HardTalk: Erik Solheim on Conflict Resolution

I recently saw this episode of HardTalk and was stunned. Usually I enjoy watching Stephen Sackur destroy right-wing arguments and take “personalities” down a peg or ten. Not this time though.

He was interviewing Erik Solheim, Norway’s Minister for International Development. Solheim has been involved in the resolution of several conflicts in past years, chief among them the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. Stephen was talking to him about the failure of that mission, the general formula adopted by the Norwegian government and projects of this government that were successful.

But first some background on the conflict in Sri Lanka, so we can appreciate what Solheim has achieved and tried to do there. The Sri Lankan government recently reclaimed control of the entire country after a bitter battle with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) that lasted 33 years. They had intended to establish a Tamil state in the north and east of the country. Founded by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers, have characterised themselves as a terrorist organisation with a sinister difference. They were notorious for recruiting child soldiers as well as using suicide missions (especially women in suicide missions) as strategic tools in gaining power. Civilian casualties, and indeed, targetting civilians, were not uncommon. This was no ordinary band of armed militia – the sort of military equipment at their disposal is staggering, – this is a group responsible for the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and specific military operations designed to destabilise the country.

Four peace talks have been attempted in past years, all unsuccessful in bringing about a full ceasefire. As a consequence of the last rounds in 2006, the Sri Lankan government started the process of taking back their country, and finally defeated the Tigers in May, killing Prabhakaran as a final act of victory.

For an external government to sit down and negotiate with known terrorists such as this takes a great deal of skill, bravado, diplomacy and something more important than the rest – heart. Solheim mentioned at the start of this interview that there is no one that he wouldn’t consider talking to. No one is beneath the Norwegian negotiators, and no situation is too dire for talks to commence. Solheim’s government managed to arrange talks and peace rounds while sticking to the principles of international law with regard to issues of intervening in another country’s domestic situation – this alone is a feat many should admire and aspire to follow. Stephen Sackur however, seemed to belittle this gargantuan step and humanitarian effort on the part of a country so distant (not only in terms of geography but politics), deciding instead to focus on the reasons why Solheim’s missions have failed.

The Norwegian government’s view, as seen through the eyes of this minister, is that international conflict is a serious threat which must be met with a new security policy for the 21st century. The reason given for Norway being able to bring about any change is the fact that this government sees no harm in talking to terrorists – they feel they can, and should, talk to everyone. Solheim was adamant that by discussing issues and engaging in dialogue, they are not lending credence or legitimacy to the operations of the individuals or groups concerned. They just don’t see themselves as ‘too good to talk to terrorists’.

When Stephen asked him if there was no one his government would rule out, Solheim replied, “Dialogue may be better than nothing”, and that no organisation is discounted from the beginning. He also makes it clear that the option of using force is always there, and that it is “not an either/or.” You may need to resort to force, but in accordance with international law, this is only done as a last resort after dialogues have failed and all other political and economic options are exhausted.

Stephen brought up an interesting point of legitimacy – does Norway bring any, and (in not so many words) what does Norway honestly believe they can achieve? Judging by Solheim’s answers, the key to the successes of these processes lies precisely in the size of the government and its relatively small international clout. They are not restricted by the bureaucracy and resulting failings that prevents larger nations from carrying out successful peacekeeping operations, and they have the resources at their disposal to channel as many funds as necessary towards projects such as this. Their relatively small yet strong economy (Norway has one of the highest tax rates in Europe) means that the domestic situation is fairly stable and their attention may be diverted to external problems. Solheim adds that his government only intervenes when they are asked to – Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa requested their help. He estimates that between 2002 and 2003, due to external intervention, at least 10,000 lives were saved.

Solheim personally met Prabhakaran more than 10 times, and felt that had he talked to him more and met him more frequently, a change could have come without so many lives being lost in a civil war. An interesting observation he makes is that within his own organisation, Prabhakaran was viewed as something of a God, and no one would dare tell him otherwise. Solheim believes had Prabhakaran been taken down a few pegs, the task of orchestrating ceasefires and autonomy talks would be much easier.

Stephen then asks him the most pertinent question of the interview: “Do you believe that real change is possible?” to which Solheim refers to several cases in which the Norwegian approach has been successful – in the Sudan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mozambique, Burundi and Nepal. He indicated that the tensions between the government, the Tigers and the Sri Lankan population were part of the reasons why this particular angle did not lead to an immediate cessation of hostilities.

“The only way to survive is a white flag”, he says. This certainly is true of the internment camps, in which over 300,000 people are held through no fault of their own; had the Tigers surrendered to the government while they still could, the settlement could have been more peaceful. Had they opened up these camps to the UN relief agencies operating in Sri Lanka, or the Red Cross, they would have qualified for the $1.9 billion IMF loan. One of the only barriers to a relatively peaceful settlement is the pride of the organisation itself – but then their aim was to throw their nation into a state of chaos and disarray.

Solheim was insistent to point out here that sanctions were never considered, and he does not believe them to be a viable option on any level. Should dialogue fail, there are a myriad other political tools available to a powerful negotiating country that don’t involve starving a nation’s population to get their gluttonous government to listen.

Stephen’s next question reveals most about this approach – “What’s more important, engagement or the search for accountability or justice?” Here, Solheim’s priority is peace, through whatever means. A country’s people must be put first, otherwise 10 neighbouring nations are affected and the situation has snowballed before our eyes. Throwing money at the problem, as was the approach adopted by many Western countries in Burma, comes with the added problem of the money going straight into the pockets of the tryannical rulers, thereby adding to a vicious cycle.

When all is said and done, if we were to judge Erik Solheim by his words during this interview, it is easy to dismiss him and his methods as too optimistic, too trusting of terrorists and dictators. However, the facts speak for themselves. The facts are that yes, maybe some of these conflicts would have been resolved sooner if we engaged in a military campaign as well. Maybe dialogue only leads to negotiating countries being taken advantage of. If we set aside how long it took for this particular mission to be succesful, and how long Solheim’s previous efforts have taken, is it not better that we arrive at a peaceful resolution, sparing lives as well as a nation’s prosperity in the long run?


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