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NewsHow and why the Oslo sponsored Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission failed in Sri Lanka

How and why the Oslo sponsored Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission failed in Sri Lanka


The Norwegian government commissioned evaluation team that went into the whole Norwegian involvement in Sri Lanka has paid special attention to the functioning of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission which operated under Norwegian leadership. What follows are excerpts from the report which give the reasons for the failure of the SLMM.

The SLMM functioned for almost six years and comprised an average of about forty-five unarmed, non-uniformed monitors.

The CFA did not end contestation between the parties, but transformed it. First, it caused a near complete cessation – at least initially – of military offensives.

Second, it outlawed the intimidation and coercive control over civilian life, at least on paper. The checkpoints and curfews were lifted, but the High Security Zones, and the LTTE’s forceful grip on the Tamil community remained unimpeded.

Third, the CFA enabled other forms of contestation, because it created space for the LTTE to expand its state-building project. Cadres moved around freely for ‘political activities’ and the formalisation of the LTTE as a signatory to the truce legitimized its institutions and territorial control.

Hoisting of the LTTE flag at public rallies or sports events, and public video screenings of LTTE propaganda at schools became common. Meanwhile the government army was largely confined to the barracks. Initially, the CFA seemed to benefit the LTTE, whose violations of article 2 (extortion, abduction, harassment and so on) quickly soared.

The SLMM was thus fielded in a volatile and violent situation while it was tailored to a peace-oriented transition. The LTTE’s continuation of de facto state-building, violence outside the remit of the CFA (including Tamil – Muslim skirmishes), the tilting military balance, and the resumption of (undeclared) war posed a major challenge to the Nordic monitors.

They came under heavy fire, sometimes literally (a few monitors narrowly escaped death), but mainly politically (in the Sri Lankan media and reports by human rights NGOs).

The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was one of the main Norwegian accomplishments in Sri Lanka. The truce brought a remarkable change to the country. In the previous period, the war had cost thousands of civilian (and combatant) lives every year.

The CFA period reduced that violence and – although there is obviously an issue of counterfactuals here – we can plausibly argue that the immediate consequence of the CFA was a major reduction of casualties and human suffering. The lifting of checkpoints, opening of roads, the absence of curfews and restrictions and transport and mobility all made a big difference to people’s. lives. Farmlands and fishery areas became (partly) accessible as well.

There were, however, a number of important weaknesses. First, the CFA did not regulate the sea, because it was sensitive for both parties and for India, and proved difficult to resolve. This became a source of tension and controversy. Second, the agreement prohibited both armies from moving forwards, but did not formalize the exact front lines. This caused concern with the government military – less abler than the LTTE to cross boundaries – and resulted in clashes. More than once, LTTE cadres were surrounded by government forces in a place claimed by both parties. The controversy over the Manirasakulam camp was a result of this as well.

Third, the CFA tasked the SLMM Head of Mission with the ‘final authority regarding interpretation’ of the agreement, but did not specify any measures or procedures in case of non-compliance. The SLMM turned out to have very little persuasive power to put an end to such violations and could only complain when the parties refused monitors access to sensitive areas. With time, the mission became an onlooker waiting for its termination order, which eventually came in January 2008.

The SLMM was thus designed to be weak and unthreatening, in line with the wishes and interests of the two parties. It was geared towards a scenario of peace, not reversion to war.

In fact, as reflected in the ‘Humanitarian Monitoring Group’ envisaged in the agreement on humanitarian measures signed between the parties in 2000, the Norwegian team initially had mere ‘moral monitoring’ in mind, with some eight to twelve expatriates. With time, they realized a more substantive intervention was required, but both parties and India would only agree to a small, unarmed mission.

The SLMM did not do monitoring outside the north-east and the Vanni (the LTTE main stronghold) was monitored from government controlled area (the Vavuniya office). As a result, the concentrations of military power and the channels for military build up escaped its gaze. Moreover, the mission had a limited mandate of enquiring into CFA violations. With the local committees, the mission was oriented at problem solving, confidence building and evening out minor skirmishes that invariably break out in peace processes.

The committees were to resolve issues at the lowest possible level through dialogue with the parties. At a national level, the monitors liaised with the Peace Secretariats of both parties. As with most observer missions, the SLMM had neither the right nor the means to enforce compliance with the CFA and had to rely on the soft power of persuasion, framing, and moral pressure

The persons who planned and prepared the deployment (of the SLMM) had never been to Sri Lanka. On arrival, they were surprised to find out that things like computers could simply be bought in Colombo. Overall, however, the mission was well-equipped. Some of the monitors were in fact astonished, as this was the only mission they knew where money was never a significant constraint.

The SLMM was too small to thoroughly monitor the north-eastern districts to which it was assigned. With sixty monitors at its height, the mission never had more than 45 people in the field (taking into account office staff, sick leave and so on). The EU ban on the LTTE further clipped the SLMM’s wings as the mission’s HOM (the Swede Henricsson) and the majority of its staff (from Sweden, Denmark and Finland) was forced to withdraw.

The recruitment and training process (of the mission staff) was very ad hoc, and at times insufficiently professional. Each of the five countries seconded staff without much coordination and most monitors only received a week of training on arrival in Colombo. The mission thus ended up with an amorphous mix of people, some of whom lacked the necessary skills. Each of them sent some staff members home due to inadequate skills or behaviour. An adequate database to manage the flurry of complaints and CFA violations took years to come about.

The diplomatic skills of some of the staff were a source of concern. As the final authority on the CFA, the SLMM leader occupied a politically sensitive position that required skilful performance both behind the scenes and in the public arena. Not all staff had the adequate background for that sort of activity.

One in fact got expelled from the country (ret. Maj. Gen. Tellefsen) and one of his successors may well have awaited the same fate had the EU ban not ended his term prematurely (ret. Maj. Gen. Henricsson). Tellefsen in part became the victim of President Kumaratunga’s politically motivated disapproval of the SLMM, but his dealing with the naval issues aggravated the situation.

He responded to the LTTE’s request for a demarcated training site and proposed a live ammunition exercise zone for the Sea Tigers off the coast between Trincomalee and Mullaitivu. The proposal, which designated the Sea Tigers as a ‘de facto navy’, was leaked to the media and the SLMM became subject of Sinhala indignation.

Following an earlier incident, it was agreed the navy would alert the SLMM when a suspect ship appeared on the radar. When that happened, the SLMM sent a message to Kilinochchi to verify whether the LTTE had a ship in that area. The rebels denied, but the suspected boat turned around and vanished, much to the outrage of the navy and President Kumaratunga, who was eager to show her patriotic credentials. Tellefsen was sent home in October 2003.

In much of the second half of its deployment, the parties stopped bothering to report incidents. The SLMM had limited ability to rule decisively on key incidents.

The emergence of the LTTE air strip and air wing, (attempted) assassinations like those on General Fonseka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Kadirgamar and Kaushalyan, clashes at sea, Karuna’s activities, the attack on Muthur (and the execution of seventeen NGO staff in that town) in 2006, and aerial bombardments all posed a challenge to the SLMM’s reputation as a monitor.

Monitors were not allowed to enter key sites, they were too few to be sufficiently present in the field, they rarely patrolled at night, and they did not have the technological means to make thorough assessments.

In total 13,026 complaints were filed, most of them in Batticaloa (3815, 29%) and Jaffna (3219, 25%). The vast majority (92%) of the violations were committed by the LTTE and concerted article 2 (acts against civilians)

Second, the SLMM managed to boost public confidence, particularly in the north-east in the initial phase of the CFA. Field observations by SLMM monitors and the authors during that period confirm that many citizens in the north-east valued the presence of Westerners as symbols of security and of the SLMM in particular. Survey data suggest that the SLMM continued to receive high approval rates across the country throughout the first years of its operation.

From early on in the peace process, the SLMM came under fire from a wide range of LTTE critics: Sinhala nationalist, human rights organisations, Muslims, and Tamil dissidents. With the LTTE consolidating its power in the north-east and CFA violations (and human rights abuses) soaring, the SLMM was accused of giving the parties –but the LTTE in particular – a ‘licence to shoot’.

Right from the beginning, ‘the LTTE was a difficult partner,’ an SLMM monitor acknowledged. ‘If they did not want to discuss, they would just ignore us. We should not have accepted that. We should have applied more pressure. On both sides. Be firmer. If they did not follow up on meetings, we should have just closed the office or even pulled out. They felt we would never play hard; we would always compromise.

The problem of human right abuses became evident early and risked delegitimizing the peace process and Norway’s role. For instance the University Teacher’s (Jaffna) for Human Rights UTHR(J) lambasted Norway for its ‘superficial and minimalist’ approach, arguing that ‘accountability for the past and present should be instilled in some way as a norm to achieve lasting peace’.

The SLMM clearly faced increasing trouble with CFA compliance. It reported the statistics and criticized the parties in rulings and bilateral conversations. It also filed formal complaints when the parties refused the monitors access or otherwise obstructed the mission. This, however, had little impact. Violence escalated irrespective of the SLMM’s activities, and the mission’s public image was tainted as a result.

The SLMM has been widely criticized for being biased towards the LTTE. Evidence, however, is much more mixed. Many Nordic monitors appear to have had some sympathy for the LTTE, while none of those interviewed were very impressed with the Sri Lankan armed forces at the time. Structurally, however, the mission and the CFA ended up leaning to the government side. The CFA posed no restrictions on rearmament by the government, the SLMM eventually ruled control over the sea as a government responsibility, the vast majority of rulings were against the LTTE, and three out of the five contributing states in fact banned the LTTE.

The mission became an instrument of war as much as an instrument of peace. The parties kept the SLMM and the CFA in place, but it became obvious that this was not because they were concerned about civilian casualties or a resumption of talks. The Nordic presence served as a communication channel and a diplomatic fig leaf for two parties that were openly committing grave human right abuses and attacks against each other. courtesy: The Island

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