Post-9/11 Role of Civil Society Organizations in Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka

T G-Z MeeNilankco


This paper examines how the 9/11 attack and subsequent actions by the US influenced the way civil society works in conflict resolution. In other words, has the post-9/11 era changed the dynamics of civil society in relation to conflict resolution? This essay explores the role of civil society organizations in the post 9/11 era with particular reference to conflict resolution in Sri Lanka. This essay examines the role of securitization of aid has in forcing civil society organizations to work for the ‘Global War on Terror Doctrine’ after aid became based mostly on the counter terrorism strategy. Since 9/11, all major pillars of democracy, including civil society, were placed under one umbrella and security became prime consideration.

Intensified relationship between development and security actors was the emerging trend of this period, which led to the securitization of aid and development. Intense bond between development and security had serious consequences for civil society, which hitherto received little attention. This merits investigation and documenting. It further brought civil society organizations further into the gaze of security institutions, causing governments and donors to be more circumspect about civil society organizations, based on a view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ non-governmental actors (Stokke 2010). The impacts of new counter-terrorism structures and cooperation efforts on civil society have been ambiguous. While civil society organizations have been a specific focus of concern in post-9/11 security thinking, many governments acted to merge their regulation of civil society organizations with new counter-terrorism structures. The War on Terror induced ‘good’ civil society organizations to cooperate with government departments and agencies. Thus, government approaches to civil society in the context of counter-terrorism efforts relate not only to the assessment that civil society could be misused by terrorist networks but also to the belief that non-governmental public actors can lend legitimacy to counter-terrorism responses and strategy.

It should be noted that, in general, a discursive distinction has emerged between ‘good’ civil society organizations serving the transnational agenda of liberal peace-building and ‘bad’ ones linked to intra-state and international terrorism. Such dichotomization provided a basis for contrasting strategies by the state and international actors: instrumental use of good civil society organizations for liberal peace-building and regulation; and repression of bad civil society organizations as part of counter-terrorist measures (Stokke 2009). The War on Terror consolidated and intensified currents in security thinking and practice to increasingly treat aid and civil society organizations in strategic terms (Howell & Lind 2008). The post-9/11 global security regime has used coercion, co-option and cooperation to build a network of political actors spanning the public and private, governmental and non-governmental, commercial and charitable, and North and South. In a sense, civil society organizations are an integral part of this operation but inimical in another. It is interesting to see how civil society organizations work for or against ‘war on terror’ in different settings.

The case of Sri Lanka is considered for study for several reasons. In 2002 Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) arrived at an internationally supported Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), facilitated by Norway. This happened alongside the US war in Afghanistan. The US and the “coalition of the willing”, wanted a peaceful South Asia to help them to go ahead with their assault on Afghanistan. During the peace process in Sri Lanka, civil society organizations played an important role in conflict resolution.

On the other hand, global geopolitics played its role, where discourses on security, democracy and development were inextricably interwoven around the nodal point of liberal peace (Duffield 2001; Paris 2004; Richmond 2007). Thus, the question of peace in Sri Lanka became thoroughly internationalized, largely through ‘securitization’ of aid (Goodhand & Klem 2005). Behind convergence on technocratic concerns with development aid effectiveness lie the more complex and divergent geopolitical interests of defeating terrorism to ensure stability in the region and creating a sound political context for neoliberal development.

The practical geopolitics of peace promotion pursued by Sri Lanka’s aid donors reflect post-Cold War discourses on terrorism and securitization of aid. Nevertheless, the design and dynamics of the peace process were conditioned by domestic, military, political, and economic conditions as much as by international geopolitics (Kaplan 2009, Bastian 2007).  But, on the whole, conflict resolution failed and the resumption of war signalled the changing patterns and tagging of civil society organizations as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in relation to the Government of Sri Lanka. Civil society which supported the Sri Lankan state’s own “War on Terror” were approved and aided by the state. Those critical of the government faced difficulties.

The complexity of these patterns and changing trends make Sri Lanka a useful subject of study.

Pre- and Post-9/11 Civil Society Organizations and Conflict Resolution

Before 9/11, conflict resolution work by civil society organizations was seen as normal peacemaking and peace-building activity. Development discourse understood conflict resolution as another form of conventional aid mechanism like livelihood development and poverty reduction. Growth in peace theory and practice gave more emphasis for conflict resolution by civil society organizations since they could play an effective ground level role (known as Track 3) to build peace. Still this was considered as part of the development discourse. But the attack on the twin towers and the reaction from the West to it added a different dimension to it. Counter-terrorism policies were formulated and foreign aid and funds received by groups and organizations became a major component of the policy making. In this respect, civil society organizations working on conflict resolution were made to specifically consider the question of “what kind of peace is needed”.

Each donor (especially Western) formulated a policy based on this question. Also aid was securitised in three ways. Firstly, beneficiaries of the aid were carefully selected since donors did not want the money to end up in terrorist hands. Secondly, the security aspect was incorporated into the development discourse and, as a part of it, Security Sector Reforms (SSR), strategic defence partnership and modernisation of the military were introduced as part of development discourse. This was done for friendly states to fight the War on Terror, which was undertaken globally by the US and its allies. Thirdly, donors wanted to use civil society organizations working on conflict resolution for strategic purposes and defence interests. This, on the whole, drastically changed the way conflict resolution based civil society organizations functioned globally.

Theoretical Argument

Returning to the issue at hand, it is clear that the role of civil society organizations in conflict resolution has changed in the post-9/11 setting to become multi-dimensional, based on securitization of aid. It could be said that securitization of aid became central to the working dynamics of civil society organizations since most of them rely on aid. In this context, there is also the question of integrity and trustworthiness of civil society groups. The muted responses of ‘mainstream’ civil society groups to counter-terrorism efforts exposed the depoliticising effects of government and donor financing of this part of civil society. Mainstream civil society groups refers here to the government- or donor-funded sector within civil society that is engaged in service delivery, social welfare provision and the technical implementation of governance reforms. Thus it can be seen that there has been a change of dynamics in the operation of civil society organizations in the aftermath of 9/11. Another change following 9/11 was the re-absorption of development assistance into national security agendas and the consequences of this for aid policy and practice and for civil society organizations.

The securitization of development policy and practice was evident at a number of levels. At the macro-level, political leaders articulate the view that poverty, deprivation and terrorism are related, with the crudest versions claiming direct causality (Howell and Lind 2008). Duffield (2001) notes how conflict as an issue was increasingly incorporated into development agendas both as an impediment to development and as a development problem that could be addressed with greater quantities and/or more appropriate types of aid.

This argument can be applied to all civil society organizations. Firstly, governments use civil society to simplify an issue as a development problem. Typically, in Nepal, despite donor agencies like USAID, DFID, Norad working for more than fifty years, the country remains among the 50 countries with the highest percentage of poverty. On the other hand, as in Sri Lanka, the state can also use civil society to distort the whole problem. Now the Sri Lankan government claims that the conflict which was transformed into a war lasting 30 years was only a terrorist problem and not an issue concerning the minorities. Thus what Sri Lanka needs now is development, and civil society should assist the state.

Sidel (2004) argues that many regimes have taken advantage of a climate of insecurity to reconsolidate the primacy of the state. This agenda would shift the balance of power away from parliament and public towards an executive while, where possible, curtailing previously enjoyed democratic rights (Sen & Morris 2008; Tiger, 2007). Some governments and political leaders have used the rhetoric of the `War on Terror’ to justify repressive and restrictive practices against political opponents, secessionist movements and opposition groups. In countries where policing and judicial systems are weak, unaccountable and corrupt, repressive counter-terrorist legislation, policies and practices hit hardest the poor, marginalised and vulnerable groups, who lack the legal knowledge, money and contacts to defend themselves. The point here is that the intertwining of development, security and civil society is not accidental or wholly unintended but an integral strategic element of the War on Terror regime. This is because civil society, as a crucial actor in the constitution of political power and authority to govern, has been identified as a strategic battlefield on which the War on Terror will be won or lost.

The Case of Sri Lanka

9/11 and the US-led ‘War on Terror’ had implications for Sri Lanka. After the War on Terror operations were launched in Afghanistan, the US and its allies wanted a stable South Asia (Uyangoda 2009). At that point, war in Sri Lanka was in a position of hurting stalemate. This paved the way to the internationally monitored, Norwegian facilitated Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and peace process, which lasted from 2002 to 2008. The parties returned to the battlefield and the LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009, since when Sri Lanka is enjoying “peace”.

The partisan and ethnic polarization of Sri Lankan society leaves limited space for civil society activity. Early democratization forced upper class politicians into alliances with the rural lower middle class, paving the way to political patronage (Stokke 1998). Against this background, civil society organizations working on conflict resolution played a role during the peace process, as well as in the post war situation. The two settings are, however, vastly different and the impact of securitization of aid on civil society organizations is of interest.

Given recent experiences with elite-negotiated transitions to liberal democracy and structural adjustments to neoliberal globalization, it is assumed that liberal peace can be crafted through internationally facilitated elite negotiations (Paris 2004). The case was no different in Sri Lanka. Civil Society organizations were geared up by donors and the International Community to build liberal peace in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan civil society organizations used conventional development assistance ranging from infrastructure development to livelihood development. Conflict resolution was thus a new theme, and they turned into a lucrative trade for civil society entrepreneurs in the country. In this period, new forms of peace-building and advocacy-based NGOs mushroomed in Sri Lanka.

Most of the Western donors had an affinity for such NGOs rather than for typical community-based livelihood NGOs. The reason for this is twofold. Peace-building was priority and it was safer to fund peace-building than other typical civil society activism so that funds do not serve making arrangements for war. Both the above considerations are related and connected to securitization of aid. During the peace process, donors preferred advocacy-based civil society organizations working on conflict resolution that build on “Liberal Peace”. The purpose was to ensure relative ‘absence of war’. The question here is why. To the International Community the Sri Lankan war ‘unwanted’. As the US was at in war in Afghanistan, it wanted stability in South Asia (Sivasegaram 2009). So, civil society organizations in Sri Lanka were funded to keep afloat the Norwegian brokered CFA. This should also be seen as an effect of securitization of aid.

The idea of giving priority to security in matters of aid had its downside in Sri Lanka during this period. Firstly, the nature of aid led to the neglect of conventional development assistance which makes a real difference among the people, and people did not experience any ‘peace dividend’. Secondly, the conditionality of aid meant that civil society organizations working on conflict resolution would have no grassroots contact. Thirdly, the security aspect of aid enjoyed utmost priority and Security Sector Reforms (SSR) was a major component of funding by Donors in Sri Lanka since 2002. This, in turn, strengthened the state’s military capability and made the security machinery more efficient. Fourthly, the LTTE used its front organizations such as Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) to tap money from International donors and others in the name of aid for Tamils in LTTE-controlled areas. The LTTE was most successful in using civil society organizations in this double-faced operation which legalized black money as well used it as a source for further funding (Flanigan 2008). Donors continued to fund these civil society organs to keep LTTE engaged in the peace process.

The failure of the peace process and a change of government led to a change in the general atmosphere in the country in 2006. Undeclared war between the two sides resumed and soon built up to full fledged war in 2008. The new government started to echo the rhetoric of US, including proclamations about ‘was on terror’. Counter terrorism laws were passed and measures were taken to scrutinize channels of funding for civil society organizations. By this time the working dynamics of civil society organizations changed rapidly. The LTTE was declared a terrorist organization and banned in the US, UK, Canada, EU and Australia. As a chain reaction TRO and several other LTTE linked organizations around the world also were banned.

Eventually, the TRO was banned in Sri Lanka and organizations working with it faced problems. This created a schism among the civil society organizations, where there was already a clear divide among the actors with one section supporting the government’s War on Terror and other opposed to it, based on principles of fundamental rights and human rights. Counter terror operations in the country meant that numerous human rights violations occurred with the blessings of the government. Division in the civil society got demarcated along the lines of pro- and anti-government positions. The Sri Lankan state made new legislations that would restrict and control activities of civil society organizations, based on security.

A Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed to look into matters concerning civil society organizations, based on aid and sources of aid. As a result the ‘Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies’, an international NGO working on peace and conflict in Sri Lanka since 1998 was expelled and visa restrictions introduced for the expatriate staff of NGOs, The committee further concluded that conflict-resolution based peace-building civil society actors are no more a necessity since the problem in the country concerns terrorism and not peace. The government asserted that the steps taken were in the interest of ‘national security’. Measures by the government compelled NGOs to work with government, often work according to a government agenda. Thus conflict resolution was no more on the cards and civil society actors working on conflict resolution had no option but to stop their operations. Here, the security aspect severely affected the activities of civil society organizations, especially matters of conflict resolution as the government was against it. Moreover, vibrant and robust nationalistic organizations labelled those which talked of peace and conflict resolution as ‘traitors to the nation’. The government kept insisting that its war was on terrorism and refused to discuss conflict resolution. This made irrelevant the idea of conflict resolution work by civil society organizations.

During armed conflict, the government adopted a hard-line approach towards civil society organizations working towards conflict resolution. Interestingly, during the peace process, civil society organs working for conflict resolution were encouraged and funded by donors, based on securitization of aid, in keeping with doctrine of global War on Terror. The Sri Lankan version of ‘War on Terror’ faced its civil society organizations using the logic of ‘national security’. Since the end of the war, the government’s attitude towards this sector of civil society organizations hardened and civil society organizations were seen a counter weight and threat to the government (Manoharan 2006).  In a recent development, NGO Secretariat ― the coordinating body for all civil society organizations in Sri Lanka ― was brought under the Ministry of Defence.

The post war period saw more politically motivated violence on civil society actors critical of government, all of which was done on the pretext of addressing the threat to the national security. The government has created a situation where civil society organizations can work in Sri Lanka only if they accede to the agenda set by the government (MeeNilankco 2010).  The dilemma for civil society organizations was whether or not to go along with the government. Donors, especially western donors who were proponents of securitization of aid, faced a difficult choice. The question they had to ask themselves was whether or not to provide aid to the local version of ‘Global War on Terror’ and, if not, how to justify that decision within the paradigm of securitization of aid.

Discussion and Conclusions

It has been argued above, based on the experiences of Sri Lanka, that post 9/11 developments have changed the working dynamics of civil society organizations in all ambits of operation. It was shown that securitization of aid has been the main driver of change of the working dynamics of civil society organizations. Most organizations, especially those in developing countries, rely on aid, and development assistance has always been used as a foreign policy tool to lever support of governments. Donor funding is the key for the success of any civil society organization success in general. In this respect, it can be safely said that donor agendas supersede the goals of the organization. Major donors are the ones whom are conducting the global War on Terror and part that regime, so it is imperative that they will use their funds to utilise their intended goals. Pressures of resource competition, bureaucratic procedures and increasing scrutiny of civil society organizations – especially charities – in the War on Terror have led mainstream groups to focus on their own survival and interests rather than speak out in support of defending the spaces and actors of civil society, in particular for human rights and liberties.  Further research is needed to assert this in global terms.

As shown in relation to Sri Lanka, the ‘securitization of aid’ concept and linking security to aid has been used by states that fight their own War on Terror to suppress civil society organizations. Sri Lanka case is a classic example how the interconnection of aid and security enables the state to get away with gross violations without criticism as civil society organizations which protest were targeted as proponents or supporters of terrorism. The greater definition and ambit of terrorism and the ease with which the governments labelled any group or person as terrorist made it hard for the civil sphere to function. Mutual suspicion and fear of being wrongly labelled played a role in civil society activism and coordination. This has almost played into the hands of the states which openly exercise repression and violence in the name of counter-terrorism, especially where civil society actors lacked coordination among them and could not play the role of a counter weight. It is true that the role of civil society organizations as a pillar of democracy will one day be questioned against the post-9/11 backdrop. But the question of who a terrorist is and who is not will for long remain within the civil space also.
A valid answer could be: “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”.


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