“Setting the record straight”? Norway in the Sri Lankan peace process

The Norwegian role in facilitating peace talks in the Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese, Buddhist state and the Tamil military group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is largely seen as a failure in terms of actually ending the civil war. I do not believe Norway can be held solely or primarily responsible for this. However, it is evident that the Norwegian accomplishments, such as the 2002 ceasefire agreement, were “short-lived” and that the peace process “reproduced, rather than transformed underlying structural obstacles to conflict resolution” (Goodhand et al., 2011, p.xv).

Sri Lanka

After the war, Norwegian peace negotiators felt that their side of the story had not been told. A lot of the reports and literature on Norway’s role are critical of its efforts, and especially of the fact that they did not withdraw from Sri Lanka sooner (see Goodhand et al., 2011; Talpahewa, 2015). Taking matters into their own hands, Erik Solheim (head of Norwegian peace facilitators in Sri Lanka) and Vidar Helgesen (former Norwegian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs) approached Mark Salter, which has resulted in To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka. This book, as is evident in the introduction, seeks to “set the record straight”, to show what Norway did “in their untiring efforts” to achieve a peace agreement (Salter, 2015, p.8). The book’s main argument is straightforward; the responsibility for the failure of the Norwegian facilitated peace talks lies solely with the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, as the limited mandate given to was to facilitate talks between the parties but not to actively mediate between them (Hein, 2016).

This book has been praised by people such as the Swedish Foreign Minister and the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations, however it has also faced critique in academic literature. On his blog Salter makes several attempts to counter what he sees as unserious critiques from several newspapers: “Another week… and yet again the need to counter a… ‘review’ of my Sri Lanka book… claiming that in reality I ghost wrote the whole thing on Erik Solheim’s commission and to his political specifications”. However, Salter can hardly deny the former peace facilitators’ interest in a book that paints a more positive picture of the Norwegian efforts in Sri Lanka. Not only due to the fact that Solheim and Helgesen’s feature prominently in the book, but also the fact that the book was financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Nissen, 2016).

It is indeed naïve to believe that Norway entered the peace process with absolutely no self-interest. One of Salter’s sources even tells us that the Sri Lankan conflict became a “foreign policy tool to ensure that the main world powers would be interested in talking to Norway” (Salter, 2015, p.44). Although there has never been a white paper presented on Norway’s peace and reconciliation approach to set out its rationale, current foreign minister Børge Brende has emphasised there is still a distinctive Norwegian approach, evident in the past 30 years of foreign policy. Apparently, because it has no colonial past, peace and reconciliation efforts are sincere and not motivated by self-interest. Norway facilitates peace, it does not “mediate with muscle” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016). However, if facilitation in itself was the ultimate goal, we must question why Norway aimed at “transforming the LTTE, transforming southern politics and reaching an agreement that addressed the interests of both sides” (Salter, 2015, p.402).

I am not trying to imply that Solheim and Helgesen have indoctrinated Salter, but this book cannot be presented as a neutral tale of the peace process and Norway’s role in it when the project originated as wanting to show how Norway was not to blame for its downfall.

Written by Elise Fjordbakk


Goodhand, J., Klem, B. and Sørbø, G., 2011. Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009, commissioned by Norad Evaluation Department, Report 5/2011.

Hein, P., 2016. Book Review: Mark Salter, To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement with Sri Lanka. Political Studies Review. 15(1), pp. 165.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016. “Norway’s approach to peace and reconciliation work” (Online). government.no. Available from: https://www.regjeringen.no/en/topics/foreign-affairs/peace-and-reconciliation-efforts/innsiktsmappe/norway-peace-work/id446704/ (Accessed 03.03.17)

Nissen, A., 2016. To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka. Bokanmeldelse, Internasjonal Politikk, 74(3), pp. 1-4.

Salter, M., 2015. To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka. London: C. Hurst and Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Talpahewa, C., 2015. Peaceful Intervention in Intra-State Conflicts: Norwegian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process. Oxon and New York: Routledge

3 thoughts on ““Setting the record straight”? Norway in the Sri Lankan peace process

  1. Mark Salter

    A few comments on Elise Fjordbokk’s thoughtful analysis of my book are in or-der.

    First she suggests that I argue that responsibility for the failure of the 2002-2003 peace talks ‘lies solely with the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE’. This is not entirely accurate. The Norwegian facilitators consistently suggested two things in this regard. First that primary responsibility for the peace process’ eventual breakdown rested with the chief parties – the GoSL and the LTTE. Second that Oslo’s room for manoeuvre was limited by the narrow facilitation mandate given it by the parties: one of whom, the GoSL, was careful to emphasize that any over-stepping of this mandate would constitute grounds for stripping Norway of her role in the process.

    At the same time, like others the Norwegian facilitators now recognize that a whole host of other factors – some internal to the dynamics of the peace process, some of an external and/or structural nature – played a role in the process even-tually grinding to a halt. A good example in this respect is the lack of bipartisan political consensus in support of the peace process among the two major Sinha-lese political parties, the UNP and the SLFP.

    The zero sum game effects of the implacable rivalry between the UNP and SLFP leaders, then (as now) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Chandrike Kumaratunga constantly threatened to derail the peace process from its inception in 2002 onwards. This, however, is something the Norwegian facili-tators admit that they did not fully appreciate the importance at the time, but understand better now armed with the benefits of hindsight.

    Concerning Oslo’s interest in the book, Fjordbokk suggests that I can ‘hardly de-ny the former peace facilitators’ interest in a book that paints ‘a more positive picture of the Norwegian efforts in Sri Lanka’. In this context she is of course ab-solutely right to note both that facilitators Erik Solheim and Vidar Helgesen ‘fea-ture prominently in the book’, and that its research and production was financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    That said, I fail to see how these facts in themselves amount or otherwise con-tribute to a critique of the book. A somewhat depressing feature of a number of critiques in the Sri Lankan media has been the extent to which they have focused almost exclusively on how the book was produced – with Norwegian facilitator involvement and finance etc – as opposed to what it actually has to say. Which I hope an unbiased reader will recognize as a critical, impartial, albeit insider in-formed account of the peace process. All in all it would be nice to feel that Nor-wegian critiques don’t fall into line with their Sri Lankan counterparts in focus-ing on the context of the book’s production at the expense of its actual content.

    Fjordbokk is wrong to suggest that there are no Norwegian sources to the book. It is based on interviews with, among others, some dozens of Norwegians direct-ly involved in the peace facilitation effort in one way or the other. And as I ex-plain on the introduction I was given access to all non-confidential parts of the MFA archives from the period in focus. A a perusal of the footnotes will reveal numerous references to internal MFA reports etc. It is also plain incorrect to as-sert – as, curiously, have other Norwegian academics – that the book contains no reference to the important Pawns of Peace report. An extensive appendix pro-vides a summary overview of that report’s key findings and conclusions.

    Overall, with these corrections and elaborations in mind, Fjordbokk may perhaps be persuaded to reconsider her views on the book’s contribution to ‘setting the record straight’ on Norway’s – ultimately failed – peace facilitation efforts in Sri Lanka.


    • southasiandevelopment

      Dear Mr. Salter,
      Thank you very much for your comment on my writing. I have taken it into account and made minor corrections on statements that were based on other academics, however, I still stand by what I have posted. We are simply going to have to agree to disagree, I believe that the fact that the Norwegian MFA financed the research and production of this book is something that is incredibly important, and contribute to a valid critique of your book. I do very much welcome your book to the debate on Norway’s role in Sri Lanka, and I do appreciate that, as I have said, the Norwegian peace facilitators and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have not directly fed you the book’s analysis. This post arguably does not do your analysis justice. However, I was predominantly seeking to highlight that in order to be able to critically engage with literature, one must also know where literature has come from.

      Best, Elise Fjordbakk


      • Mark Salter

        Thanks for the response. Maybe we will still disagree, but I’m going to give it one more shoot at least! You state the following here; “the fact that the Norwegian MFA financed the research and production of this book is something that is incredibly important, and contribute[s] to a valid critique of your book”. What I’d be interested to know here is; first, beyond providing important background knowledge regarding the book’s genesis, in what way or ways exactly, do you regard this fact to be ‘incredibly important’? Second, in what way, specifically, does it contribute to a ‘valid critique’ of the book? I ask because these claims are imply stated, not explained or supported.

        Overall, as with the Sri Lankan media critics mentioned earlier, my plea remains as follows. Please, if you want to critique the book do so first and foremost on the basis of its actual content – analysis, argument, sources, perspective – not the details (however significant) of the context of its production.


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