Sri Lanka Prospects for Peace

By Armitage, Richard L. | DISAM Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Sri Lanka Prospects for Peace


Armitage, Richard L., DISAM Journal


[The following are excerpts from the speech given to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., February 14, 2003.]

The last couple of months and indeed weeks have been a busy time of high-stakes diplomacy for our Department of State. Secretary of State Colin Powell and I have been to Capitol Hill six times together in the last two weeks, with three testimonies apiece. Of course, we have been talking about such things as Iraq and its biological and chemical weapons and its nuclear intentions; about North Korea's self-inflicted deprivation and desperation, as millions of people are in danger of starving to death from mismanagement and bad luck; and about the high risk of terrorist attacks. But we have also been talking about the horrible terrorist bombing in downtown Bogot over the last weekend and the implications for the counter-narcotics efforts in the region, as well as the rockets fired at international forces in Kabul on Monday, which narrowly missed the visiting Defense Minister of Germany. It certainly did underscore the importance of our reconstruction efforts in that blighted land.

Given these priorities, I think it is important to start today's discussion on Sri Lanka with baseline questions:

* Why should the United States invest significant attention and resources to Sri Lanka, especially at a time when we have such overwhelming competing interests?

* Should the United States play a role in this peace process?

Now, I believe the right answer is that the United States should play a role. And there are many credible explanations as to why. There is the pull of opportunity, of ending years of death and years of destruction and bolstering a multiethnic democracy. In the more direct bilateral sense, Sri Lanka is already a solid exporter to the United States and has the potential with peace and the right reforms to become a significant trade partner. And then there is the push of danger. As we have found out far too often, terror and human misery generally will not ebb away on their own or stay neatly within borders if we look at them as someone elses problem.

I have no doubt that the many experts Tezi Schaffer has assembled in this audience could provide more answers to my baseline questions. And when taken together, these answers may even add up to a compelling justification. But the problem is that these answers do not really constitute a clear strategic impetus for the United States or for other nations outside of Sri Lanka's immediate neighborhood, particularly in a time of war and economic uncertainty. It would be tough to make a truly convincing case by sticking to the terms of strict self-interest.

For me, the bottom line in this instance is simple. The United States should be playing a role, in concert with other nations, committing our human and financial resources to settling this conflict because it can be done. And because it is the right thing to do. Because the parties to the conflict appear to be ready to reach a resolution, more so than at any other time in the past twenty years. And because it may well be that it is a resolution that can only be reached with the help of multilateral resources, both moral and material.

Indeed, this may be a key moment, when an infusion of such international support can add momentum to the peace process, helping to stop twenty years of abject human suffering and to smooth the ripples of grief and terror that have spread from this tiny island nation through the region and even around the world. This may be the moment when international support can help to spring this country into prominence as a recovering victim of conflict, terrorism, and human rights abuses, but also as a respected participant in the global community. And while I would not want to oversell Sri Lanka as a model; this brew of caste, class, religion and race has its own unique flavor; perhaps this is a nation with lessons to offer the world about how to move from despair to hope, from intractable conflict to workable concord, and, indeed, about how the international community can engage and support such conflict resolution.

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