central America, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in West Asia, Haiti in the Caribbean, and Sudan in Africa – or Sri Lanka, for that matter – are all located in regions within the domain of other, much bigger powers. Norway cannot hope to compete with such powers for either political power or economic gain. Many of the countries Norway assists are among the most impoverished in the world. These countries will require years, if not decades, to get on their feet again, even if they do resolve their conflicts.

Sometimes people empathise with the suffering of others if they have suffered similarly themselves. It was only in 1905 that Norway achieved its independence. The Norwegian experience of being under colonial domination for five centuries, and the exploitation and impoverishment suffered at the hands of imperial Denmark and Sweden, have instilled in Norwegians a historical memory. Accompanying this memory is a desire to help others achieve prosperity and liberation in their own lives.

There is also a certain temperance and sobriety in their culture that leads Norwegians away from ostentatious displays of wealth or good fortune. For a Sri Lankan, it is interesting to note that Norwegian government ministers are not allowed to make personal use of official vehicles. The office of Vidar Helgessen, the deputy foreign minister who spends much of his time on the Sri Lankan peace process, is sparely furnished and similar to those of his underlings. There is a notable absence of the arrogance of power that Sri Lankans and people of many other societies display. Instead, Norwegian officials display a temperament suitable for facilitation.

It is also interesting that even when Norwegian society was fairly impoverished by European standards, communities collected funds to send missionaries abroad to teach what, to Christians, was the "good news". Unlike the missionaries of many other countries who accompanied conquering soldiers, Norwegian missionaries travelled without governmental or military backing. The outgoing Norwegian ambassador, Jon Westborg, grew up in Assam amongst Bodo tribes as the son of missionary parents.

Today, however, religion is not a primary motivating factor in Norwegian assistance abroad. Like most of Western Europe, Christianity has become secularised in Norway. But its most important teaching, of universalism, remains. On the streets of Oslo today, young schoolchildren can be seen canvassing the general public for assistance to various charitable causes. Norwegian society tends to look at human welfare from a universal perspective, not a nation-centric one. In relation to its national income, Norway's developmental assistance to poor countries is one of the highest in the world.

Westborg's contribution
The connection between Norway's lengthy history of developmental assistance to Sri Lanka and its present contribution to the peace process is epitomised in the outgoing ambassador, Jon Westborg. Prior to becoming the Norwegian envoy, he served as the Norwegian Save the Children Fund's representative in Sri Lanka for many years, including several based in the impoverished southern area of Hambantota. Undoubtedly, Westborg's experiences in promoting development at the grassroots levels helped him to develop a nuanced understanding of Sri Lankan society.

A notable strength of Westborg's service was his acute awareness of the sensitivities of Sri Lanka's ethnic communities. This was coupled with his political insight into the need for people's participation in the peace process. He solicited suggestions from civic organisations, and urged them to point out the shortcomings of the peace process. He encouraged civil society to make itself heard by the government and the LTTE, which allowed the facilitators to encourage the two parties to respond to concerns.

At a farewell dinner for Westborg, organised on behalf of the Peace Support Group, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, identified the full extent of the ambassador's contribution to the development of good governance in Sri Lanka. He referred to Norwegian support for election monitoring by citizens groups. He also mentioned the disagreements that some civil society organisations had with some of the Norwegian strategies and policies. But the important point is that cooperation and mutual understanding continued despite occasional difficulties.

It is to the great credit of the Norwegian facilitators that they have been more open to and nurturing of civil society groups than either the government or the LTTE. As the link person in Colombo, Westborg demonstrated that Norway's facilitation was primarily motivated by a desire for lasting peace in Sri Lanka. When he leaves Sri Lanka he will have the satisfaction of going at a time when lasting peace, which seemed unattainable barely a year and a half ago, is well within reach, and most people are already enjoying its fruits.

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