NZ can do more to bring about peaceful, just world

Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff will be visiting Sri Lanka this month (4-5 March) to see the tsunami relief efforts first hand. He can be proud of the contribution New Zealanders have made there and in the other countries inundated on Boxing Day.

We all want the recovery to proceed as rapidly as possible. However, there are stumbling blocks in the two most devastated areas, Aceh and north-east Sri Lanka. In both places there is still tension between the central government and strong local movements for autonomy or independence.

It would be a tragedy if the reconstruction efforts in Aceh and Sri Lanka were disrupted by a return to full-scale civil war. Thousands have already died in the Aceh conflict and an estimated seventy thousand people were killed in the war following the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka.

Thankfully, there has been a stable ceasefire in Sri Lanka for over three years and fighting has died down in Aceh as both sides focus on tsunami relief. This doesn’t mean the underlying causes of conflict have gone away. The Tamils are still pressing for self-government in north-east Sri Lanka and the people of Aceh want autonomy or independence from Jakarta. The Sri Lankan and Indonesian governments are reluctant to accommodate these aspirations.

However, there is cause for optimism. There are no insurmountable barriers to a permanent peace in either country. The Tamil Tigers are asking for no more in Sri Lanka than what already exists and works well in federal states in Europe and North America. Quebec, for example, has a large degree of autonomy within Canada.

A year ago I travelled through both the Sinhalese and Tamil regions of Sri Lanka and found an almost universal desire for peace. This is reflected in their Parliament where a majority of the MPs favour peace negotiations. Unfortunately, these talks have been stymied by infighting among the Sinhalese parties and the present government’s reliance on a small anti-Tamil party, the People’s Liberation Front (or JVP), for its parliamentary majority.

This bickering among Sinhalese politicians could stall the peace process for years, to the point where the Tamils decide a resumption of the war is their only option. International pressure is the key to getting the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers back to the negotiating table. I hope Phil Goff uses his stay in Colombo to press the Kumaratunga Government to re-enter peace talks.

Beyond this, we can offer support to Norway’s peacemaking in Sri Lanka when the Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik visits New Zealand later this month. Norway has been doing great work both in mediating between the parties and in monitoring the ceasefire. Norway’s population is not much bigger than New Zealand’s, but its government is involved in peacemaking all around the world, from Sudan to the Philippines.

Peacemaking is a job small countries can specialise in. Finland, for example, is currently hosting talks, chaired by its former president Martti Ahtisaari, between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement.

New Zealand would have a lot to offer if we were to take on a similar role. We have a record of successful peace work in Bougainville and other Pacific countries. Peacemaking in both Sri Lanka and Aceh could be enlightened by our Bougainville experience. A key to peace there was leaving any final decision on independence to some years down the track, while concentrating in the meantime on self-rule. A similarly staged process could work in Aceh. If the Acehnese are allowed real provincial autonomy and are happy with it, they may well abandon their push for full independence. Even now there are mixed views among the people of Aceh on which path would best serve their aspirations.

The staged approach could also work in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers are proposing an Interim Self-Governing Authority in the north-east region as an initial phase. They have already dropped their demand for independence in favour of such self-rule.

Peacemaking in conflict zones like north-east Sri Lanka and Aceh is not necessarily that difficult. The solutions are usually common sense once there is a genuine acknowledgement of the rights and vision of the ethnic minority. In this respect, New Zealand is well placed for peacemaking. As a nation we are responding to Maori aspirations and are becoming more bi-cultural. Our progress has been reflected in the behaviour of New Zealand soldiers on peacekeeping missions. They appear to have got on well with the locals and have shown the instinctive Kiwi sympathy for those getting a raw deal.

But we can do more than peacekeeping. There is no reason why we can’t spread our wings and be more like Norway, specialising in peacemaking diplomacy on the world stage. And Michael Cullen need not worry about such efforts draining the Budget. They are relatively inexpensive compared with other overseas spending, such as military deployments, and may well save us money and help build our prosperity if they lead to a more peaceful and just world.