“The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else,” V. S. Naipaul’s narrator muses in A Bend in the River, his classic, subtle rewriting of Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, “but at the same time, they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.” And so it is with Pawns of Peace, the supposedly self critical analysis of the failed Norwegian peace process, published recently. A certain self interest for international prominence is acknowledged somewhat coyly, but is portrayed as subordinate to the great altruistic desire to ‘do good’ to the world. As a rich nation, Norway always wanted to keep the poor from fighting each other, they say, and so doing they thought was a good thing.
One would think then, that given this wisdom, all the commentators who have since praised it, would have seen its great lacuna. They have not, and I’d like to point to it. Let us go back to 2002, the moment of the signing of Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CFA). In the logic of that document, two sides, the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, had been fighting ruthlessly and brutally for many many years. They agree to stop, and take a breather. Many, many human rights violalations had no doubt ensured; no doubt many were not simply violations, they were crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, the idea of the CFA was to build a lasting peace. Pause there, and consider the current moment.
In May 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka destroys the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Many are killed and many human rights violations are alleged on both sides. An era of relative peace actually dawns, and has continued, in this relative way for nearly two and half years now. Yet we hear, from nearly everywhere in Europe and the US, from governments, think tanks and human rights institutions a dire warning: unless there is an inquiry into these ‘credible allegations’ of human rights violations, this peace will never last, reconciliation will not take place, and we will sink back into war. And so we come to the analysis of the Norwegian led effort, produced with much labor, mulled over by the experts, and published with a flourish.
There is time now to reflect. Commentators tell us this is what Sri Lankans can’t do, or won’t do, and what people in the west are so good at, reflecting thoughtfully. So as we reflect, should it not be plainly obvious, given the logic I have been tracing, that right at the moment of the signing of the CFA, in 2002, a full, complete, unbiased, impartial, international (anything else I’ve missed out here could be added), inquiry, tribunal, probe, commission, into human rights violations and war crimes on both sides should have been proposed? At least proposed, let me emphasize. If all parties objected, well then, perhaps it would not been a practical proposal, but morality isn’t about pragmatics, is it?
No, it was not proposed. Well, that may be an error, and surely then the whole point of these analytic reflections several years later, in 2011, would be to pin point these errors. But no, nowhere in Pawns of Peace is it even suggested that a war crimes probe should have been proposed in 2002 and that the failure to propose it was an error. Why on earth not? Well, well, well! Asking the question of that document is akin to the ravings of a madman, it’s so outside its logic, that it has no place within its bounds at all.
Since I ask the question though, somewhat mad though I may be, I should try to answer it. To do so, we have to go much deeper, to what peace means, and to whom. Clearly, the whole point of CFA and what came after, was an effort to reach ‘peace’ in terms that were amoral. It was about saying something like ‘you have two sides, we will hold the scales, forget the past, but build us a statue in the end’. The peace that has been fought for is as amoral, in many ways; it has come at a great human cost that we can only atone for and remember, but never repay or remit. We did it ourselves though, in our own messy, messed up way, and there are no statues in that story for the Norwegians or the west. And so, according to them, we are not done, we are still open to criminal investigation.
“Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers,” Naipaul continues, in that very same paragraph, “they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and statues.”
Let us hope it does not happen again.