The ceasefire brokered by the Oslo diplomats is a practical document that seeks to learn from the specific Sri Lankan experience of the past, and it provides the best chance for peace yet.
The road to peace in Sri Lanka moved significantly forward on 7 February with the arrival of Norwegian deputy foreign affairs minister Vidar Helgesen to Colombo. Helgesen was at the helm of a peace delegation including Erik Soiheim and Kjirste Tromsdal, two top Norwegian diplomats. The product of their hectic shuttle diplomacy between Europe and Asia was a tangible document, a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) outlining conditions and rules for theTeasefire that was ultimately signed by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The primary purpose of this draft MOU was to bring about a permanent and durable ceasefire to replace the parallel unilateral ones in place earlier. Both the LTTE and Government had adhered to unilaterally declared cessations of hostility separately, extended on a monthly basis and applicable to land-based activity alone. The Norwegian focus was to harmonise the situation and evolve a structured and comprehensive ceasefire covering all types of land-, sea- and air-based activity in addition to related issues.
The draft was formulated after active consultation with both parties. Although the ‘form’ belonged to Norway, the ‘content’ was that of the Sri Lankan government and LTTE. The Norwegians had dutifully incorporated all suggestions, proposals and amendments put forward by both sides in the document after the expected intense debate and discussion. Proposals that emanated during discussions with President Kumaratunga and former Foreign Affairs minister Lakshman Kadirgamar were also relied upon.
The Norwegians also drew extensively from input provided by officials and diplomats from countries committed to a lasting peace in Sri Lanka. India, in particular, was regularly consulted and informed of the progress achieved.
The primary purpose of the seven-page mou is to ensure a stable and structured ceasefire. The initial idea of a time-bound ceasefire for one year was shelved, giving way to an open-ended arrangement. Both sides are expected to set in motion certain measures from the day of the ceasefire. The measures would be conducted on a reciprocal, staggered basis with one condition being predicated on implementation of the other.
These conditions and deadlines are not expected to be problematic as both sides have already commenced unilateral efforts in implementing some of them already. Two noteworthy examples are the requirement of lifting the economic embargo on the government side and the opening of the A-9 highway or Jaffna-Kandy road by the LTTE.
The ceasefire is applicable to land-, sea- and airbased activity. To summarise generally, the armed forces cannot launch assault operations, shelling, aerial and naval bombardment, cordon and search operations, arbitrary arrests, and so on. The LTTE cannot conduct operations such as frontal assaults, suicide strikes or explosive attacks in the entire island, including Colombo. They are also debarred from actions such as political assassinations. Likewise, the government may not allow its deep penetration units known as ‘Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols’ to target LTTE leaders.
The application of the ceasefire in the air and sea will help the Tamil fisherfolk greatly. These unfortunate people have been deprived of their traditional livelihood because of the government’s concern with protecting its naval installations, vessels and aircraft from sea-based Tamil Tiger attacks. With the ceasefire coming into force, the rationale for the fishing ban is gone. The LTTE is specifically forbidden to conduct over or undersea strikes at marine or airborne targets.
A vital aspect of the mou is the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), a mechanism designed to monitor the ceasefire and, more importantly, to prevent its unexpected collapse. A crucial feature of SLMM is its capacity to function as a dispute-solving reconciliatory mechanism. The panel’s emphasis would not be that of detecting violations, accepting violation complaints or repriatanding offenders. Rather, the focus would be conflict resolution – as complaints are received or violations detected, the committee will delve into the matter and arrive at amicable settlements. The Monitoring commission is mandated with authority to take prompt and “immediate action on complaints made by either party, to inquire into and assist in the settlement of any dispute”. The idea is to resolve prickly issues at the lowest possible level without allowing them to escalate.
It will not be possible for either party to take offence over an issue and break off from the ceasefire easily and quickly. A minimum of 14 days notice of such intention and reasons must be given to the panel. Following the guidelines of the MOU, the monitors will inquire into the reasons and attempt as far as possible to address grievances, thereby preventing a collapse. At least in theory, breakdowns over trivial issues, as happened in the past, are now less likely.
Geography of Peace
The monitoring panel will be broken up into six separate de-centralised units for functional purposes. All the units, described as ‘advisory’, will be integrated and coordinated by a central regulating committee whose head will report to the Norwegian government. A Norwegian national with extensive knowledge and experience of Sri Lanka will head the monitoring mission. The mission will have offices in Colombo and Mallavi in the Tiger-controlled territory. The main theatre of conflict, the Northeastern Province, comprises eight administrative districts with Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitheevu in the = North and Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Amparai (or Diga- — madulla as it is known now in the East). The ceasefire envisages these eight districts being reduced to six for monitoring purposes. In the East, the Batticaloa and Amparai districts will be treated as one composite district, which is at least in part a reflection of geographic considerations. Hence, there would only be two districts in the East: Trincomalee and Batticaloa / Amparai.
In the North, the Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi districts will be regarded as one unit. Both districts are under near-total control of the LTTE, which reduces scope for friction. The North will have four districts for purposes of ceasefire monitoring, namely Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi /Mullaitheevu. In all six districts, the truce-monitoring advisory committees will be comprised of domestic and foreign representatives.
Each district panel will have two representatives each from the government and LTTE sides. These 24 persons are expected to be eminent persons capable of discharging their duties without fear or favour. The ceasefire MOU does not name the government and LTTE representatives. Both sides are free to choose their nominees subject to approval by the other side. Additionally, there will be international representatives heading the committees. It is likely that there will be only a single foreign representative in most districts.
The ceasefire envisages clearly demarcated zones of control by both parties, which would in effect freeze the current status quo of territorial control. There will be a “buffer zone” of at least 600 metres separating the respective forward defence lines. Movement of troops and cadres into this ‘no-man’s-land’ is allowed up to a maximum of 100 metres from their respective lines of control. By the terms of the agreement, both sides will, however, exercise restraint even if this dividing line is crossed by a wide margin. Both sides have the right to fire upon the other side, however, if the violation is deemed serious enough to anticipate danger.
There was, incidentally, no demand by the urrE to get security forces to move back to earlier pre-war positions or withdraw completely from the Tamil areas. The troops, however, will be required to relocate only gradually to facilitate normalcy. Thus security personnel stationed in places of worship, schools, community centres and halls, manufacturing plants, government offices and buildings, etc. will have to vacate these premises as civilian life begins to flourish. They will be relocated to accredited military venues, but not necessarily withdrawn from the area.
The controls exercised by the armed forces and LTTE over civilians are expected to be reduced – if not relaxed totally – as normal life returns. Codes of conduct will be introduced for both sides to follow in order to maximise civilian safeguards and rights. The present draft bars both sides from engaging in hostile acts against the civilian population. Some acts specified are ‘torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment’.
The MOU contains regulations that guarantee freedom of movement of cadres and troops from either side into the other area of control. An important requirement in this regard is prior permission. The LTTE will allow unarmed security personnel free movement in its sphere of control and the Tigers are required to open the A-9 highway within 30 days of the ceasefire coming into force and to enable unarmed troops right of passage within 60 days. This is expected to be a boon for soldiers proceeding to and from their homes on leave. Till now, this is a problem that has presented a major logistical problem for the armed forces, causing much anxiety among the soldiers. Similarly, LTTE cadres as individual combatants — unarmed and out of uniform — are to be allowed to visit friends and relatives living in areas of control of the other party, on a restricted basis.
There is also no restriction on recruitment, or on the acquisition of arms by either side. The agreement allows both sides to recruit exclusively for the purpose of maintaining force strength and status as they were before 24 December, which was when the current parallel ceasefire came into effect. Thus, both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE are free to recruit and train. The Tigers have stated that they will recruit volunteers over 17 years of age for administrative and political purposes.
As far as arms acquisition is concerned, there are two viewpoints. One is that the navy be allowed to engage in ‘defensive action’ by intercepting suspicious vessels that could be transporting arms to the LTTE. The general provision in the draft about the Sri Lankan armed forces having the right to perform their legitimate task of “safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Sri Lanka is invoked in this connection. Colombo is emphasing this and the need to restrict fishing rights. The LTTE naturally opposes this and wants unrestricted marine movement during the ceasefire. The fact is that with or without specific clauses, both sides will be engaged in enhancing their arsenals. Attempting to dwell too much on this aspect can distort the chief objectives of the ceasefire and convert it merely into a coast-patrolling exercises. The hope is that both sides will be realistic enough to accept the inevitable. A stable ceasefire could alter the climate so drastically that such recourse to arms in the future may be negated. Additionally, the emphasis on reconstruction and development will affect priorities.