From congested cabins to glasshouses
Public talks as problem solver
Most of the world watches Sri Lanka only from afar.
We see spasms of violence, occasional ceasefires and intermittent
negotiations. At this dark hour, when fear outpaces hope, perhaps
there is reason for both sides to look at the process of negotiations
in an entirely different way.
Many attempts at private talks between the Sri
Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers have already failed. As will
be argued presently here, the very nature of secret talks contributes
to these failures.
This commentary proposes that leaders of each side of this conflict
call on the United Nations to establish a new public negotiating
model, based on a defined set of rules and terms, that creates a
level communication playing field between the two sides.
The Norwegian government’s important role
with negotiations to date can continue in this new form of dialogue.
The centerpiece of this public talks dialogue is a series of small,
magazine-size challenge documents distributed through at least one
major newspaper in each region, one international newspaper and
also made available online. This global dialogue would reverberate
through all other media and engage citizens in the central details
of disputes between societies as never before.
This defined and public process would come into
play only after private negotiations have failed, as they already
have regarding Sri Lanka. A UN Security Council resolution looking
at negotiations in Sri Lanka could make this central point: After
private talks have stalled or failed, the UN will encourage public
Public talks will not replace private or back-channel
negotiations, nor will it work in all situations. The same leaders
directing private negotiations would direct public talks. The challenge
document will feature each side's interpretation of history. It
would contain questions to that adversary, negotiating positions
and other content inherent to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Without
the guarantee of a response in kind, either side of this conflict
could unilaterally present its challenge document before Sri Lanka
and also reach a worldwide audience.
Every one or two weeks – the specific time
frame and terms would be developed at the UN – one side would
distribute a challenge document that will also be reported upon
by the media. If this dialogue is accepted, the other side would
respond as prescribed.
These public talks would unfold over two or three
months and engage citizens within Sri Lanka, in the region and around
the world as never before in the details of that conflict. One side's
rejection of public talks would risk widespread international acceptance
of the adversary's interpretation of the conflict. Accordingly,
each party has a motive to engage in this public dialogue –
or risk erosion of public support both in the region and worldwide.
Consider the following universal characteristics of public talks
before returning to the specifics of the conflict in Sri Lanka.
This format may tempt some parties to obfuscate,
manipulate and outright lie. If so, their credibility would be damaged
by a more forthright adversary. This direct clash of opinions exposes
ideas to competitive forces so that only the most credible would
emerge as the fruits of compromise.
Public opinion is more likely to be shaped by
the presentations and arguments of both sides. In a fundamental
way, this process is the opposite of propaganda, which almost always
encourages ignorance and the stifling the honest exchange of facts
and views. A better-informed populace is more likely to make good
decisions and more likely to accept the results of negotiations
based upon truth and reality.
Public talks depends less on personal trust between
leaders than do private talks. At the culmination of the process,
the final signed agreement delivered into the hands of citizens
on both sides will increase confidence that the terms will not be
reinterpreted in divergent ways. Public talks conflict with the
secrecy that advocates of real politic insist on. Secret talks will
always have a role, but public talks presents an alternative to
History refutes the belief that secret talks should
be the exclusive negotiating process. Leaders have frequently reinterpreted
agreements in order to sell them to their constituencies. But later,
reality catches up. Many negotiations, including Versailles, Potsdam
and Yalta led to agreements that participants later reinterpreted
in vastly different ways, causing the agreement to be disavowed.
The failure of contemporary secret talks in Oslo, Dayton, Madrid
and of course, Geneva 2006, points towards the need for an alternative
negotiating model. Once the world becomes more fully engaged in
this transparent and step-by-step process, support for relying exclusively
on secret talks between elites will fade.
This proposal is divorced from reality; governments
don't care about advertisements or messages, only interests and
power. This ignores the growing importance of public opinion in
the calculus of political leaders, both within Sri Lanka and worldwide.
The rise of democracy and the increased access to information is
advancing this phenomenon.
The public will not be interested in a challenge
document when they have access to enormous quantities of information
from many media outlets. The challenge document would be the centerpiece
of a communication process that the public would know about it well
before it became available. Many would see these competing historical
narratives and would know the world would be focusing on that conflict.
Recognising the life and death nature of these communiqués,
people everywhere will find public talks captivating and vital.
Negotiations could not really take place through
documents designed for the public. Unlike private talks, which often
begin with small confidence-building agreements, public talks would
start with the large issues that truly separate adversaries. The
contrasting historical narratives surrounding such conflicts are
easily understood and if agreement is reached, lesser issues could
be negotiated privately. Moreover, a formal web site could feature
relevant details for elites in and out of the region.
Perhaps the most far-reaching characteristic of public talks is
that the majority of citizens on each side will see more clearly
than ever the difficult compromises necessary for agreement. This
will provide political cover for leaders, who can then show their
constituencies the complex and detailed tradeoffs necessary to reach
a settlement. In contrast, leaders emerging from secret negotiations
are vulnerable to extremists who can portray one or two simple issues
as a towering betrayal by the leaders who negotiated that deal.
The negotiating tradeoffs will be difficult for
both sides to accept, but each society will better understand the
logic and rationale of their leaders - and of the other side's leaders
- which in turn will tend to marginalise extremists and rejectionists.
All would know that information within challenge documents, previously
the sole domain of political leaders, will be shared with the citizens
directly affected. And once citizens are brought into this inner
sanctum of knowledge, they will hold their leaders accountable for
issues of war and peace in a more direct way than at any time in
Envision the reaction within Sri Lanka and around the world to a
series of narratives unlike any we have ever seen. Every couple
of weeks, prior to each new challenge document, citizens and leaders
within and outside the region will be urging the two sides to take
incremental steps towards the position of the other.
Everyone will see what separates the two sides.
Once this step-by-step process creates a momentum towards peace,
it could become unstoppable. Thus, will responsible leaders on all
sides of this conflict call on the UN to create the structure for
this new form of public dialogue? The writer is the Executive Director
at the Institute for Public Dialogue in Sausalito, California, USA.