Colombo Telegraph

Disarmament Is A Must For Sri Lanka’s Reconciliation

By Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Without Accession to Disarmament Conventions Sri Lanka Will Not Achieve Its Reconciliation

It seems that almost one and a half years have gone by after the National Unity Government (NUG) came to power in early 2015, but still Sri Lanka is distanced from the international disarmament community. This is a serious issue for the ongoing reconciliation process and its human rights record by peace-loving people of Sri Lanka as well as peace-loving people around the world against the use of certain prohibited weapons, such as Anti-personnel (AP) Landmines and Cluster Munitions. Post-war Sri Lanka (since 2009), had not acceded to any disarmament treaties, particularly the accession to the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) known as the Ottawa Convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). These two conventions are the most significant humanitarian disarmament conventions with regard to war-time and post-war Sri Lanka which should have acceded by now by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) for very obvious reasons. Otherwise it may completely undermine the ongoing reconciliation process and that will negatively impact on the country’s human rights record.

Photo by Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Issue of AP Landmines and Cluster Munitions

Post-war Sri Lanka is still grappling with the AP-landmines as well as the allegation on the use of cluster munitions at the last stage of the war. Sri Lanka has still not cleared the AP mines (54sqkm) and post-war mine-victims have been 100% civilians including children. The current mine-action programme is facing severe constraints due to scarcity of resources and lack of political will and this is mainly because Sri Lanka is not a state party to the MBT. Still over 60,000 people (15,000 families) in the North are yet to be resettled but unable to do so due to AP-mines affected lands. What is more, due to AP mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) many animals including the elephants, buffaloes and cows get injured or die. To overcome the landmine issue as well as allegations on the use of cluster munitions, immediate action should be taken for accession to both these Conventions by the GoSL.

Humanitarian Disarmament and Disability Rights Should be Linked to Reconciliation

Currently various reconciliation programmes are carried out by the ministries of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages; National Integration and Reconciliation; Prison Reforms, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs; Foreign Affairs and, Presidential Secretariat; Prime Minister Office; Office for National Unity and Reconciliation and the Human Rights Commission. It is important that each of these entities should discuss the inter-linkages among humanitarian disarmament strengthening reconciliation which lead to respect and safeguard human rights through international legal instruments on humanitarian disarmament and disability rights. Negotiations concerning the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) started in 2002, and in 2004 the First Review Conference of the MBT recorded for the first time, the relationship between victim/survivor assistance and human rights. In 2008 the CRPD became first human rights convention in the 21st century. Sri Lanka signed the CRPD on 30th March 2007 and ratified it on 9th February 2016 but is still struggling to have CRPD principles incorporated into the local legislation to implement the accepted Convention norms and provisions to promote and protect disability rights.

The Previous Government’s Statements on Accession to the MBT and CCM

The previous United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse made a remark in 2012 that the Defence Ministry was ready to accede to the MBT from a humanitarian disarmament point of view and the Ministry of Economic Development’s National Mine Action Strategy 2010 promoted a ban of AP mines and cluster munitions. The then Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Jagath Jayasuriya, said in 2009 that “in the current post-conflict phase it is timely that we focus our attention on the international legal instruments that limit or ban certain weapons based on humanitarian grounds”, referring to the MBT and CCM.

2016 Cabinet Decision on the MBT

With much hope for the future and for a meaningful reconciliation, the Cabinet of Ministers of the present government has taken the decision on acceding to the MBT on 2 March 2016. This was very welcome news not only for Sri Lankans but also for the humanitarian disarmament community around the world. The Cabinet decision on the MBT is yet to become a reality. Arguments came after the Cabinet decision on the MBT, that such AP mines could be used in future wars, and post-war Sri Lanka’s military bases should be protected with AP mines. A country like US is still not a state party to such conventions. These three arguments totally undermine the policy position maintained by the GoSL and will definitely question the trust and credibility of the ongoing reconciliation process. Further, such unwise arguments may cause damage to the country’s image internationally. If post-war Sri Lanka does not accede to the MBT and CCM it will certainly undermine respect for human rights and, will question the professionalism and the credibility of the Sri Lanka military and their future deployment in UN peace keeping missions abroad if it keeps the option open for the use of AP mines and cluster munitions in future.

Conflicting Statements on the MBT

On 1st March 2000, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka stated in Parliament that Sri Lanka could not accede to the MBT because of (1) the indiscriminate and unfettered use of mines by the LTTE (2) the need to deploy AP landmines for defensive purposes and (3) the need to find alternatives before giving up the use of AP landmines. (The Hansard of 1st March 2000, Vol. 128, No. 3, Col. 457, 458). However, since then, Sri Lanka has never mentioned at any time and at any place that the reason for non-accession is due to the above third reason until it reemerged in the print media in March 2016, a week after the Cabinet decision on the MBT.

The need to find alternatives to AP landmines, for non-accession to the treaty now could drag the stand of GoSL on AP landmines back to year 2000. That definitely will undermine the GoSL efforts in the international sphere, diminishing the country’s image to one that is looking for reasons to distance itself away from humanitarian disarmament principles. All statements made by GoSL after year 2002 were in reference to the internal conflict, in accusing of the LTTE of using AP landmines, and not at all in favour of deploying AP landmines and the need for alternatives.   We believe that AP mines were introduced to Sri Lanka by the LTTE just as they introduced suicide bombers to the world. The Sri Lanka military used AP mines as defensive weapon but the LTTE used them as an offensive weapon. Ethically Sri Lanka should have banned AP mines after the end of war since it was introduced to Sri Lanka by the LTTE.

The GSP Plus, CRC, MBT and CCM

Today the peace-loving world considers AP landmines to be an out-dated and outlawed weapon. AP landmines and unexploded ordnance violate nearly all the articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of which Sri Lanka is a signatory. The UNICEF has been, and remains, a strong advocate of the MBT and CCM. It further advocates the Optional Protocol to the CRC on Children and Armed Conflict, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which are critical tools for protecting children.

Sri Lanka was withdrawn from the GSP Plus facility by the EU in 2010. One main reason that GSP Plus was withdrawn from Sri Lanka was due to violation of the CRC. The GoSL currently works on getting back the GSP plus and it is wiser that the country should accede to the MBT and CCM thereby create trust in the process though both the Conventions are not in the list of 27 conventions which are considered for granting the GSP Plus. Some may argue that there is no point in granting GSP Plus to Sri Lanka if it uses AP mines or cluster munitions which violate the norms of the CRC. If certain elements within the government say that Sri Lanka should not accede to the MBT and CCM, it may cause further delay in getting the GSP Plus to Sri Lanka.

Elements Against International Peaceful Means

One may argue that such international peaceful legal instruments of humanitarian disarmament conventions are Western agendas and conspiracies created for their own interest. We believe that these few individuals still serve in the government as advisors, consultants and as senior officials on this subject matter. Such bad advice will lead to Sri Lanka’s non-accession to humanitarian disarmament conventions, and the country will further isolate itself from the international disarmament community and will lose possible economic, political and social benefits due to accession to such conventions. Further those elements within the government are tarnishing the image of the country as well as undermining the ongoing reconciliation process. The reality is that such fear about humanitarian disarmament is mainly due to lack of knowledge on the subject matter and or because of their ultra-nationalistic viewpoint which the disarmament community do not acknowledge.

Beyond the Tunnel A New World for Sri Lanka

Accession to the MBT and CCM undoubtedly will bring many benefits to post-war Sri Lanka. Immediately it will improve the human rights record of the country and help to achieve a meaningful reconciliation. Accession to disarmament conventions Sri Lanka will be able to regain the past glory of being a champion of disarmament and will undoubtedly help Sri Lanka to become a soft power in the region and neutral nation in global geo-politics, and a peace promoter and supporter of universerlization of such Conventions. It can gain economic benefits by becoming the main maritime hub in the region engaged in legitimate commercial activities as per international law/standards. On the other hand, Sri Lanka is in a better position now for hosting state parties’ meetings of such conventions, which have been never hosted by any South Asian country before, and no doubt, this will bring international fame to the country.

Sri Lanka is still a developing nation and not a super power even in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka is not an arms producer nor does it engage with the arms trade. At one time Sri Lanka was considered a champion of disarmament which brought honour to the country. Sri Lanka did not engage in any external armed conflict with any neighboring country or any other nation in the past or it is very doubtful that it will engage with them in the future. Japan is one of the best examples that Sri Lanka should follow. After the Second World War, Japan acceded to almost all the disarmament conventions, became a peace symbol and peace promoter in the world. Such initiatives helped Japan to build a strong economy and subsequently it became second largest economy in the world in a short period of time. Japan became signatory to the MBT and CCM when both conventions were open up for signature in 1997 and 2008.

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