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'Damned if You Do, and Damned if You Don't': Nordic Involvement and Images of Third-Party Neutrality in Sri Lanka

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image of International Negotiation

Third-party actors who mediate or monitor peace often strive to uphold an image of neutrality. Yet, they commonly face accusations of partiality. The Nordic engagement in the Sri Lankan peace process is an illustration of this puzzle: despite the efforts to uphold an image of being neutral mediators and monitors, they have been seen as favoring one side or the other. This article suggests that part of the explanation for their failure to be seen as neutral lies in the fact that armed conflicts are characterized by certain asymmetries between the main antagonists – in capabilities, status and behavior. These imbalances pose particular challenges to the third party aspiring to act in a neutral manner. We suggest that third parties have two strategies available to deal with imbalances in the relationship between the contenders: 1) they can choose to disregard the asymmetrical relationship and act in an even-handed manner or 2) they can seek to counterbalance the lopsidedness. This article explores the dynamics of these strategies by analyzing the Nordic involvement in Sri Lanka's peace process that began in 2002.

Affiliations: 1: Associate Professor, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden;, Email:; 2: Assistant Professor, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Box 514, 751 20 Uppsala, Sweden;, Email:


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