Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe received a clean bill of health from a New York-based hospital, enabling him to address an important UN conference this week on conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources. The fact that Mr Wickremesinghe was deemed hale and hearty is to be welcomed. It permitted him to attend [...]


Realities of the Indian Ocean


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe received a clean bill of health from a New York-based hospital, enabling him to address an important UN conference this week on conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources.
The fact that Mr Wickremesinghe was deemed hale and hearty is to be welcomed. It permitted him to attend a UN conference with direct and vital impact on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka woke up early to the need to prioritise the use and management of the country’s marine resources. And this country has pioneered UN efforts on oceans.

The yesteryear’s colourful ambassador, Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe, was in a team that negotiated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. He was President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, having been appointed by acclamation. He also chaired several ad-hoc committees on matters related to the seabed, ocean floor and, specifically, the Indian Ocean. Other Sri Lankan diplomats and advisors played a crucial role in this arena over the decades.

In 1971, Sri Lanka proposed to the 26th Session of the UN General Assembly to adopt a declaration intended to make the Indian Ocean together with the airspace about it and seabed below “for all time…a zone of peace”. The Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace was, thus, spearheaded by the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike who, by then, had earned an international reputation through her leadership of the Non-aligned Movement.

The Declaration called upon the “great powers” to enter into immediate consultations with the littoral States of the Indian Ocean with a view to, among other things, halting the further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the Indian Ocean; and to eliminating from the Indian Ocean “all bases, military installations and logistical supply facilities, the disposition of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction and any manifestation of great Power military presence in the Indian Ocean conceived in the context of great Power rivalry”.

Historically, therefore, Sri Lanka was a significant participant in and contributor towards promoting peace and order in the seas. This week, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was told by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that Sri Lanka and Portugal (from where the latter hails) had a close association with the ocean. This is true, except that ancient Portugal used the seas for its various conquests. Being great navigators in the Old World, it even invented the first mathematical instrument called the “nonius” which is employed to take fine measurements on the astrolabe.

Mr. Wickremesinghe in his speech this week reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s endorsement of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. This puts him at odds with prevailing US policy under President Donald Trump. Calling climate change a “hoax”, the US leader recently reneged on his country’s support for a global drive to reduce atmospheric temperatures.

“We are deeply conscious that our fate is not in our hands alone,” Mr. Wickremesinghe said, before reiterating Sri Lanka’s commitment to “every significant international environmental agreement” including the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The country was especially vulnerable to the impact of ocean environments and climate change. Rising temperatures meant melting glaciers and higher sea-levels which would impact on island nations.

For nations like Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister observed, the oceans were life and death. The Indian Ocean provided employment, food, avenues of trade and commerce. Rise of the seas, pollution of oceans, depletion of fish or good coastal eco systems were not abstractions; they formed the core of our existence.

The Indian Ocean now had the second largest accumulation of floating plastic waste in the world. It was also where large tankers, container vessels and the like of the West plying between West and East dumped their waste. Oil and tar were common features on Sri Lankan beaches. Studies have estimated the amounts of oil and petroleum discharged into the Indian Ocean to make up about 40 percent of the total petroleum spill of the world oceans.

These are all massive challenges. More recently, undercurrents of naval build ups in the South China Sea are being felt in the Indian Ocean. China has established its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, causing serious concerns in New Delhi about the implications. This, too, is in our backyard.

Over and above all this, Sri Lanka faces a continuing issue of poaching and rape of marine life in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. Successive Sri Lankan Governments are doing little to stop the armadas of illegal fishermen from India.

Mr. Wickremesinghe told the UN conference that his administration was implementing the Sri Lanka National Plan of Action on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. What of the Indian side? India has now asked for time to wean its fisher folk away from bottom-trawling in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. But their funds will go towards assisting their own. And the plea to allow them more time to divert their destructive, bottom-trawling fisher folk to deep-sea fishing is an old one. In the end, all this might be too little, too late for Sri Lankan fishermen and our precious marine resources.

Some other countries have not been as tolerant. Last year, news broke that Indonesia has been blowing up foreign boats confiscated for fishing illegally in its waters. The 23 vessels comprised 13 from Vietnam and 10 from Malaysia. The most Sri Lanka does is to detain the trawlers of intruders and even release some of them as parts of diplomatic “deals”.

Research in countries like Somalia has shown that illegal fishing by foreign vessels was “a fundamental grievance that sparked piracy and provides ongoing justification for it”. Studies have observed that, according to coastal residents “extensive illegal fishing inflicts damage in several ways. Most obviously, ‘foreign trawlers’ directly compete for fish with local communities, including those where fishing is the traditional, and only, livelihood”.

Which brings us to this point: UN conferences–attending them and delivering pertinent speeches at them–are well and good. But it remains debatable how far they have contributed towards changing ground realities, so to say, such as these.

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