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#1945, 20 February 2006
Sri Lanka: Significance of Geneva Talks
N Manoharan
Senior Fellow, IPCS


It is exactly four years after the coming into force of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on 22 February 2002 that the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have agreed to sit together for talks at Geneva; ironically the agenda is restricted to "improve the implementation of the CFA". The talks, however, are significant in two aspects: One, the fact that both parties are coming to the negotiating table after a long time. Two, the Geneva talks could form the foreword to the second edition of peace talks discontinued since March 2003.

The decision to meet after a three-year deadlock shows that both sides have reached a threshold of tolerance to the manner in which the CFA has been observed. The key issue before the facilitators, therefore, is to stabilize the CFA by ending its violations. The government calls it "meaningful implementation", while the LTTE terms it "proper implementation". Under the scope of "meaningfulness" Colombo would demand that the LTTE stops attacking the security forces, cease targeted assassinations of intelligence personnel and political figures, and end its preparations for war in the guise of "political work". For this purpose, the government might insist on modifications in the CFA to "meet the changed circumstances". The LTTE, on the other hand, has categorically rejected any change in the existing Agreement, but wishes to implement it in a "proper manner". The Tigers are more concerned with para 1.8 of the CFA which deals with disarmament of the Tamil paramilitary groups. Their other concerns include presence of 'High Security Zones', and "harassment" of civilians by the security forces. The negotiations are expected to be tough as both sides would try to insist on what is not acceptable to the other. Though the move to include a Muslim representative in the negotiating team is laudable, the overall inexperience of the government team (consisting of ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Rohitha Bogogallama and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle) is a cause for concern. Any number of workshops, briefing and support committees will not help when it comes to actual negotiations. The President could, therefore, have included at least one member from the former government negotiating team in the government delegation.

Skeptics would argue that the agenda for the forthcoming talks in Geneva are "too narrow", which is not going to catalyze, in any way, the negotiations on a final settlement. This could be true if one seeks a 'cause and effect' relationship between the negotiations and a final settlement. However, if the ceasefire talks succeed, it would undoubtedly act as a good confidence building measure between the two parties, who perceive each other with deep suspicion. When the CFA was drafted its main objectives were to bring an 'end to the hostilities, to improve the living conditions of the people, and through this establish a positive atmosphere for final settlement.' The previous six rounds of negotiations (2002 - 2003) failed precisely due to the failure of the CFA to achieve its stated objectives. In other words, whether or not both sides would feel comfortable enough to negotiate the central issues in future depends on how CFA is observed after 23 February 2006. Much attention is paid to ending hostilities or reducing violence, but not on improving the living conditions of the people in the war affected area, which should be given more prominence in the upcoming talks. There is certainly hope for permanent peace if the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government display sincerity towards seeking these objectives.

The violence in the northeast, ever since the agreement on having talks was reached, has fallen marginally, but not substantially. This clearly shows that violence is being perpetrated by deliberate choice and not by accident. Colombo and Killinochi should build on this marginal achievement and try to negotiate a total elimination of ceasefire violations. The situation prevailing on the ground before and during the talks is vital for any successful outcome. During negotiations both parties should consider increasing the powers and enlarging the scope of the ceasefire Monitoring Mission. A violation-free CFA, an empowered Monitoring Mission and committed actors on the ground are the basic elements for creating a positive atmosphere for future talks on the larger issues.

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