By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Sri Lanka fielded it’s ‘A’ team led by President Sirisena for the 71st UN General Assembly in New York, USA attended by scores of Heads of State and Government of its 193 member states. President Sirisena spoke of “enough experience with a brutal war”, of making “people of Sri Lanka the happiest people on earth” and called on the international community to help his country on its path to achieving long-term peace. Reference was also made to Theravada Buddhism, though its relevance is questionable.
The ‘B’ team headed by Foreign Minister Managala Samaraweera attended Ocean Conference 2016 in Washington, USA at the invitation of US Secretary State John Kerry. It was attended by approximately 100 countries including a few Heads of State and Government. Minister Samaraweera spoke of a National Policy for Conservation and the Sustainable Utilization of Mangrove Ecosystems and called for the “discontinuation and banning of all fishing methods that harm marine eco-systems, worldwide, in particular, bottom trawling”. He failed to highlight the destruction of Sri Lanka’s marine reserves in its northern coast due to bottom trawling.
The ‘C’ team headed by Skills Development and Vocational Training Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, suitably designated ‘Special Envoy of President Sirisena’ for the occasion, attended the 17th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Margarita Island, Venezuela. Of the 120 member states, only around a dozen Heads of State and Government attended the summit in Margarita Island, perhaps the lowest since its inception in 1961. Minister Samarasinghe, during his address stated “Social-economic development is one of the most important issues that face our governments. As we move forward the 2030 Agenda, we must give high priority to the alleviation of poverty, the importance of food security, health and nutrition, education, water and sanitation, energy and infrastructure and greater access for women.” He also proposed key areas of focus for NAM to concentrate. A two sentence reference was made to terrorism “reaffirming the importance of concluding a comprehensive convention on International Terrorism at the earliest.”
President Sirisena, in his election manifesto, promised a ‘non-aligned’ foreign policy in case he was voted into office. He reiterated his promise during his first official overseas visit while visiting India. In this context, NAM in Margarita Island in Venezuela was the first NAM Heads of State/Govt. summit to be held since 09 January 2015. Therefore, it would have been very much in order to attend the NAM summit prior to proceeding to New York to attend the 71st UNGA, his second since assuming office. It would have also been a reaffirmation of the commitment of both Sri Lanka and his administration to non-alignment. Internal political turmoil in Venezuela is no concern of Sri Lanka even though it would appear to be very much the concern of habitual busy body nations. It is hoped, President Sirisena giving the NAM summit a miss is not a sign of a departure from non-alignment and also not as a result of a need to appease such busy body nations. It must be stated, big brother India too sent a ‘C’ team headed by its Vice President (an ‘A’ team would have been headed by the Prime Minister and ‘B’ team by the President). However, that is to be expected as India’s commitment to NAM since the advent of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s can at best be described as lukewarm.
Minister Samarasinghe’s two sentence reference to terrorism is indeed disappointing. Sri Lanka, faced the scourge of terrorism for nearly three decades. Terrorism today is a global menace and can be found globally, starting from India. Governments across the globe including the mighty USA, despite all efforts have not succeeded in stamping our terrorism in in both their home turfs and countries in spheres of their interests as applicable, one of the few exception being Sri Lanka. Therefore, Sri Lanka is eminently suited to spearhead an initiative for a comprehensive convention on international terrorism. In terms of timing, the current global crisis taking place in India, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Ukraine to mention a few countries, would have made it difficult for the likes of USA and Russia who are involved in almost every global crisis, to oppose such an initiative. India, who has complained to the United Nations of Pakistan fermenting terrorism in India too would have been hard pressed to oppose such an initiative despite the fact, India did ferment terrorism in Sri Lanka three decades ago. The call for such an initiative must essentially be made by the President or at least the Prime Minister and not by a Minister.
Towards this end, a lesson can be learnt from the manner former Prime Minister Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike undertook a similar initiative. During the third conference of the Heads of State / Government of Non-Aligned countries held in Lusaka from 8 to 10 September 1970, then Ceylon’s newly elected Prime Minister Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike proposed a new Foreign Policy initiative “the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace” (IOZOP) as a response to the militarization of the Indian ocean due to the ‘cold war’. It was based on declaring the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace though the more recognized form was for ‘an Indian Ocean free of nuclear weapons’. Her proposal was reflected in the summit’s final declaration. “Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace” was then included in the agenda of the 26th General Assembly in 1971. The resolution was adopted with 61 votes for, zero against and 55 abstentions. China voted in favour whereas USA, USSR, UK and France all abstained. The adopted Resolution 2832 (XXVI) called for the Indian Ocean with air space above and ocean floor within limits to be defined and to be designated as a zone of peace. It further called all nations to consider and respect the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace and to refrain from Power rivalries and competition enabling the exclusion of military bases and free of nuclear weapons. India’s attitude, in view of its Friendship Treaty with USSR signed in 1971was less than encourating. An Ad Hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean was established during the 1972 General Assembly and tasked with the study of practical measures to achieve the objectives of the Declaration. Regrettably, the initiative lost momentum after Prime Minister JR Jayewardene assumed office in 1977. As correctly envisages by former Prime Minister Bandaranaike, an endorsement at NAM summit by member states would have assured support for the initiative of almost three fourths of UN member states. A serious effort would have obviously involved pre-summit canvassing for support for the initiative, by a team led by the President himself.
Some might question the purpose and benefit to Sri Lanka in spear heading such an initiative, which in this writer’s opinion are twofold. Firstly, it would bring Sri Lanka to the limelight for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons as was the case commencing 1983. The President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have been visiting foreign countries and attending various international gatherings and summits in their quest to obtain acceptance and respectability besides aid and foreign investments. Photo ops with the likes of President and Mrs Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry etc. at multilateral gatherings unlike during a state visit related to bilateral relations is of little value other than for local consumption. Many nations would take cognizance of an initiative in defining and combatting terrorism, spearheaded by Sri Lanka due to its credentials of being one of the few nations to have overcome a ruthless terrorist organization after nearly thirty years. Secondly, the impact of worsening relations between India and Pakistan, currently trading accusations of fermenting terrorism in each other’s countries need be contained before it explodes and impact the entire South Asian region. Handling of terrorism in a country is best left to its government with the international community extending necessary support in containing the problem. However, if the issue threatens to spill over to neighboring countries or the region, such countries must take necessary steps and initiatives to ensure regional stability. Once again, in view of the foreign actors who were involved in Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism, it has the moral right to spearhead such an initiative.
A good start point in such a convention would be the vexed issue of achieving a global consensus of ‘who is a terrorist’.