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The Sri Lankan Peace Process: Looking Beyond Geneva

Sukanya Podder was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.
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  • March 06, 2006

    While much analysis has gone into the recently held talks at Geneva on February 22 and 23, 2006, the consensus lies in the recognition that the talks were an important beginning to make a political solution possible to this intractable conflict. At Geneva the two sides had taken divergent positions prior to the talks, with the government desiring an amendment of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the LTTE seeking better implementation of the same. However, in what appears as an accommodating stance from both sides, the LTTE has committed itself to taking "all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no acts of violence against the security forces and police." Colombo on its part will "take all necessary measures in accordance with the CFA to ensure that no armed group or person other than the government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations."

    These commitments were made by the two sides over and above their basic resolve to uphold the ceasefire. Hence, while the Rajapakse government was keen on extricating itself from the shackles of the ceasefire prior to the talks, it finds itself recommitted to the same document that it has declared unconstitutional since it was signed by the then PM Ranil Wickremsinghe.

    The final joint statement by Eric Solheim suggests that the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) will report on implementation of the agreements reached at Geneva. But this goes against the spirit of the Presidential Policy statement of November 2005, which sought to reshape or replace the SLMM with a more open and transparent monitoring machinery. Amendments have not been officially made to the CFA although the government delegation described the Geneva commitments as amendments prompting a LTTE threat to abandon further dialogue. Thus post Geneva the CFA continues to be the key document holding the peace in place, indicating that for now the LTTE seems to have cornered a better deal.

    Against this backdrop the next round of talks slated for April 19-21, 2006 at Geneva seems poised for a major confrontation, and it is the implementation of the recent Geneva commitments that holds the key to how the process will shape itself. Efforts are already underway to prepare for the next round of talks and reveal a growing recognition of the need to address the often-overlooked humanitarian dimensions of the ethnic conflict.

    Last week the government held the first preparatory meeting attended by representatives from its allies - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Despite the fact that the JVP and the JHU had signed pre-poll pacts with President Rajapakse amounting to a near overhaul of the Norwegian-brokered peace process, it seems that there exists a consensus in favour of engaging the Tigers. Hence, although they were critical of the Geneva talks they are unlikely to jeopardize the process of dialogue.

    The LTTE would like to address issues like fishing rights of civilians in the northeast and High Security Zones (HSZs) in the next round of talks. The question of HSZs is a sensitive one and has been placed on the backburner since the Hakone talks in March 2003. It has relevance for the freedom of movement enjoyed by the Tamils in the northeast, and also has implications for refugee settlements. Given that the HSZs in the Jaffna peninsula houses vital military installations like the Palaly airport and the Kankesanthurai harbour, dismantling the HSZs is going to be a tricky issue.

    The government on its part is likely to draw attention to human rights abuses by the Tigers. The just concluded round of talks did dwell on child recruitment by the LTTE and the paramilitary and armed groups. In fact, the issue of LTTE child soldiers is likely to be an important one given that the UN Secretary General's Report on Children and Armed Conflict (July 2005), which lists the LTTE as a violator of the legal ban on recruiting under-18s. Besides, the Report marks the genesis of a comprehensive monitoring and reporting mechanism that is expected to pre-empt measures like sanctions and travel bans on listed parties. Interestingly, on February 7, 2006, the Secretary General has appointed the noted Sri Lankan human rights and legal expert Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy as his Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Hence, the issue will come to the fore of the debate on human rights violations.

    Several other issues will soon have to be addressed by the government. These pertain to the LTTE's airstrip and aircraft, the decommissioning of their arms and disbanding of their suicide squad, and most significantly the illegal operation of LTTE vessels in Sri Lankan territorial waters. These have consequences for India and it would be to Indian benefit if the two sides address these issues in the near future.

    The intervening period provides much scope for consolidating or breaking the current thaw. For now it is wait and watch. It needs to be seen how the government proposes to address the issue of disarming armed groups, given that Karuna has declared his resolve to continue resisting the LTTE. The Tigers on their part are required to minimize attacks on government forces and seek a cleaner image as being committed to dialogue.

    The next round of talks thus seems poised for some major diplomatic manouvres, and holds the key to whether the Sri Lankan peace process will be effective in engendering conflict transformation and in mitigating decades of civil and ethnic violence.