Norway’s Minister for International Development Erik Solheim reads out the joint statement after two days of talks between a Government delegation and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in Geneva last Thursday. The two sides were present for this media event. Photo: Sudath Silva
Geneva talks: The inside story
In a hall at the Chateau de Bossey, 22 kilometres from Geneva, heavily secured by plain clothed Swiss security and intelligence personnel, he declared “this meeting is about the strengthening of the Ceasefire Agreement.” He said there is a new President, a new team and a new concept. He expressed the hope that a “new confidence can be built” but cautioned “it will be slow at the beginning.”
This is the first time the two sides were facing each other. Talks then between the United National Front Government of Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE broke down in April 2003. Even more significant, the event in the cooler conclave near Lake Geneva was a welcome diversion for both sides that were clearly edging towards an all-out war. At least for the moment, though both sides are getting more prepared for an outbreak of hostilities, such an eventuality has now become distant. Under intense international pressure, they have buckled down to talk whilst preparing more for war.
With little or no experience in talking peace or waging war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have succeeded, at least with this new start, in formulating a new approach for the talks.
This is not only by hand picking his Government’s delegation, subjecting them to a virtual “information overload” or getting them briefed and documents made available on all conceivable issues the LTTE may raise. More importantly, it was through the setting up of an Operations Centre on the ground floor at Temple Trees. That helped him keep in touch personally with what went on in Geneva.
If he was not in the Operations Room last Wednesday and Thursday, he had slipped into his bedroom upstairs for a short rest. Even then, his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga shunted up and down giving him up to the minute briefings. How useful the arrangements became can be seen by one event. When the first day’s events ended, President Rajapaksa was told of moves by the LTTE delegation to stage a walkout if the Government delegation did not adopt a conciliatory stance.
Mr. Rajapaksa was ss. He asked the delegation to stand firm and not to wilt to such threats. “If they want to walk out, it is up to them. All we have to do is tell the world our position very clearly,” he declared. The message was promptly conveyed. The next day the delegation reported back that the LTTE was less belligerent.
There were some humorous moments too. At one point, an official at the Operations Room asked an official in Geneva on the telephone “How is Nimal Siripala de Silva. Is he sleeping?” The answer was prompt. “No, no. He is not. To the contrary he is well focused and doing a very great job.” Some clapped. At one point, news arrived that another member of the delegation was fast asleep and had to be woken up by Minister Ferial Ashraff. There was laughter all round.
On their part, the Norwegian facilitators had restricted media access to the conference venue. They did not want leaks from either side to dominate coverage and thus have an adverse bearing on the talks. They had also sought assurances from the Government and the LTTE that only the Norwegian facilitator would release information to the media unless they are advised to do so. Having agreed to this arrangement, the Sri Lanka delegation was upset the LTTE had breached the understanding.
Delegation leader Nimal Siripala de Silva protested that the opening statement of Anton Balasingham had appeared in full in the Tamilnet website. Mr. Balasingham agreed nothing would be divulged thereafter until Thursday evening when the talks ended. This was how even Mr. de Silva’s seven page opening statement was released on Wednesday itself.
Last Tuesday, soon after the two delegations arrived in Celigny, Norwegian facilitators began consultations. This was over modalities for the next day’s talks including seating arrangements. At first, Mr. de Silva insisted that as leader of the Sri Lanka delegation he should make the opening statement. However, thereafter, as a matter of “courtesy” he agreed to permit Anton Balasingham to do so.
He followed thereafter with his speech. Seating arrangements were also finalised during these consultations. If Wednesday’s talks were dominated by the opening statements and deliberations on the Ceasefire Agreement itself, on Thursday there were wider issues. Main among them was the issue of child conscription by the LTTE, the role of paramilitary groups, Government and LTTE allegations of killings and abductions. The Sunday Times (Situation Report) today gives you an account of how these issues played during two days of talks.
On Thursday when curtains came down on the talks, the task of formulating a joint statement (SEE BOX STORY ON THIS PAGE) fell on Norwegian facilitators. This is where the Sri Lanka delegation was put to their strongest test. Anton Balasingham had made two strong demands – (1) the Government of Sri Lanka should agree in the joint statement to uphold article 1.8 in the Ceasefire Agreement. This provision relates to dismantling paramilitary groups, or (2) guarantee in the joint statement that it would ensure that paramilitary groups would be dismantled. The Government delegation rejected both demands. It was on the grounds that the Government had on no occasion had any links with paramilitary groups or condoned their presence.
Instead, the Sri Lanka delegation offered a differently worded assurance. It said “The Government of Sri Lanka is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than the Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.” This was accepted.
Members of the Government delegation explained that this clause was only a re-iteration of Government policy whether a CFA existed or not. They held the view that no sovereign Government in any country would condone an armed group or person carrying unauthorised weapons or conducting armed operations. Moreover, the re-iteration of this Government position also encompasses the LTTE. The inclusion of this clause is in marked contrast to the hype and hyperbole by the LTTE weeks ahead of the talks that it would specifically demand an assurance from the Government for the dismantling of paramilitary groups.
However, there was a contradiction on the government’s position with regard to another provision in the joint statement. The Government had asserted that it is “committed to respecting and upholding the Ceasefire Agreement……” This is in marked contrast to Mr. de Silva’s opening speech in which he said the Government considered the CFA as “prejudicial to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Sri Lanka.”
Of course, one of Sri Lanka’s most eminent lawyers H.L. de Silva declared last Wednesday that notwithstanding the negative aspects, the Government of Sri Lanka had accepted the Ceasefire Agreement but not its legal recognition. On the basis of such acceptance he wanted the two sides to engage in the task of exploring ways and means of strengthening and implementing it.
There were tense moments in Geneva on Thursday evening when Norwegians found it difficult to reconcile the positions of the two sides for the joint statement. At one point, even the next round of talks were in doubt with the two sides only expressing willingness to meet at a future date. The two sides were told they could make their own statements or allow Norway to make one on their behalf. But Erik Solheim had swung it around. He later told a member of the Government delegation this was the first time they (a Government team) had used the negotiating table to the fullest.
Here is an account of the highlights on how the talks went on during the two days:
Anton Balasingham complained that the Government of Sri Lanka delegation was large in number and had come well prepared. The Government had been reluctant to make available to the LTTE the names of their delegation members. This was despite the LTTE making its delegation known weeks earlier. He said apart from what he called this imbalance, he was not happy at the nature of the discussion. He said the talks should focus only on the Ceasefire Agreement and this was the mandate given to his delegation by their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. He said the speech made by the Government delegation was vague and accused the Norwegian facilitators of not formulating a more focused agenda.
He said the LTTE was only concentrating on the CFA. Paramilitary groups are operating. As for issues with regard to recruitment, there is no provision in the CFA to debar it. We have taken thousands of children under our care to look after them. The agenda is the implementation of the CFA.
Mr. Solheim explained that the statements were made in a general context. The LTTE was right when they said the CFA had not forbidden recruitment. He said the issue of child recruitment could be taken up at another stage since implementation of the CFA was now the focal point.
Mr Balasingham also said that if the Government was not prepared to disarm paramilitary units there will be no other sessions of talks. He said the LTTE delegation has come with a specific request to disarm these elements. Even the donor co-chairs have made this request. He said if the Government does not want war, they should disarm these groups.
Mr. de Silva reminded that President Rajapaksa had assured that if these persons are caught, they would be brought under the due process of the law. He said the LTTE should accept and be satisfied with this honest assurance. He said the Government should be given a chance without predetermining its intentions.
Mr. Balasingham accused Douglas Devananda’s EPDP of being both a political party and a paramilitary group. He said the IGP should look into camps operated by them. He said Mr. Devananda was then engaged in killings in (Madras) in Tamil Nadu. He said the EPDP should function as a political party. If this happened, the LTTE will not attack him. He also accused the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF), a breakaway group of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOT). He charged that their leader Paranthan Rajah was protected by the Indian intelligence agency RAW. He had now moved to Bangalore. He alleged that Rajah sent his cadres to Polonnaruwa to carry out killings. EPDP cadres were now being trained together with Karuna faction cadres. He said the ENDLF, EPDP and Karuna were jointly functioning as one group.
Countering Mr. Balasingham’s arguments, Mr. de Silva said the LTTE must accept the genuine assurance given by President Rajapaksa. He said the Government would give an undertaking that no armed groups will operate in their controlled areas. He said the Government would study the facts made available by Mr. Balasingham in this regard.
This brought a response from Mr. Balasingham. He said the LTTE accepted the Government’s assurance. He said he would convey that to his leader, Mr. Prabhakaran. He added that if the Government takes positive action, the Tamil people would appreciate it.
Rohitha Bogollagama said de-escalation and normalisation were important to the Government. He said Mr. Balasingham was empathic about the civilian aspects. He asked what about the military. He said he appreciated Mr. Balasingham’s frankness. He had been candid on a number of issues. Mr. Balasingham responded by saying de-escalation and normalisation are inter connected. He said parties causing the violence must be decommissioned. He said that would automatically lead towards normalisation.
When Mrs. Ferial Ashraff rose to speak, Mr. Balasingham told her to speak in Tamil. He said Mr. Thamilselvan would not otherwise understand. But there was no translator. Mr. Solheim said she could speak in English and LTTE translator George (Velupillai Kumaru Pancharatnam) gave the Tamil version. She said one of the most disturbing facts of the war was the fact that children were being drawn in. Mr. Balasingham wanted to know whether she was talking about Muslim and Tamil children. She replied she was speaking about children.
Mr. Thamilselvan said Mrs. Ashraff spoke as a mother and he would prefer to speak as a father. Being a person familiar with the East, Mrs. Ashraff most regrettably had not taken into account the total situation in the area two years ago. Karuna was not behaving in a manner acceptable to the LTTE leadership over child recruitment. That was one of the factors that led to his expulsion.
Mrs. Ashraff intervened to point out that during talks in Berlin and also in Oslo the LTTE had agreed to work on a plan to exclude children. I quoted a UNICEF report that dealt with a situation brought about by the LTTE, she said. The Government is concerned about children and that was why President Rajapaksa set up a Ministry for Children. Lawyer Gomin Dayasiri intervened to say the Government had a right to protect children. He said international law binds the LTTE to protect children. Thamilselvan thanked her but shifted to making references to children in the south who were being subjected to manual labour and other abuse.
Mr. Balasingham said international law was a vast area. He said that the Americans were recruiting under the age of 16. So did the British. At the age of 18 they join the LTTE. We have hundreds of cases where children join us and parents seek their release. But they are all over 18 years. Mr. Solheim was to point out that recruitment was not covered by the CFA. He said both sides are free to recruit and added that age of recruitment is not mentioned in the CFA. The SLMM has viewed recruitment of children as a violation. This figured in talks in 2003 too.
Mr. Balasingham admitted that there had been underage recruitment of children by the LTTE but added it has now stopped. Added Mr. Thamilselvan: “We do not have large amount of funds to care for these children”. He said on behalf of the Tamil people and the LTTE he would urge President Rajapaksa to take into serious consideration to disarm paramilitary groups without delay. He said Mr. Prabhakaran has made this a high priority.
Before the talks, Anton Balasingham was known to have told many members of the Tamil media that the Sri Lanka delegation would receive their biggest “orientation” course from him in Geneva. This was after media reports that the Sri Lanka delegation was being put through detailed briefings.