2011-09-06 Norwegian envoy’s meeting with US officials raises questions on peace role

Various media outlets since yesterday have reported on a secret US embassy cable showing a Norwegian third-party facilitator in the peace process between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Philippine government discussing details of the peace talks with a representative of the US embassy in Manila. The cable puts to question Norway’s avowed impartiality in the peace processes it is involved in.

In the cable marked “Secret” because of the sensitivity of the conversation, Norwegian Special Envoy Vegar Brynildsen met with US embassy political officers on February 3, 2010 to discuss Norwegian efforts to facilitate peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. (10MANILA235)

The cable carried a “Strictly protect” clause since Brynildsen was seriously concerned that discussion of his meeting “could call into question the discretion of the Norwegian facilitators”.

Media outlets who reported on this particular cable focused on Byrnildsen’s observations on the peace process, the NDFP, its chief political consultant Jose Ma. Sison and the Left’s participation in 2010 Philippine presidential elections. Byrnildsen commented that Sison appeared “not in control” of the movement in the Philippines, citing alleged differences between the Europe-based negotiators and the Philippine-based leadership.

The NDFP represents the revolutionary movement that has been waging a four-decade long “people’s war” against the Philippine government and US imperialism. Sison, the NDFP’s chief political consultant, was previously listed as a “terrorist” by the US and EU. In 2009, the European Court of First Instance removed Sison’s name from the EU list.

Byrnildsen said it was a “real challenge” to work as facilitator while not knowing the inner workings of the NDFP. He also said that he was not “positively impressed with the quality of Philippine government intelligence on the NDFP”.

What media outlets have not reported on is the more obvious and potentially more embarrassing nature of the conversations. Norway’s third-party facilitator in the peace process, one who is supposed to be neutral, was reporting to the US embassy intimate details of the peace process between the NDFP and the Philippines.

Byrnildsen was right in asking the US embassy to “strictly protect” his identity because his meeting with the US embassy raises not just matters of discretion but also questions as to Norway’s avowed impartiality in its peace role.

The news of the cables came out, coincidentally, on the day the Norwegian government’s new facilitator Ture Lundh visited the Philippines to help jumpstart the talks between the GPH and the NDFP. Lundh would be speaking to representatives of both the GPH and NDFP from September 5-7 in Manila.

Byrnildsen’s “indiscretion” may raise concern among other countries and revolutionary groups engaged in peace talks that have Norway as facilitator. It is not clear if Norwegian envoys regularly share such reports to the US government, of if Byrnildsen case is just an exception. Questions will also arise on how the US will use such information on the peace processes, especially in conflict-affected areas where there are US interests involved.

Norway and peace processes

“Since the early 1990s, Norway has been involved in various ways – and to different degrees – in peace and reconciliation processes around the world. This is an important Norwegian foreign policy priority,” according to Norwegian foreign minister Jan Petersen in a speech delivered in Canada in 2005.

“We are also regarded in many quarters as impartial. Norway has no colonial past, and we are usually perceived as not having ulterior political or economic motives or agendas,” Petersen said.

Norway has been involved in varying capacities in peace processes in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Aceh in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Guatemala, Colombia and Haiti as well as in the Middle East via the “Oslo Channel”. According to Petersen, Norway’s peace process role enjoys domestic political support as well as resources.

It can be said that Norway has had a positive role in peace processes over the years, even if these processes do not always end in a successful resolution of the conflict. In the Philippines, the Royal Norwegian Government helped set up and funded the Joint Monitoring Committee to monitor human rights compliance of the GPH and the NDFP. The formation of the JMC is part of the agreements forged in the GPH and NDFP talks. The talks however still have to hurdle other substantive issues such as socio-economic reforms and political and constitutional reforms before a final peace accord is reached. Norway also continues to be the host of the GPH-NDFP peace talks which require a foreign, neutral venue for its meetings.

US perspective

The US describes Norway’s peacemaking role as part of “Norwegian exceptionalism”. In a confidential cable issued by the US embassy in Oslo in June 2009 (09OSLO386), the US said “Norwegians truly believe that there is something inherently good about being Norwegian and that Norway has a special role in promoting peace globally”

“Those who do not agree with Norway's priorities are viewed as, at best misguided and at worst morally wrong. USG policy makers should be aware of this approach as what makes Norway a driven and dedicated partner can also make it a loose cannon” the cable said.

The US has expressed interest in Norway’s role in peace processes worldwide and sought to find ways of cooperation. In another confidential Oslo embassy cable issued in November 3, 2006 (06OSLO1359), Charge d'Affaires Kevin M. Johnson wrote that Norway’s Foreign Ministry - Peace and Reconciliation Section (PRS) “strongly value(s) U.S. engagement, describing the combination of Norwegian quiet diplomacy and U.S. influence as an effective tool”.

“They see (the US) as having similar values and often working in the same places. PRS Director General Tore Hattrem noted that the U.S. and Norway played key roles in bringing the Sudan peace agreement to fruition and that we should continue to find areas for close cooperation,” the cable said.

“The PRS is also interested in our philosophical approach to conflict areas and in identifying ways to reinforce each other's efforts,” Johnson wrote.

In a side comment, Johnson wrote that “other Norwegian officials stress that whatever our differences, both the U.S. and Norway are transformational rather than "status quo" nations”.

The same US embassy cable cited Norway’s interest in working with the US State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. The CRS is an entity that coordinates US government efforts in reconstruction and stabilization work in conflict-affected areas. The S/CRS was put up in 2004 as a response to reconstruction and stabilization needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US S/CRS believes that “failing and post-conflict states pose one of the greatest national and international security challenges of our time”. The US “philosophical approach” to conflict areas is premised on the view that “struggling states have become breeding grounds for terrorist activity, violent crime, trafficking, and humanitarian catastrophes, which all possess the significant potential to spread and destabilize entire regions of the globe”.

US involvement in peace processes is aimed at “stabilizing” areas for US economic and security interests. If this is the “shared value” that the Norwegian and US governments are intent on pursuing, then there may be some cause for concern. US involvement in conflict resolution may carry an agenda that is not always in the best interests of the affected sectors.

The US for example supported a peace plan with Moro rebels Southern Philippines that would allow foreign governments and business to enter into economic agreements with a “juridical entity” that enjoys relative independence from the national government. While the idea of a Moro ancestral domain and juridical entity was progressive and consistent with Moro demands for self-determination, it was also suspected that the US pushed for the agreement so that it can reap economic benefits especially in mining and oil exploration in mineral-rich Mindanao.

The RNG has not publicly commented on the cable about Byrnildsen, but it might be forced to do so if only to address the issue of impartiality and to clarify the extent of its dealings with the US insofar as peace processes are concerned. ###

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