This is an external evaluation view by Gunnar M. Sørbø, Chr. Michelsen Institute.

The Norwegian peace engagement: New challenges in a new world order

Norway has played a key role in peace processes since the 1990s. In this evaluation view, Gunnar M. Sørbø argues that recent developments in the international power situation, may pose challenges to Norway’s role in peace processes.

Writtten by Gunnar M. Sørbø, Chr. Michelsen Institute

In his book ‘Impotent Superpower – Potent Small Power’ (1989), Jan Egeland argued that a small, rich and popular country like Norway might be more effective in promoting peace and human rights than a superpower like the US or old colonial powers like the UK or France with their historical baggage and policies based on self-interest and dominance.

During the 1990s and the beginning of this century, experience showed this theory to be at least partly validated as Norway helped facilitate peace agreements in countries like Guatemala, Mali and Sudan. More recently, however, Norwegian peace mediation has come under increasing challenge.

First, there has been a broader power shift at the global level, with the emergence of developing powers more skeptical of Western models for resolving internal conflicts, based on notions of conflict resolution, human rights, good governance and power sharing.

Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (2002-2009) provide an instructive example. In the beginning, there was an unprecedented level of Western engagement, with Norway playing the role as sole facilitator selected by the government and the Tamil Tigers. However, when a new government came to power in 2005, there was a conscious dilution of the Western role and an increased reliance on Asian powers, particularly China, for military, diplomatic and economic support. Sri Lanka in effect became a test case for two competing models for ending civil wars: on the one hand, the so-called liberal peacebuilding model; and on the other hand, ideas based upon traditional notions of sovereignty, non-interference and the preservation of strong states with limited space for dissent.

Peace efforts have also been made more difficult by the increasing confrontation between Western countries and Russia. During the 1990s, Russia kept away from the Oslo process regarding Israel and Palestine, did not have much to say about the Dayton Agreement on Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995) and showed little interest in the conflicts on Cyprus, in Sudan, Sri Lanka or Guatemala. Since the war in Syria started in 2011, however, there has been a marked shift and the emergence of a more assertive Russia under Putin, which has limited the space for multilateral organizations as well as countries like Norway to engage in effective peace mediation in several parts of the world.

The situation is further compounded by developments in the US, where the Trump administration is not preoccupied with issues like human rights, democracy and patient peace work. This is bound to affect as well the relationship with Norway that has always been close during peace processes, like in Sudan or Sri Lanka, and probably in Colombia as well.

Second, the Norwegian approach has been based on an ‘ownership’ approach to peace efforts, since only the conflicting parties and their constituencies can ultimately resolve conflict. However, this model does have important limitations in contexts where a reform resistant state faces an intransigent rebel movement or there are key actors excluded from negotiations, like for example Muslims in Sri Lanka or the majority of political parties in Sudan. Domestic versions of peace may therefore turn out to be extremely exclusivist and illiberal. In the case of Sri Lanka, the problems were compounded by rapid changes in the character and composition of successive governments, each ‘owning’ different visions of peace and strategies for attaining it. Thus, the government that came to power in 2005 adopted a ‘war for peace’ strategy, tacitly supported by major powers, including India, China and the US. This brought an end to the civil war but with enormous suffering and casualties. In Colombia, it remains to be seen the extent to which the recent political changes after the election will affect the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC.

Third, Norwegian mediation has often occurred in conflicts between a state and a non-state rebel group and has involved a twin approach of even-handedness to both parties, combined with addressing the asymmetries inherent in a military struggle between a state and a non-state actor.

However, attempts to address asymmetry may easily lead to accusations of bias towards the non-state actor, which happened in Sri Lanka where Norway was accused of being pro-Tiger and pro-Tamil. In fact, Norway tried hard to be even-handed but the problem was that this approach became increasingly unsustainable when the Tamil Tigers were branded as a terrorist group, proscribed by all Western countries except Norway which became the only state intermediary. Post-9/11, we have seen in several other countries how governments have tried to categorize rebel movements as terrorist organizations, which makes it more difficult to start a peace process.

In Sri Lanka, the combination of an unsupportive international environment, a solitary mediator role and the absence of buffers left Norway increasingly exposed and isolated. In the end, it turned out that the ‘war for peace’ had more capacity and energy to transform the Sri Lankan conflict than peace negotiations did.

These factors and shifts suggest not the need to ‘give war a chance’, but to think more carefully about limitations and opportunities, including the balance between soft power and harder forms of intervention and when to apply them. The Norwegian approach may be effective in bringing actors to the table, but more powerful actors may often be needed to help bring about and implement a final agreement. More thought also needs to be given to building links with ‘group of friends’ initiatives or tailor-made coalitions as was the case in Sudan.

In the post-Cold War, uni-polar world, Norway was able to exploit its comparative advantage as a peace mediator with close ties to the US but sufficient distance to dampen fears of imperialism. Peace mediation is still essential in many countries and the Colombian case shows that the Norwegian approach, this time with Cuba as a key partner, can still be successful. However, in a more complex, multi-polar world, with the US as a most uncertain ally, the scope for, and legitimacy of the Norwegian approach may increasingly come under challenge. 

Published 20.08.2018
Last updated 20.08.2018