I was privileged last month to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual gathering of those engaged in mediation and conflict resolution. I had been invited, along with Mr Sumanthiran, to debate on whether it was correct to talk to extremists. The concept paper referred in some detail to recent developments in Nigeria and Afghanistan, but we were in fact the only participants in the debate from a country which had recently been in grave danger from extremists. We were able however to benefit during the Forum in general from informed inputs from several delegates from countries now suffering from extremism, such as Nigeria and Syria and Yemen.
Our own debate was chaired by Tim Sebastian, and though it was generally accepted that I came off well, I told him afterwards that I was glad my Hard Talk interview had been not with him, but with Stephen Sackur. Interestingly, that interview still raises hackles amongst those who seem stuck in an extremist agenda, so I presume they are grateful to our government for no longer using the services of anyone who can engage effectively in Hard Talk. In turn I am grateful to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Switzerland, which organizes the Oslo Forum, and more recently to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for giving me a forum in which to argue the case for what the Sri Lankan government has achieved. Contrariwise, those now with the mandate to represent us internationally seem busily engaged in undoing that achievement day by day.
But that discussion, grandly termed the Oslo Debate, was only part of a very interesting programme. Amongst the contributors were Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, and I felt particularly privileged to talk to the latter, still thoughtfully constructive at the age of almost 90. I look on him as the best President America has had in recent times, perhaps the only idealist of the 20th century apart from Woodrow Wilson – which is perhaps why their tenures ended in what seems failure. Certainly, as I asked him, his signal achievement in putting Human Rights at the centre of American Foreign Policy seems to have been perverted by his successors who have turned using it for strategic purposes into a fine art.
He dodged that question, but he did make clear what he saw as the failure of his great achievement in negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt. He stated that the first part of what he reached agreement on still stood, the peace treaty between the two countries, but he noted that the second part, a settlement with regard to the Palestinians, had been subsequently forgotten. Sadly that element is ignored in current discussions on the subject, and the bad faith of Israel with regard to what Begin had agreed – except in the case of the honourable soldier Yitzak Rabin, who was assassinated by nationalistic Israeli extremists for his pains – is not highlighted in analyses of the tragic state now of the Middle East.
How sad the situation is came home to me when I was travelling subsequently in Jordan, where there are now hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Even more alarmingly, there were reports of extremist activity in the south of the country, accompanied by an Israeli statement that they were prepared to help Jordan with dealing with such threats. This I suspect rubbed salt into the wound since, though Jordan too, like Egypt, has a long-lasting treaty with Israel, resentment over the land grabs that the West indulges (because of their own guilt about the way they treated the Jews in the not so distant past) reverberates more strongly than anywhere else except in Palestine itself.
Amongst the panel discussions at the Forum, the most interesting for me was that on Syria. I had been disappointed, in looking through the record of the previous Forum, that there had been no presentation from the Syrian government perspective. But there was much more balance this year, perhaps reflecting the European understanding that the West had been barking up the wrong tree in its diehard opposition to President Assad. The effect that such myopic attitudes had had where regime change has been affected had come home to them at that very time, with the triumph of Isis in much of Iraq. And even though Tony Blair, who has probably not understood what Shakespeare meant about protesting too much, claims it is not his fault, anyone but extremists would now understand what a mess has been created, not just in Iraq, but in Libya too. That they are still pursuing a similar goal in Syria would astound me, were it not that I have come to realize how countries too function like clockwork machines, and continue on paths that are disastrous simply because they lack the mechanism to change course when circumstances contradict earlier dogma.
And there is of course the possibility that all this is grist to the mill of those who make decisions in a state of complacence. One of the most memorable comments during the Forum was that, when you think you are the only elephant in the room, your behavior is different. And ever since Tony Blair and his sidekick David Miliband decided that what I would term the more subtle intellectual input of Britain had to be buried in taking on the role of baby elephant, we have what is best described as one stop solutions to everything.
One rather sad assessment during the programme was that the final solution in Iraq would be dismemberment of that country. This now seems increasingly likely, and those who still believe in states that develop a comprehensive view of nationhood, rather than basing themselves on narrow identitities, will be seen as unrealistic idealists. Indeed, in another session it was argued that the best thing that could happen to Russia was dismemberment, and I suspect we will soon see encouragement of ethnic politics there, including support for extremists.
Underlying all this perhaps is the fact that conflict is a source of enormous profit for many. I wondered about the possibility about tracking the sale of weapons, but though the UN had attempted to put a system in place for this, it has not been successful. At another session, on the effectiveness of armed interventions in conflict resolution, it was noted that armed groups had ready access to weapons, and this was one reason why peace-keeping operations were so difficult. At dinner that evening I was told how shocked someone deeply committed to overcoming extreme views, and appreciating the Norwegian commitment to this, had been to learn how much Norway profited from arms trading. But they are not the only one, and I suspect they would comply with monitoring mechanisms if the UN introduced these, but unfortunately elephants, big and little ones, will not tolerate such practical efforts to promote peace.
Grateful though I was for the opportunity to participate in the discussion, I left then with a sense of despair. One of the organizers, who had twitted me throughout with asking mischievous questions, did express appreciation of this at the end, with the vivid comment that, after all, the emperor had no clothes. That type of perception is what makes me inclined to continue to assess what goes on, and think of ways of dealing with the worst excesses.
But with regard to Sri Lanka I fear it is too late. The failure of our decision makers to analyse what is going on, the sense of security into which they lulled the President over the last few years, his own complacence in not resisting the noose being tightened around this country, may seem beyond belief, but that is the way politics is conducted in this country. Even now, the appointment of Mr Ahtisari, perhaps an idealist in his own way, but an idealist who sees ethnic based small states as a good answer to difficulties and will not let moral or other commitments stand in his way, should have led the President to recall Dayan Jayatilleka to duty, should have led to concerted efforts to improve relations with India, should have led to solid understandings with South Africa and Japan and the Organization of Islamic Countries.
But the discourse continues to be dominated by Wimal Weerawansa and his ilk, who are assumed widely to be stalking horses for the Secretary of Defence, if not the President himself. One of the Muslim delegates asked me with some anxiety what was going on, but instead of addressing concerns about attacks on businesses and houses, we raise red herrings about fundamentalist threats, perhaps in the hope that this will lead the West, and Israel, to support us. The consequences of such adventurism, trying to play in leagues that are beyond us, will I fear be similar to those J R Jayewardene suffered when he thought he could play a major role in the Cold War.
We need to understand that the new fundamentalist hostilities, on both sides, are both complex and dangerous. The American ambassador in Iraq, I was told, rarely ventures outside his compound. This is understandable given the tragic fate of his colleague in Libya – and now the poor man is about to move to Iraq. It is ironic that, as America takes a larger and larger place upon the world stage – or expands to fill the room more thoroughly – it is also moving into an isolationism of a very different sort.
I was glad the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, more professionally, had this time invited a representative of the Syrian government, as well as a member of the internal Syrian opposition. I am sorry then that internationally those who are critical of the government are not at the same time worried about the polarization the West was imposing, trying to persuade anyone in Syria who is critical of its current government to abandon the democratic and constitutional process of reform.
I was even more impressed that CHD had invited a senior adviser to the Iranian President, who was both sharp and sensible. He exemplified how easily the Americans could work with Iran provided there was mutual respect and not unremitting hostility. My own view is that the hostility would be more understandable on the Iranian side, given the American subversion of democracy in Iran for many years and their support for the Shah. That this transformed after the Iranian Revolution to demonization of Shias (and cooperation therefore with Saddam Hussein) is ironic, given all that is happening now.
Teaching on an American student ship way back in 1986, I remember American colleagues talking about the extremism of Shias, whereas in those days they thought of Sunnis as almost Christian. Those were the days in which the Taleban was flavor of the day, to say nothing of Saddam Hussein. But despite all the blood that has flowed since then, I suspect dichotomies and polarization will continue. I can hope that CHD and a more humane approach – such as Gorbachev aimed at when he started reforms in Russia that then swept him away into oblivion – will raise its head, but that I suspect will be seen as a greater enemy by extremists on both sides.