Could Norway have stopped the war in Sri Lanka?

- There was little Norway could do to influence the forces that put an end to the peace process and led to the start of a new war, says Gunnar Sørbø from the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).

Sources for the evaluation

The evaluation team has had full access to the archives of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), and to everyone who was involved in the peace process on the Norwegian side.

Unfortunately, the team did not have access to all the key persons in Sri Lanka. Many of the most central leaders of the LTTE are either dead or in prison. The team was also not given access to to interview the Sri Lankan government. To compensate for the lack of these primary sources, the team has used secondary sources such as media, research (also their own research), and unpublished reports.

Furthermore, international and national actors, experts and observers have been interviewed.

Follow the seminar directly from Litteraturhuset online

Sørbø has led the work on the first report to evaluate the Norwegian peace effort in Sri Lanka. The evaluation has been performed by CMI in Bergen and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and deals with the Norwegian peace effort in Sri Lanka between 1997 and 2009.

The assignment – commissioned by the Evaluation Department in Norad – has been to interpret and discuss the choices made by Norway as facilitator in the peace process, based on available information and knowledge (see fact box).

Several factors prevented a peaceful settlement

According to the evaluation, many factors worked against a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Sri Lanka, and Norway alone cannot be held responsible for the failure of the peace negotiations.

- The peace process was wrecked by a lack of will to compromise on both sides, by specific traits in the country’s political culture and by a series of unforeseeable events, says Sørbø.

According to the evaluation report, there was a large gap between that which the Sri Lankan government could tolerate and the demands of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Changes in the international climate (e.g. the war on terror) also played a part, because it made it difficult for most Western countries to deal with the LTTE.

The absence of a strategic «road map»

About evaluations and Norad

The Evaluation Department, located in Norad, is responsible for independently initiating and implementing evaluations of activities financed over the Norwegian aid budget, and for communicating the results to decision-makers and the general public. The Department has a separate mandate for evaluating the Norwegian Development Aid Administration and reports to the Director-General, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Evaluation is a systematic collection and analysis of data in order to assess the strengths and weaknesses of programs, policies, and organizations to improve their effectiveness. The evaluations are being carried out by external professionals, who are independent of the control of those who are involved in planning or implementing the interventions that are being evaluated. All evaluations shall be made publically available.

Learn more: What is evaluation? 

The split in the LTTE and its loss of international support shifted the military balance of power in favour of the Sri Lankan government. The new (from 2005) Sri Lankan government managed to mobilize support from China and other Asian countries, and later decided to go for an military solution with the approval from among others China.

According to the evaluation report, Norway was not, as a soft power mediator, in a position to counteract or change these factors. In the absence of a strategic «road map» or a robust network of international actors, the peace process failed to lock the parties into concessions and commitments. According to the report, this can to some extent be attributed to the limitations of the Norway’s ownership model, which provided both parties with the space to avoid core political issues, while continuing to pursue incompatible goals.

Progress did not lead to change

Several Norwegian contributions to the peace process are recognised in the evaluation. This is particularly true of the Ceasefire Agreement (February 2002), the Oslo communiqué (December 2002), where the parties agreed to explore a federal solution, and the efforts to bring the parties together again after the tsunami of 2004.

However, the evaluation claims that these elements of progress did little to transform the underlying structural obstacles to conflict resolution, and they were also in conflict with the changes in national and international conditions mentioned above.

- Pawn in a political game

The evaluation states that Norway as facilitator should have made a greater effort to avoid being used as a pawn in a political game. For instance, Norway should have placed stronger conditions on its involvement, such as the right to engage with all parties deemed relevant, and preserve public communications channels.

- Norway was caught up in a rather passive role as facilitator, and should have had a clearer framework and attached firm conditions to its engagement from the beginning. Norway should also have seen the importance of a more inclusive peace process, particularly since even the president of Sri Lanka was sidelined for a time, says Sørbø.

According to the evaluation report, Norway should have withdrawn from the process as early as 2006, when the talks in Geneva failed.

- Norway should have withdrawn from a non-existent peace process when the war started again in 2006, also because Norway was used as a pawn in a political game, according to Sørbø.

Instead, Norway lost its role only after the Sri Lankan government had defeated the LTTE in May 2009.

Norway’s many roles

Norway had several roles in Sri Lanka, not all of them easy to combine. Norway’s role was that of diplomatic broker, arbiter of the ceasefire agreement and actor in humanitarian and aid projects. The experience from the Norwegian efforts in Sri Lanka shows that when multiple roles are combined there is a need to develop a more robust strategic framework which optimizes synergies and complementarities between them.

More generally, the evaluation poses the question of whether the Norwegian mediators had sufficient knowledge, resources and networks to handle the complexity resulting from the different roles Norway played in the peace process, and whether enough was done to avoid a situation of isolation from other international actors.

The work on the evaluation report

According to Sørbø, the work has been demanding, but also very interesting.

- The greatest problem was that the Sri Lankan authorities did not want to talk to us, and denied us visas. We have tried to compensate in various ways, but this probably means that the voices most critical of Norway’s role in Sri Lanka are underrepresented in the study.

Sørbø believes that the evaluation report will be well received by those who follow the developments in Sri Lanka and are interested in Norwegian peace mediation, because it provides new information, reflection and new analyses. The report also seeks to draw more general lessons. The hope is that they will be considered by those working in the field, both in Norway and internationally.

- We try to be fair in our criticism of the Norwegian mediators, who made a great effort, and we hope that we can have a constructive debate in Norway without anyone retreating to trench warfare. In Sri Lanka the report will probably be used for various attacks, on Norway, and probably also on us as authors, but I know that there are also many who will read it with open eyes and great interest, Sørbø says.

Published 11.11.2011
Last updated 16.02.2015