The ‘politics of distraction’ seemed to achieve new heights as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ruled in one of the most important and long-awaited cases of its history a month ago on February 25. In what has been termed ‘a block buster judgment’ the United Nation’s highest court rejected the United Kingdom’s claim of sovereignty over the Indian Ocean, Chagos Islands, and determined that Britain should return the islands to its former colony, Mauritius, ‘as rapidly as possible’. The ICJ ruling deemed UK’s occupation of the Indian Ocean archipelago that houses the secretive United States, Diego Garcia military base, illegal under international law.
The same week, by design or accident, a flurry of international activity in the “Indo Pacific” glossed the landmark ICJ ruling: Global media was attention focused on Donald Trumps’ visit to Vietnam to shake hands with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and fighting flared on the Indo-Pakistan border in Kashmir; while in Sri Lanka, media focused on the visit of former US Ambassador to the United Nations and Harvard Don, Samantha Power, who waxed eloquent about Human Rights to the island’s political elite at the BMICH. Ms. Power’s discourse to felicitate Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera discreetly made no reference to the ICJ ruling that effectively implies on-going human rights violations against Chagossians, who were forcibly displaced from their island home in the 1960s –not too far from the southern coast of Sri Lanka by the United Kingdom.In 2015 the US, UK and allies took the Govt. of Sri Lanka to the UNHRC and are holding it accountable for grave human rights violations during a 30 year armed conflict.
Although the unravelling of European empires was one of the formative moments of the modern world system, including the birth of South Asian States, the ICJ ruling that UK should end control of what it terms ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ (BIOT) in 2019, underlines the fact that the process of de-colonization is far from complete.
The UK took control of Chagos Islands from Mauritius 50 years ago. The British government then evicted the entire population before leasing one of its largest atolls to the United States to build a large military base– Diego Garcia. Mauritius was in the middle of negotiating its independence from the UK at the time and repeatedly condemned the deal. In February 2017 the UN General Assembly asked the ICJ to offer its opinion in on whether the process had been concluded lawfully. Mauritius argued that it was forced to give up the islands in 1965 in exchange for independence. The ICJ ruled that the islands were not lawfully separated from the former colony of Mauritius. When UK broke off the islands from Mauritius in 1965, it violated UN Resolution 1514 (XV) on Decolonisation that argued against the break-up of colonies. The ruling puts the US naval base Diego Garcia in question and has implications for Sri Lanka and other small island nations in the IO. The Heritage Foundation in its recent report noted a US marine logistics Hub is in the works in Trincomalee, a deep-water natural harbour coveted by competing big powers in the Indian Ocean
The United States has faced legal challenges to its Diego Garcia naval base for the past five decades. The bereft Chagossians took their case to British courts, hoping to exert pressure to return the islands to them. Subsequently, the attempt by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the United Nations to constitute the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’ posed a challenge to US operations on Chagos Islands. In 1970, the Non-Aligned summit in Lusaka, Zambia, declared that the Indian Ocean must be a ‘zone of peace from which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases’ must be excluded. The United States attacked this idea. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt told the US Congress in 1974 that the USSR stood atop the ‘central part of the West’s energy jugular down to the Persian Gulf.’ For that reason, the Indian Ocean – and Diego Garcia – has ‘become a focal point of US foreign and economic policies and has a growing impact on our security.’
Zone of Peace? IO Coastal Communities, poverty and military bases
Like the Chagossians who were forcibly displaced to Mauritius and Seychelles, Sri Lankan and other Indian Ocean Rim coastal communities tend to experience high rates of poverty, debt and socio-economic hardship. Fisheries are one of the most significant renewable resources that Indian Ocean countries possess to secure food supplies, maintain livelihoods and assist economic growth, in addition to the IO’s non-living resources that include hydrocarbon, LNG, and valuable minerals. The ICJ ruling that Britain needs to vacate Chagos Islands may shine a light and facilitate a long overdue process of de-colonization of the IO, and enable education, knowledge, and technology transfer to ensure policy and legal frameworks that enable Indian Ocean rim countries and their often impoverished and debt-trapped, coastal communities to benefit from their rich marine resources, both living and non-living.
Indian Ocean fisheries which is worth over $3 billion according to the World Wild Life Fund produce around a third of the world‘s tuna and include the valuable southern bluefin tuna (SBT) fishery, as the IO contains the spawning grounds for this species: Yet much of this is fished by distant water fleets from France, Spain, EU, as well as, industrialized Asian states such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, who sit on the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), where that have been complaints that fishing quotas benefit distant water States. Indian Ocean littoral states have been primarily engaged in near water and artisanal fishing due to lack of technology, information and knowledge transfer, as well as, poor governance structures in the Fisheries Sector to up-scale and industrialize fisheries, and or compete with distant water fishing states that currently trawl the IO deep seas where they have sometimes acquired fishery quotas of small island states.
“Zone of Peace? Ocean Grabbing and Distant Water Fishing States
Chagos Island’s case may be seen as the tip of an ice berg in a long overdue process of decolonization of the Indian Ocean so that local communities may benefit from their rich ocean resources, living and non-living. The growing global demand for natural resources has triggered a “race” to their exploitation and possession, especially in developing countries. Most desired are water, land, forests, raw materials (oil, gas, mineral and precious stones), fisheries and genetic resources. Emerging economies, Western states, multinational corporations and international financial institutions have become the biggest “buyers” in a race that on one hand strengthens economies and creates investment opportunities and on the other threatens local communities and environmental protection. 
Marine resources in particular present opportunities and risks associated with their potential exploitation given knowledge and information asymmetries and lack of technology transfer to developing countries whose people may know relatively little about the resources found in their or the world’s oceans.Their exploration and production pose immense technical challenges on the one hand, while there is insufficient public awareness and debate about these resources and their utilization on the other. Oil, gas, minerals and methane hydrates lie in the lightless depths of the oceans, and their extraction is hidden from sight. Even the products manufactured from them are not always obvious or tangible in our daily lives.
The term “ocean grabbing” has been used to describe actions, policies or initiatives that deprive small-scale fishers of resources, dispossess vulnerable populations of coastal lands, and/or undermine historical access to areas of the sea. Rights and access to marine resources and spaces are frequently reallocated through government including inter-governmental or private sector initiatives to achieve conservation, management or development objectives with a variety of outcomes for different sectors of society.
Sri Lanka with other IO rim states is richly endowed with abundant marine resources, living and non-living, fisheries and aquaculture resources, as well as, yet to be exploited liquid natural gas (LNG), possibly with oil in the Mannar Basin while being mineral rich in the Bay of Bengal, including the valuable Pullmodai mineral sands deposit that keeps replenishing itself. Under the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Sri Lanka may claim almost 15 times more ocean area than land extent because of the peculiarities of its Continental Shelf, for an extended Exclusive Economic Zone (EEC).
During the negotiations leading up to adoption of UNCLOS Sri Lanka established the limits of the basic maritime areas over which it would have the right to make laws and regulations, and to enforce them: the Territorial Sea (12 miles from the “baseline”, (essentially the coast) over which it would have rights similar to those exercised over its land territory; the Contiguous Zone, 12 miles beyond the Territorial Sea in which it would have certain rights to prevent breach of its customs, fiscal, immigration and sanitary laws); the Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 miles from the baseline, in which it would have sovereign rights and jurisdiction for the purpose of exploring and exploiting natural resources both living (fish, seaweeds) and non-living (minerals, energy), while allowing other States to exercise the freedoms given by the Convention to use the area; the Continental Shelf comprising the sea-bed and sub-soil of the submarine areas that extend beyond the territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of the land territory up to the outer edge of the continental margin, subject to constraints provided for in the Convention, up to a maximum distance of 350 miles from the baseline.
As the maps show Sri Lanka’s expected territorial seas and ocean area particularly with the claimed extended EEZ are about 20 times more than its land mass and there are no countries in proximity south of the island almost to the South Pole, except Maldives and Chagos Islands atolls. Assessments reveal extensive mineral assets in the eastern seas in the Bay of Bengal and known LNG stocks with possible oil deposits in the Mannar Basin.
Today we are witnessing a major process of enclosure of the world’s oceans and fisheries resources, including marine, coastal and inland fisheries. Ocean grabbing is occurring mainly through policies, laws, and practices that are (re)defining and (re)allocating access, use and control of fisheries resources away from small-scale fishers and their communities, and often with little concern for the adverse environmental consequences. Existing customary and communal fisheries’ tenure rights systems and use and management practices are being ignored and ultimately lost in the process. Ocean grabbing thus means the capturing of control by powerful economic actors of crucial decision-making around fisheries, including the power to decide how and for what purposes marine resources are used, conserved and managed now and in the future. As a result, these powerful actors, whose main concern is making profit, are steadily gaining control of both the fisheries’ resources and the benefits of their use.
As Mads Barbesgaard notes; “Increasingly, under the rubric of ‘Blue Growth’, global policy processes that purportedly align the needs of the poor with profit interests and environmental concerns are being pushed forward by burgeoning alliances of environmental NGOs, the private sector and international institutions. These blue growth policy proposals, drawing on market-based mechanisms, effectively open up for widespread commodification, yet are being advocated as the only ‘sustainable’ response to the increasingly dire straits of the ocean’s ‘health’. Coupled with this broader process of ‘selling nature to save it’, valuation efforts that also take the carbon storage and capture abilities of coastal ecosystems into account are increasingly being pushed as a crucial tool to fight the climate crisis. While proponents guarantee sustainable outcomes, similar market-based conservation efforts on land have had huge socio-ecological consequences for communities on the ground. Will blue growth projects have similar consequences for coastal communities?
Blue Growth: Conservation sans local communities and Southern Voices?
Increasingly environmental discourses are also used to deny local communities access to marine resources, including inter-governmental negotiations on marine resources, that lack consultation with southern fisheries communities. Again the Chagos Islands case is instructive. In April 2010, the British Foreign Office said that 640,000 square kilometres of the archipelago would now be a ‘marine reserve,’ which should remain uninhabited. The British government told the US government – in a secret cable–that the ‘former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos were a marine reserve.’ This was environmental conservation for military purposes. No statement was made to remove the US base from Diego Garcia, which would be at the heart of the marine reserve. In 2015, Mauritius went to the court of arbitration at The Hague, where they won a ruling that the British declaration of the marine reserve was illegal. The UK had not consulted either Mauritius or the Chagossians. Britain eventually said that the Chagossians would not be able to exercise their right to return because of the objections of the US military.
There is a need for southern voices, particularly, south Asian and African voices from IO rim states to inform debates on frameworks for evaluating whether marine conservation, management or development may amount to ocean grabbing and proposes an agenda for future research and actionIncreasingly environmental discourses are also used to limit local Indian Ocean communities access to marine resources, including some aspects of the CITES negotiations, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention on marine resources, given lack of awareness and technical expertise and strong institutions among Indian Ocean rim States in the negotiation process.
A recent report by the Transnational Institute, Masifundise and Afrika Kontakt on Ocean Grabbing shows how the rise of market-based fishing policies that favour large-scale aqua-industries is systematically dispossessing fishers of the means to livelihood. The report cites examples of luxury beach-resorts in Sri Lanka where fishermen can no longer get to the coast, the destruction of mangrove areas in Ecuador to promote export-oriented shrimp aquaculture that has destroyed fishing habitats, and the dramatic rise of Rights Based Fishery (RBF) policies that have handed over large tracts of ocean to industrial fishing companies in Europe, Canada and elsewhere.
The common denominator in all of these cases is the exclusion of small-scale fishers from access to fisheries. In nearly every case, the grabs are technically ‘legal’, hidden inside policy documents, trade agreements, conservation mandates and fishing policies. What is left out of these documents is the impact of these decisions on our natural heritage and the livelihoods and food sovereignty of over half a billion people around the world who depend on small-scale fishing. The World Bank’s Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO) is one-such legal framework for ‘grabbing’. Bringing together a set of powerful actors– from USAID to the Walton Family Foundation (the family behind Walmart) to big environmental NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund, GPO’s goal is to spread private property rights over the ocean’s fish resources. Its premise is that the lack of economic and environmental ‘sustainability’ in fisheries around the world is due to a lack of property rights, rather than an issue of equity or justice. The effect of this one-size-fits-all solution is that it strengthens powerful political actors at the expense of the majority and leads to a market for the new owners to trade away these rights as they please.
Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Sector: Governance and Islanded Development Policy
The IO Tuna fishery industry is worth between $ 2-3 billion the WWF estimates. Although Sri Lanka as an island nation has extensive Indian Ocean marine and fisheries resources the country’s fisheries sector accounts for only about 1.8 % of the national GDP. Sri Lanka has exclusive fishing and economic rights for an ocean area of 500,000 square kilometres and a coastal line of 1700 km in addition to inland water bodies, which makes fishery to be one of the promising industries in the country.  Fisheries provides direct or indirect employment for about 540 000 people (7 % of the labour force). The annual production of the sector is about 550 000 tonnes of fish and 85 % of this comes from marine fisheries of which 60 % is landed in fishing ports.
For decades succeeding fisheries ministers and the Fisheries Ministry of the Government of Sri Lanka has found it easier to sign over Sri Lanka’s fishing rights, ironically to “aid” donors to the sector, ironically, rather than ensure the transfer of knowledge, and technology to actually enable Sri Lankan Fisheries to up-scale, industrialize into deep water fishing to benefit the local fisheries communities and businesses. What is needed is good governance forward thinking to up-scale and industrialize Sri Lanka’s southern fisheries sector to enable sustainable deep sea fishing with a masterplan, road map and achievement targets.
The country continues to spend valuable foreign exchange on importing fish. According to the statistics of the Fisheries Department, the quantity of fish imported from 2018 has been 84,463 metric tons. A sum of 32,726 million rupees has been spent for this purpose. Dried fish, sprats, Maldive fish, canned fish and live fish (ornamental fish) have been imported. “Such a large amount of money flowing out of the country is a serious situation. Recently, on request of the fisher community, State Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development recently decided to take steps to reduce fish imports.  The Minister said that such a decision has to be taken with the objective of safeguarding the local fishermen and fisheries industry and it has been decided to strictly enforce the import restriction during the period from September to when fish harvest is high. By empowering the fishermen to protect the local fisher folk and raise fish harvest and by providing the necessary facilities to make the maximum contribution to meet the fishery needs of the country, a large amount of money can be retained within the country,” the State Minister said.
Despite the existence of rich Bluefin tuna fisheries grounds in the Indian Ocean where Sri Lanka enjoys a prime location, the island has been unable to industrialize and up-scale the fisheries sector and develop it as a leading export and foreign exchange generating industry; this despite arguably because of decades of international development “aid” projects to the fisheries sector and Ministry of Fisheries, from the very same distant ocean countries whose fleets harvest in and off Sri Lanka’s Exclusive economic Zone (EEZ), France, Spain, Japan and Korea, Taiwan and more recently China. It would appear that reliance on foreign aid and experts has contributed to under-development of Sri Lanka’s Fisheries and Marine resources.
Tuna is high-value and an important but not a well managed fishery in the Indian Ocean and Sri Lankan EEZ. There are claims that the Indian Ocean stock is currently overfished and has no proper management regulations aimed at with sustaining the stock.In the Indian Ocean, tuna catches increased rapidly from about 179,959 t in 1980 to about 832,246 t in 1995. They have continued to increase up to 2005 where the catch reached 1,318,648 t, forming about 26% of the world catch. However, since 2006 onwards there was a decline in tuna catch and in 2010 the catch was only 1,257,908 t. Tuna production in India continued to increase with fluctuations from 63,633 t during 2001-2005 to an of average 78,400 t during 2006-2010, and in 2010 the catch declined again to only 65,863 t.
Presently, Tuna accounts for around 42% of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch and 49% of the marine fish catch, amounting to approximately 143,000 tons. But like the Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna the Indian Ocean Tuna species– Yellow-fin Tuna (Kelawalla), Skipjack (balaya) and the Big-eye Tuna once common, are also facing a threat due to unsustainable fishing practices. The IOTC allocates a quota system among fishing nations to regulate the Tuna catch in the Indian Ocean, setting up a maximum sustainable Tuna yield. At the moment, the maximum sustainable Tuna yield is set at 350,000 tons for Yellow-fin Tuna and 110,000 tons for Big-eye Tuna. However, even the distant water fishing nations like France due to colonial ownership of small island in the Indian Ocean are members of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), and there are complains the quota system is favouring them.
Indian Ocean littoral states have been engaged in near water and artisanal fishing due to lack of technology, information and knowledge transfer to up-scale and industrialized fisheries sectors. Sri Lankan and Indian marine fish harvest is mainly around coastal waters up to 100 meters depth and about 90 per cent of the catch comes from up to 50 m.While overcrowding of many existing fisheries habours with small scale vessles has been indicated, there has been little attempt to up-scale and industrialize fisheries sector for deep sea fishing in the Southern seas of Lanka which are adjacent to large Tuna areas and were relatively unaffected during the 30 years of war.
A recent revalidation of marine fisheries potential in India indicated that the fishing pressure on the stock in near shore waters has gone up considerably and signs of over exploitation of species. While northern coastal fishery faces issues like the sustainability, resources conservation and management, Sri Lanka’s Southern seas are richly endowed, and there is ample scope of increasing production by venturing into deeper waters of the EEZ, while the norther seas were also less fished due to the armed conflict.
EU, France and Spain sit on the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and there are complaints that fisheries quotas favour the distant water fleets, to the detriment of livelihoods of poor coastal fisheries communities and sustainable fisheries. But regional fishing bodies in the Indian Ocean have only policy recommendation functions, meaning it’s up to the individual states to implement measures to manage fisheries effectively.
Conventionon International Trade in Endangered Speciesof Wild Fauna and Flora
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), also known as the Washington Convention, is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. Washington with is not a signatory of UNCLOS. The May 2019 CITES convention is targeting ocean and marine resources at this time, and what is termed illegal, unreported and un-regulated (IUU) fisheries practices, and trade in fishery more often than not by less technologically advanced fishers, particularly of small island nation states.
The question remains: would CITES billed as the largest ever conference of its kind held in Sri Lanka, be yet another attempt, indeed the next generation in legalese, technology and ‘innovation’ to limit access to and trade in IO ocean resources by less technologically advanced IO rim countries and small island nation states, while legitimizing Indian Ocean resource grabbing by distant water fishing States and colonial powers that continue to dominate the Indian Ocean resource extraction process? Local fisheries communities and organizations have not been consulted in the CITES process in Sri Lanka – the host state of the convention which this time round is targeting ocean resources
Whereas the priority should be: 1) enabling local, often impoverished, IO fisher communities that mainly engage is near shore and artisanal fishing to scale up and harvest their ocean resources, which are currently also over- exploited by distant water, former colonial powers that trawl the deep seas, 2) limiting if or out-right banning fleets from distant water fishing States harvesting in the Indian Ocean, and 3) reviewing if not out-right overturning the current quota allocation system to enable fish Stocks to recover form over-fishing by large distant ocean trawlers and local Indian Ocean rim communities to harvest IO resources.
CITES which may herald the next generation in ocean grabbing would identify lists of ‘endangered species’, the trade in which have to be highly monitored with expensive and sophisticated tracking and information technology, and various trade conditionalities that would benefit and enable States that have such technology and multinational corporations given Technology dominance.
Various other proposals are on the table to make local IO communities pay for DWFS over-fishing in IO. For instance, an organization called Oceans 5 supports a questionable ‘innovative’ project to develop a “debt for nature swap”that will establish large marine protected areas and a permanent trust fund for the people of the Seychelles. Sri Lanka, currently in a Washington Consensus a debt trap and may well be compelled to do debt for nature’ swaps with IO fisheries grounds in its EEZ in the context of ongoing CITES conference negotiations. Such a scenario is unfolding with the valuable Pullmodai mineral sands, in the East Coast of Sri Lanka that is earmarked for sale without value addition at this time.
In the context it would be important for Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry and CITES negotiators to develop an Indian Ocean small island nation’s and rim states position in consultation with other Indian Ocean rim states for the CITES international Convention to benefit local fisheries communities and emphasize the need for:
1. limiting access and/or out-right banning of distant water States fisheries trawlers that have over fished in the Indian Ocean to enable fish Stocks to recover and local Indian Ocean fisheries communities to harvest IO resources.
2. There should be transfer of technology, knowledge and info to small island nations to help them harvest IO resources, living and non-living.
3. Up-scaling Sri Lankan Fisheries to go into the deep seas as near shore fishing grounds is over crowded with a lot of small fishing vessels.
4. Sri Lanka navy to protect Southern EEZ and fisheries and valuable Tuna stock.
*To be continued..
“France supports Sri Lanka’s fisheries sector to cut post-harvest losses” was the title of the
FAO Fisheries Circular No. 920 FIRM/C920Rome, 1997ISSN 0429-9329
REVIEW OF THE STATE OF WORLD FISHERY RESOURCES: MARINE FISHERIES
Why Nations Fail. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, first published in 2012
2011 Principles of allocation systems and criteria for Indian Ocean Tuna Fisheries.A guide for IO participants to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s Technical Committee on Quota Allocation, World Wildlife fund https://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/a_guide_to_negotiating_qas_in_the_io_new_.pdf
Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. Greece and the International Bail Out Business
Jubilee Debt campaign for debt cancellation
Cf. Minority Rights Group International 2016 Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/GBR/INT_CERD_IFN_GBR_24489_E.pdf
under UNCLOS Article 76. This area covers a large extent of the southern part of the Bay of Bengal with a thick sediment cover having a high potential of hydrocarbon accumulation.UNCLOS Article 76, enabling a special method of establishing maritime boundaries for countries south of the Bay of Bengal was formulated during the Third United Nations Conference of the Law of the Sea held in 1982.
« On Sri Lanka’s Women Changemakers