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).
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