Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Indian Ocean maritime cooperation and the strategic significance of Sri Lanka

"The lack of a coordinated international effort to uphold maritime security not only affects ocean-going vessels, but also the national security of coastal nations", stated Sri Lanka's Secretary Defence Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He expressed these view on Monday (14)delivering the inaugural speech at the 'Galle Dialogue'- Maritime symposium at the Light House Hotel in Galle.

"The Sri Lankan experience in combating the terrorist organisation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the LTTE, is instructive in this regard. During the period of the conflict in Sri Lanka, the LTTE smuggled in a formidable arsenal of weapons through its procurement and delivery network", he further said.

Full text of the speech delivered at the inaugural secession of the Galle Dialogue- 2011:

Minister of External Affairs, Excellencies, Secretary to the President, Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, Secretary to the Ministry of Ports and Highways, Secretary to the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Chief of Defence Staff, Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force, Distinguished delegates and invitees Ladies and Gentlemen.

I consider it a pleasure and a privilege to address you at the opening session of the "Galle Dialogue" Maritime Conference organised by the Ministry of Defence of Sri Lanka.

The Galle Dialogue was initiated in 2010 to facilitate increased cooperation between the nations interested in the security of the Indian Ocean region. During the first Galle Dialogue, the participants held fruitful discussions on the topic "Charting the Course for Sustainable Maritime Cooperation". Building on that theme, this year's Conference deliberates on "Challenges and Strategic Cooperation for Indian Ocean Maritime Concerns".

The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world, and borders over thirty nations. It is a resource rich ocean, with enormous reserves of oil, natural gas, minerals and a wealth of biological resources. It is estimated that approximately 60,000 ships cross the Indian Ocean each year, including nearly half of the world's containerised cargo. Only twenty per cent of the cargo transported through the Indian Ocean is traded within the region; the remaining eighty per cent is extra regional.

The energy security of many nations also depends on the Indian Ocean, as the fuel requirements of many industrialising nations is met through the energy resources transported through it. For all these reasons and more, the Indian Ocean's importance in the global context is very great. At the same time, it must be noted that the stability and maritime security of Indian Ocean is vulnerable to external threat.

Perhaps the most eye-catching of these threats is the piracy originating from Somalia, which has steadily become more dangerous during the last decade. Starting as a fairly localised activity in the Gulf of Aden, this piracy has grown to become a threat to ships plying routes far beyond the Somali coast. This is amply illustrated in the fact that more than thirty Somali pirates were apprehended in Maldivian waters not long ago. The Sri Lanka Navy too arrested some Somalis who were suspected of looking to engage in piracy and had drifted towards Sri Lanka. It is clear that the activities of the pirates are spreading at a rapid pace. Thousands of people have been affected by their attacks over the last several years. The total economic cost of piracy, when considering the costs of insurance, naval support, re-routing of ocean traffic and all other steps taken to protect vessels from this threat, has been estimated at close to 10 billion US Dollars per annum.

Existing international maritime laws and practices have proven ineffective in combatting the activities of the Somali pirates. Because merchant vessels were traditionally forbidden to carry weapons, the protective measures adopted by them were often too weak to withstand the escalating sophistication of the pirates. In response to this situation, some countries such as the United States have adjusted their maritime laws to enable private security personnel to travel on board merchant vessels. Sri Lanka, too, provides such security services.

A few countries have even expressed an interest in sending personnel from their national militaries on board merchant vessels to provide protection for those ships, and have requested Sri Lanka's assistance during transit.

While the steps taken by ship owners have been seen to be largely ineffective, interventions made by individual nations in providing greater protection for merchant vessels have not been uniform. It is our belief that the lasting solution to threats of this nature cannot be undertaken by individual nations in isolation, but only through greater international cooperation.

The multilateral efforts undertaken through International Task Forces to contain Somali piracy are laudable in this context. However, it is not enough. The risk posed by the Somali pirates is only one example of the threats facing maritime security. There are others. The best solution to all of them is greater cooperation between the maritime powers.

The lack of a coordinated international effort to uphold maritime security not only affects oceangoing vessels, but also the national security of coastal nations. The Sri Lankan experience in combatting the terrorist organisation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the LTTE, is instructive in this regard. During the period of the conflict in Sri Lanka, the LTTE smuggled in a formidable arsenal of weapons through its procurement and delivery network. At its peak, the LTTE had an arsenal that included mortar, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, surface to air missiles, armoured vehicles and even light aircraft.

None of these items were made in Sri Lanka. They were manufactured in various parts of the world, illegally procured through the LTTE's many front organisations and operatives, and smuggled to Sri Lanka through the sea. Using over twenty large vessels and a considerable number of trawlers registered under different flags, the LTTE shipped this equipment to Sri Lanka through international waters. Its large vessels lay anchored in international waters more than a thousand nautical miles away from Sri Lanka. Smaller vessels were dispatched to smuggle the items they carried to the coast. During the Humanitarian Operation to defeat LTTE terrorism, which took place between 2006 and 2009, the Sri Lanka Navy went into deep seas on five occasions to destroy eight of these floating warehouses.

The most disturbing implication of the Sri Lankan experience is that the brand of arms smuggling undertaken by the LTTE can be replicated by any terrorist organisation anywhere in the world. Far-reaching measures are needed at the highest level to address this threat in a coordinated fashion. All coastal nations are vulnerable to threats from the sea, and terrorists will exploit the weak points in our defences to their advantage. To combat this threat, it is vital that the maritime powers cooperate by sharing intelligence, and enhance maritime domain awareness through joint and coordinated patrols as well as exercises to enhance interoperability. Providing assistance to improve the resources and capabilities of less advanced naval powers will also enhance overall maritime security.

Another threat facing nations through the sea is the trafficking of persons. After the military defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the remaining vessels that operated in that group's international supply network began engaging in this illegal enterprise. Charging many thousands of dollars per illegal immigrant, these vessels transported hundreds of people through international waters to western countries such as Canada and Australia. This human trafficking operation carried out by the rump of the LTTE is especially dangerous as it allows trained terrorists to enter other nations in the guise of refugees. Seeking asylum under false pretences, these terrorists not only intermingle with economic migrants and try to escape justice, but they often involve themselves in criminal activities in the countries that accept them and pose a threat to domestic security.

Human trafficking benefits from a legal framework that does not have proper mechanisms to deal with such vessels in international waters. However, nations can work together to minimise this threat effectively. In this regard, I am pleased to note that Sri Lanka has worked closely with the Australian government in the recent past to minimise the incidents of human trafficking originating from Sri Lanka. Through enhancing coastal surveillance, augmenting patrols and putting in place an effective intelligence network between the two countries, this problem has been curtailed to a satisfactory level. However, we know that there are still Sri Lankans, joining together with other nationals, who travel illegally to Australia through third countries particularly in the South East Asian region. More needs to be done regarding this problem, especially through better coordination among the relevant countries.

Drug trafficking is another issue that can affect any nation. Apart from the immediate harms caused through drug smuggling, this racket provides a lucrative source of income for terrorists, insurgents and large criminal networks. Drug cartels maintain a symbiotic relationship with such groups. The LTTE, for example, generated enormous sums of money through their illegal drugs network that operated in Europe, South Asia and South East Asia. The drug infested Golden Crescent was a lucrative source for the LTTE, just as it is for other criminal networks. These networks smuggle drugs using the same modus operandi used by arms smugglers, using fishing boats and specially modified craft to conceal the cargo. The Sri Lanka Navy has come across many fishing boats transporting drugs across borders. Drugs are also sometimes smuggled in the midst of legal containerised cargo that is processed through the ports. Combating this problem requires greater information sharing, better screening practices and better coordination among nations.

Apart from these threats to nations, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing poses a risk to oceanic resources. Fishing is an important livelihood to many who live in coastal regions. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing threatens this livelihood. It is estimated that the total economic cost of pirate fishing runs into billions of dollars per annum. The environmental impact of such practices is also devastating. Many species of fish have already been over exploited, and the sustainability of fish stocks is increasingly at risk through overfishing. Use of destructive fishing gear and methods also has severe consequences. Monitoring the problem of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, is difficult. Acting against it is even more so. This is yet another area in which a concerted regional effort is necessary to mitigate the problem.

Another area of great concern is the marine pollution caused by various methods, including the dumping of industrial and other waste into the sea from shore. The discharge of waste from oceangoing vessels is also a serious problem. Monitoring marine pollution is a difficult undertaking, but even more disturbingly, it is an issue that is not often even addressed by coastal nations. More attention needs to be paid to tackling these common issues, which have a harmful long-term impact on the marine environment.

Given the nature of the common security and environmental threats facing the oceans, it is clear that individual nations acting in isolation will not be able to effect comprehensive or long lasting solutions. In the present era, the increasing sophistication of criminal networks and non-state actors makes it difficult for individual nations to withstand the threats posed by them if they stand alone. That is why Sri Lanka, as one of the smaller naval powers in the Indian Ocean, hopes to see greater cooperation within the region. In particular, the major powers in the region should work together with all affected nations to ensure that the seas are free of hindrance. At the start of this address, I elaborated on the vast importance of the Indian Ocean not only for the regional nations, but also for the world economy. It is in everybody's interest to work together to ensure its safety and stability.

In this context, it is also important to realise that most of the maritime security problems we presently face could have been mitigated at an earlier stage if sufficient cooperation had existed between the naval powers. The piracy originating from Somalia had the space to grow from a small, localised problem into a major maritime threat largely as a result of international inaction. Much the same can be said about the sophisticated criminal networks that engage in drug trafficking. It is imperative that the international community acts with sufficient speed to address future threats before they develop into severe problems. In particular, coastal nations have an important responsibility in ensuring maritime security, and we must not shirk our duty.

As the largest naval power in South Asia, India plays a major role in upholding the maritime security of this region. Sri Lanka too has a part to play, as it enjoys a very strategically significant geographic position in the Indian Ocean. Many major international shipping lanes pass the south of Sri Lanka, only a few nautical miles away from the newly developed Hambantota Port. With sufficient cooperation from the major naval powers in the region, Sri Lanka can play an active and significant role in upholding the safety of these critical sea lines of communication.

Towards this end, Sri Lanka has recently revamped and expanded its Coast Guard Department whilst further strengthening its vastly experienced Navy. If, with the assistance of friendly nations, Sri Lanka can obtain naval assets capable of operating in deep seas, our overall capabilities will be greatly increased. Considering also the warm relationships this country enjoys with the major naval powers in the region, I am certain that Sri Lanka will be able to play a greater role in upholding the maritime safety of the entire Indian Ocean region. This will be to the benefit not only of the regional nations, but to the world.

In concluding, I would like to thank all the delegates for their invaluable presence at this Conference, and express my utmost confidence that the Galle Dialogue will serve its purpose in facilitating and enhancing Strategic Cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.

Thank you.


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