LAST MONTH, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik visited Srinagar, met with the separatist leadership there and, after returning, went on to visit Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. On the Indian side, he told The Indian Express, he had been invited by Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravishankar. The Indian government has made no comment; the Norwegian Ambassador to India has clarified that it was a personal visit.
While the visit has fuelled much speculation about the possibility of a new peace effort, that would be unexpected given that several times, New Delhi has turned down — not always politely — offers of “mediation” in the Kashmir issue.
But as a country that gives high national priority to what it calls “peace diplomacy”, Norwegian interest in Kashmir is neither sudden nor surprising. It is rooted in the country’s 25-year history of playing peacemaker across the world, and its vision of itself as one.
According to a Norwegian government website, the country has been involved since 1993 in countries as far apart and as different as Afghanistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Myanmar, Nepal, Israel and Palestine, the Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Norway has also provided technical and financial assistance to peace processes in Aceh, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Syria and Uganda.
Norway & Kashmir
The presence of a large Kashmiri diaspora in Norway, and in other Scandinavian countries, is also a factor. Norway-based Rawlakot businessman Ali Shanawaz Khan, who heads the Kashmiri-Scandinavian Council, has been lobbying the Stortinget (Norwegian parliament) on the Kashmir issue for two decades. The Stortinget has had a subcommittee on Kashmir since 1999; its Foreign Affairs Committee had been interested in the Kashmir situation since the mid-1990s. From time to time, Norwegian parties have called on their government to mediate between India and Pakistan.
In 2009, the party congress of the Christian Democratic Party (CDP), to which Bondevik belongs, asked Norway to make efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue. This was not Bondevik’s first visit to Kashmir either. In March 2017, Bondevik, who was PM during 1997-2000 and 2001-2005 and heads a conflict-resolution outfit called the Oslo Centre, visited PoK, where he met President Sardar Masood Khan and Prime Minister Raja Muhammad Farooq Haider Khan, besides Tariq Fatemi, then Special Adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs.
“Bondevik underscored that the Kashmir issue is a long standing conflict and needs a political solution, taking into account the UN Security Council Resolutions and the will of the Kashmiri people, along both sides of the Line of Control,” a statement by the Pakistan Foreign Office said at the time.
In May 2017, CDP leader Knut Arild Hareide tabled a motion calling for Norway to help end the “long festering dispute in a peaceful manner”. Replying to the motion, Foreign Minister Borge Brende called on Pakistan and India to hold a dialogue.
Norway itself is quite clear that it does not step in to help resolve a problem unless invited by all parties to the problem. Bondevik told The Indian Express that Pakistan and the government of PoK welcomed his engagement, but he has had no contact with the Indian government. And while he was not representing the Norwegian government, this is how all of Norway’s peacemaking efforts have typically begun — through NGOs, working with local civil society organisations.
Around the world
The Norwegian desire to play peacemaker across the world often evokes the question: What’s in it for Norway? Back in 2003, a Sri Lankan politician derisively called Norway, then facilitating peace talks between the government and the LTTE, “a nation of salmon eaters turned international busybodies”.
But the host of the Nobel Peace Prize believes its credibility is enhanced by its limited strategic interests, its geographical distance from states in conflict, and its proximity to major western powers.
The official evaluation of Norway’s role in Sri Lanka, which ended with a failed ceasefire and bitterness on all sides (Goodhand, J, B Klem and G Sørbø, 2011, Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009), explains Norway’s attraction for peacemaking thus: “The role has been based on the belief that as a small and wealthy nation, with limited geo-strategic interests and no colonial baggage, Norway has a comparative advantage as well as a particular responsibility in this area. The peace-making role also serves Norwegian interests as it appears to open doors with powerful players on the international scene.”
In recent years, there has been criticism within Norway of peace diplomacy, especially as there were few positive outcomes. The Oslo Accords did not lead to a two-state settlement in the Middle East as envisaged. In Sri Lanka, the ceasefire Norway mediated broke down, and led to the termination of its role by the Sri Lankan government. Some critics have also argued that Norway promotes its own narrow interest and projects itself as a bigger player than it is on the international stage — the 1993 Oslo Accords and the process that led up to it gave Norway access to the highest levels in the US State Department; the Sri Lankan effort brought it closer to New Delhi.
Responding to such criticism, in 2008, Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store argued that Norway spends more than NOK 800 million per year on peace efforts, not to “promote our reputation and winning international prestige” but for values and interests: “Values, because we — as a rich nation in a peaceful corner of Europe — have a moral responsibility to engage in the cause of peace and development for others. And interests, because ultimately our security is served by less suffering and less instability and more progress in the fight against world poverty”.