The Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Co-operation (IORARC) was formally launched on March 6 in Mauritius at the end of a meeting of foreign ministers of fourteen countries around the rim of the Indian Ocean. This is a follow up of the so-called. 'Mauritius initiative' of 1995 when seven countries met in Mauritius, with the blessing of India, to discuss economic co-operation on a wide basis.
Sri Lanka's interest in Indian Ocean is well known, especially since its 1971 initiative in the UN General Assembly on the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. The efforts of the Ad Hoc Committee on the IOZP, chaired by Sri Lanka, have come to naught in view of the changed international situation resulting from the end of the Cold War.
"Great power rivalry" is no longer seen to prevail in the Indian Ocean. The nation states of the Indian Ocean region are not longer concerned about the military presence of the sole superpower. For example, the Indian navy does not find it difficult to have joint naval exercises with the US fleet in the Indian Ocean. Attempts to revive interest in the IOZP by trying to veer the work of the Ad Hoc Committee from the military to the non-military aspects of security have proved futile. India insists that the Declaration of 1971 must be implemented literally, with the co-operation of the great powers and the other major maritime users of the Indian Ocean. India maintains that the Declaration of 1971 cannot be used for purposes other than what it was formulated for and can only be amended through another resolution of the General Assembly.
India has thus far refrained from participating in another initiative of Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC), founded for co-operation in managing the ocean and its resources and founded on the concept of integrated ocean management. IOMAC is an inter-governmental forum bringing coastal and hinterland states of the Indian Ocean together with others who use the Indian Ocean.
Co-operation between the Indian Ocean countries and the technologically advanced countries is strengthened through the IOMAC Technical Co-operation Group (TCG). In 1991 the United States was elected Chairman of the TCG.
It is with this background of the co-operation already in place that the Indian Ocean rim initiative was launched. Among the matters discussed in Mauritius are the Charter of the IORARC and the criteria for admitting new members. Both these topics are of interest and concern to Sri Lanka.
The Charter of IORARC spells out the objectives of the association to "promote the sustained growth and balanced development of the region and of the member states, and to create common ground for regional economic co-operation". Trade, foreign investment, scientific and technological exchanges, tourism, the movement of persons on a non-discriminatory basis, and the development of infrastructure and human resources, are among its objectives. The Charter thus gives IORARC mandate which need not duplicate the work already being undertaken by IOMAC.
IOMAC is concerned with the development of the marine resources of the Indian Ocean. It is successfully engaged for example in the development and exploitation of the tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean. Another project is the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Sanctuary for Whales for All Time, to ensure the permanent protection and preservation of whale species in the Indian Ocean.
The original seven sponsors - Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Oman, India, Singapore and Australia - decided that a start should be made with a few countries. They felt that other countries should then be added as happened in the case of the European Economic Community (EEC) and the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) The forum would eventually be open to all countries of the Indian Ocean Rim.
The seven countries subsequently admitted to the Rim Community are Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Yemen. On what basis this addition was made is not quite clear. There are still other countries desirous of becoming members. It would be invidious, for example to exclude countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, to mention just two, which are strategically situated and have an obvious interest in the Indian Ocean. If any country on the Rim of the Indian Ocean is desirous of entering the Indian Ocean Rim Community there is no reason for that country to be excluded. The Charter itself states "The association will be open to all sovereign states of the Indian Ocean Rim which subscribe to the principles and objectives of the Charter and are willing to undertake commitments under the Charter."
Sri Lanka saw no reason for its exclusion and is known to have lobbied to enter the Rim Community before the formal launching. It was only to be expected that Sri Lanka would have argued strongly for the admission of other countries like Pakistan who are keen to gain admission and see no reason for their exclusion.
At the first ministerial meeting of the IORARC held last week, Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar referred to two reasons for the slow development of the Indian Ocean Region - "the vast asymmetries which prevail" and the "existing suspicions" among members of the region. The asymmetries are a glaring reality but existing suspicions can and should be removed.
It is unfortunate that those who wish to join the Rim should be excluded. It is inconceivable that Sri Lanka should have acquiesced in such exclusion. This will not help to remove "existing suspicions." The new association would have got off to a more auspicious start if there was transparency in the criteria for membership and it was made clear that it is not an exclusive "club" but a community open to all seriously engaged in a common quest to promote regional economic co-operation.
The Indian Ocean was once the scene of intense naval competition among the great powers. This was heightened during the period of the Cold War. The IOZP was the response of the littoral and hinterland states of the Indian Ocean to the security threat posed by this rivalry and the positioning of military bases including nuclear weapons.
With the end of Cold War confrontation it is now time to address issues of economic and technical co-operation and also the non-military aspects of security and stability, such as: trafficking in drugs, the proliferation of illegal arms, illegal migration, health issues like epidemics and pandemics and terrorism. The IORARC can be a useful forum for dealing with such issues if it opens its doors to all states of the Indian Ocean Rim which wish to participate, if the activities of such a forum do not conflict with other regional groupings like SAARC, and if it avoids duplication with existing arrangements, like IOMAC, for Indian Ocean development.
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