Erik Solheim was a key negotiator representing the Norwegian Government in seeking a peaceful outcome to the Sri Lankan war. Wikipedia describes Mr Solheim as being ‘one of the most recognizable figures in the peace negotiations…’. He was a key figure in brokering the 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE Tamil Tiger leaders; and convinced the LTTE to agree to unconditional peace talks in 2006. He is now the Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC).  As the Commonwealth Heads of State meet in Sri Lanka it seemed timely to ask Mr Solheim for his views. There can be no moving forward, after all, without an acknowledgement of the past. 

Q:  Given that you worked so hard to bring peace to Sri Lanka it must follow that you are now distressed by the plight of the Tamils there who do not seem able to live peacefully. Looking back do you think that anything could have been done differently during the war years?

A: With the benefit of hindsight a lot could have been handled differently during the peace process. I will cover that in my upcoming book, written jointly with Vidar Helgesen and Mark Salter. There were two main reasons why the peace process after many successes ultimately did not bring peace. The lack of cooperation within the Singhala elite, i.e. between UNP and SLFP. And the fact that the LTTE-leadership while accepting federalism in principle did not dare embrace this as the solution.The Tamil struggle for legitimate rights is not over. It will continue as long as there is no Tamil self-rule in the northeast and as long as Tamils are treated as second class citizens in their own land. The struggle must be fought with nonviolent methods. The international community should support this. 

Q: In the latter part of the war Tamils were waiting for a ‘big ship’ to arrive which was thought would rescue them. You have spoken about a plan that was afoot to send a big ship to the north or east of Sri Lanka. Could this possibly be what the war victims are referring to? If so, what went wrong?

A: When the outcome of the armed conflict was clear to everyone, we tried to convince Prabhakaran to accept an organized end to the war. In this scenario the LTTE would hand in weapons while all cadres would be registered by the UN or one of the main powers, possibly India or the US. In such a plan a ship would probably have been used. It would have been very difficult to harm anyone after procedures involving global powers.This never went from idea to reality because LTTE rejected this idea. It would have saved tens of thousands of lives. It is important to add that LTTE’s lack of regard for the life of the civilians as well as of the cadres, can not in any way be used as an excuse for the deliberate shelling of civilians by Sri Lankan armed forces. Nor can it explain why many Tamils were killed after handing themselves over to the Sri Lankan forces, think of Nadesen, Puleedevan or the son of Prabhakaran as examples. And obviously – use of rape is a war crime, which cannot been excused pointing to LTTE intransigence. 

Q:  Tamils who fled Sri Lanka tell me that they have no faith in the UN’s ability to intervene in conflict situations nor do they believe that others countries are interested in humanitarian issues. I think this is an important angle to explore given that intra-country wars are escalating. What do you think ought to be the entry level of intervention by other countries and the UN?

A: Secretary general Ban has taken the unprecedented step to apologize for the behaviour of the UN in the last phase of the war. That will not bring dead people back to life, but it is an important step in the process of dealing with war crimes as well as preparing UN better for future conflicts.I encourage everyone to read the Petrie report, commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon and written by Charles Petrie. The report is chillingly clear on what happened in Sri Lanka. It shows how the UN was bullied around by the Sri Lanka government.

Q: Tamil asylum seekers are constantly being turned away by other countries. They suffer in their own country and in other countries. What do you think the future holds for them?

A: All countries must make a much stronger effort to really look into these applications on a case by case basis. There are many Tamils (as well as also some Singhalese and Muslims) who are under threat in Sri Lanka and therefore should be given asylum abroad.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives based in Sri Lanka has released a report titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Harassed Civil Society’ and while its’ findings about the instability of civilians’ lives may be widely known already the report stands out because of the specific threats identified.

The first threat is listed as being ‘Harassment and intimidation’ and, basically, it details how the government views the democratic activity of civilians who seek human rights as being evidence of subversive activity. This seems to constitute reason enough for the harassment and intimidation which then ensues. As recent as August 2013 a group of environmental protesters in Weliweriya were shot at. Journalists who exercise freedom of speech live in danger.

The second threat, ‘Interference in CSO (civil society organisations) activies’, is about how civil society activists find it difficult to carry out their work without the express permission of the Presidential Task Force. Various red tape measures exist in an attempt to carry out extensive surveillance of CSO activities. This makes it hard for CSOs to advocate and employ strategies that would deal with infringements of civilian rights. This threat further highlights how recourse to the legal system is not an easily available option because the judiciary is not seen as being independent.

Lastly, the threat of ‘Constraints on CSOs ability to work with international partners’ demonstrates how CSOs can be left with very little financial means because of the country’s mistrust of foreign aid. Accepting foreign aid from some countries is seen as being the equivalent of dancing with the enemy unless the money is given by a country that does not rate human rights as being a concern.

The report concludes by stating that the Commonwealth ought to be raising concerns over these threats given CHOGM’s  commitment to human rights: “If the Commonwealth is indeed committed to supporting a vibrant and free civil society as a fundamental value, one of the most obvious positive outcomes from this CHOGM should be a serious commitment by the Sri Lankan Government to improve the enabling environment for civil society.”

Samuel Johnson, the eminent English writer, said that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. Applying this train of thought to the Commonwealth meeting that is taking place in Sri Lanka next week one wonders on which side patriotism rests and who is the scoundrel? Is patriotism a legitimate exercise that can only be practised by those upon whom the official status of statehood has been bestowed upon?

If so, then are the compatriots of that country the scoundrels? Can freedom fighters such as the Tamil Tigers (before their demise) be counted as patriots because they were fighting for a separate state under the banner of patriotism? If so, were they the scoundrels? When an internationally recognised body like the UN or the Commonwealth (which represent countries) takes sides in the battle of patriotism are they scoundrels too?

Does international relations come down to who the scoundrels really are? Is the battle cry of patriotism merely a Trojan Horse for the capitalists to hold onto vast acres of land? Is the measure of patriotism, then, acreage of land?

Beautiful beaches, great food and warm weather. That is the shiny version sold to tourists to lure them to Sri Lanka. Scratch beneath the surface of your picture postcard and it is a sad and tangled mess of broken lives, lost dreams and a brittle future for the Tamils still living there. The reality of the situation is starkly set out in the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Report . To summarise the report in tone and substance, there can be no peace in Sri Lanka without an acknowledgement of the injustices committed by the Government during the war and which continue to be perpetuated. While all this may be common knowledge what is especially distressing is the increasing authoritarian nature of the Sri Lankan government which openly defies calls by human rights organisations secure in the knowledge that there is growing acceptance by other countries of its’ supposed legitimate authority to govern.