Colombo Telegraph

Post-War Sri Lanka & The Arms Trade Treaty 

By Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Any legitimate government’s utmost responsibility will be to protect its own people from enemies, protect its territorial land, maintain law and order, improve its socioeconomic status, protect and safeguard its natural environment, historical and other nationally valued interests, and which is supportive of world peace. To have all these, no doubt, those governments need to have armies and police equipped with certain weapons. Such weapons need to produced or acquired from other countries in a transparent and responsible manner. Transparent and responsible arms trade will heal many wounds of nations without doubt. 

But the question is how many governments are legitimately engaged in a transparent and responsible arms trade?  In today’s context arms trade is the biggest business on the planet which involves mainly governments, politicians, the corporate sector, arms brokers, terrorists, armed groups and influential individuals.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2015 financial value of the global arms trade was at US $ 93.3billion. 

Governments’ failure to meet basic needs of people 

Today, most of the developing nations are facing severe economic, social, environmental or political crises which negates their socioeconomic development and safeguards the natural environment. Directly or indirectly this links to the ongoing armed conflicts or preparation for armed conflicts if they arise in the future. This led to governments not being able to meet the basic needs of people (human security-health, education etc) and tend to spend more and more resources on acquiring or producing arms and ammunitions. This tendency will not only be able to finding peaceful solutions for their issues but also profiting the arms producers and arms brokers.  

Terrorists and armed groups acquire conventional weapons 

Terrorists groups and armed groups around the world engage with various businesses such as fighting against the states, fighting among armed groups, anti-poaching activities which thrive on the illegal wildlife trade, human smuggling, drug dealings and business of killing humans etc. The illicit weapons trade which thrive in  the present day global arms trade. Sometimes governments may engage with illicit arms trade which the arms directly or indirectly falls into the hands of terrorist or armed groups. 

Importance of regulated arms industry for local development 

Unregulated and irresponsible conventional arms trade intensify and prolong conflicts, lead to increase sporadic levels of  human rights abuses, hinder socio-economic  development, regional instability and loss of natural resources, this includes increase in the illegal wildlife trade. 

Developing nations like Sri Lanka suffered heavily due to the 30 year long war between the Government security forces and LTTE until 2009. The LTTE had acquired weapons from various sources around the world to fight against the Government security forces. The LTTE had submarines which the Sri Lankan Navy was not equipped with. They had ships to transport weapons from around the world. Still no records are available about how much the LTTE spent on acquiring weapons. No doubt that it was a multi-billion dollar business. The Government of Sri Lanka has also acquired certain conventional weapons, which were not done in a transparent manner according to the media reports during the war. 

The 30 year war brought Sri Lanka to a standstill at various points. Sri Lanka is a one of countries in the world which suffered heavily due to the unregulated arms industry. The 30 year war in Sri Lanka tells the world of the importance of having a regulated arms industry. This will no doubt help developing nations to meet peoples’ expectations and the governments to be supportive of them.  

Illicit arms issue in Sri Lanka 

Due to illicit arms (small arms and light weapons) every year many civilians get killed in Sri Lanka. Most of small arms and light weapons used in Sri Lanka in automatic forms and bullets which are imported from other countries and none of them are produced in Sri Lanka. Still there is no record available about how many illicit arms are in the hands of armed underworld groups and individuals in Sri Lanka.  This directly hinders the socioeconomic development, political stability of the country and the security of the people. 

Some years prior to the ATT came into force in 2014 Sri Lanka had some impressive actions against proliferation of illicit arms. During the height of the war in 2005, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga has set up the National Commission Against Proliferation of Illicit Arms in All Its Aspect (NCAPISA). Not only in Sri Lanka was that the first commission but also in the world to set up in that nature.  The NCAPISA led many activities against illicit small arms and light weapons proliferation in Sri Lanka and has shown the world Sri Lanka’s commitment on the matter.  

In 2006 several important steps were taken in this regard. In 2006 July, Sri Lanka destroyed over 35,000 small arms to mark the “International Gun Destruction Day” at the Independence Square. The same year Sri Lanka’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN New York Prasad Kariyawasam presided over the UN Conference to Review Progress in the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects which was held in New York. At the same conference on 26 June 2006 Sri Lanka’s then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a statement on Sri Lanka’s progress with regard to NCAPISA and country commitments on the subject.

 In 2008 March, the NCAPISA published a survey report with a foreword by then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse. On the 8th May 2008 a report was submitted to the UN Conference mentioned above.  In 2009, the war ended with the LTTE and during that time NCAPISA became defunct and post-war Sri Lanka started again to experience the proliferation of illicit weapons.  

What is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)? 

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which was adopted in 2013 by 154 member states in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and which came into force in 2014.  The ATT offers a framework for establishing international norms for responsible trade in conventional arms. The ATT is not a disarmament Treaty. It’s an arms control Treaty which aims to achieve a “responsible trade.”  The ATT is designed to regulate arms transfers and to promote responsibility, transparency and accountability in the global arms trade. A core purpose of the Treaty is to “reduce human suffering.” 

The ATT is largely a normative treaty that seeks to promote appropriate governmental regulation of the cross-border trade of conventional weapons. The Treaty includes the activities of the international trade comprised of export, import, transit, trans-shipment, transfer and brokering. The Treaty seeks to prevent conventional military weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or organized crime groups. 

The ATT is the only weapon related Treaty which talks about gender based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children due to armed conflict and armed violence. The ATT will positively impact the achievement of number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including Goal 5 on Gender Equity, Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Goal 17 on Partnerships. 

Post-war Sri Lanka’s engagement with the ATT 

The ATT came into force in 2014, 5years after the war ended in Sri Lanka.  But Sri Lanka is still not a State Party to the ATT. During the negotiations of the ATT Sri Lanka was an active participant and voted in favor of adopting the Treaty at the UNGA in 2013. A prominent Sri Lankan Ambassador H.M.G.S. Palihakkara chaired the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (Appointed by the UN Secretary General) of its annual two sessions (57th and 58th) of the year 2012 which focused on arms trade. The Advisory Board recommended continued efforts to promote awareness of circumstances in which there can be negative consequences of the arms trade to the UN Secretary General.   

Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA), Sri Lanka’s Chapter Chairman Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva MP and Secretary Thilanga Sumathipala MP, had been supportive of promoting the ATT.  In 2017, President Mithripala Sirisena made some important statements with relation to the global arms industry. Among them, on the 11th May he said “In my opinion we will be able to build a conflict-free world if the manufacturers of firearms take up different lines of business to earn a living, it is the manufacturers of firearms that should be brought to the negotiating table.”  This May Harshana Rajakaruna MP actively participated at the South Asian Roundtable Discussion on “Promoting and Univerzerlisation of the ATT” in Nepal.   

The way forward 

Sri Lanka should immediately re-activate the National Commission Against Proliferation of Illicit Arms in All Its Aspect (NCAPISA).  As its first step recovered arms and ammunitions from the LTTE and underworld activities should be destroyed publicly at a place like the Independence Square or   Galle Face Green.  This could be organized in parallel to the next year 10th anniversary of ending the war between the LTTE and the Government Security Forces.  

Post-war Sri Lanka should engage with the international community to eradicate the illicit trade of arms which encompasses export, import, brokering and transfer. Rather it should be supportive of socioeconomic, political, environmental and other sectors development locally and globally. There are various opportunities for a post-war country like Sri Lanka to accede to the ATT. Since Sri Lanka does not produce or engage with illicit global arms trade which provides an opportunity be a State Party without a question.  Post-war Sri Lanka should be the first country to accede to the ATT in South Asia. This opportunity should not be missed by Sri Lanka. This shows that the country will not take any side and will act as a neutral nation in the region and maintain the Non-Aligned Foreign Policy. No doubt that this will help to make a  pathway to Sri Lanka becoming a “Soft Power” in the region and bring back the old glory of being a “Champion of Disarmament.”  

Sri Lanka will host the 18th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) next year. The CITES CoP18 will be held for the first time in Sri Lanka which will be attended by 184 countries. This will be the first ever biggest international gathering in Sri Lanka. The CITES always talks about the direct link between illegal arms trade and illegal international wildlife trade. If the CITES CoP18 host country Sri Lanka becomes State Party to the ATT before next year it shows the country’s commitment and support for denouncing the international illegal wildlife trade. 

The Lord Buddha preached that lay people should not engage with 5 types of wrong livelihood and one of them is “business in weapons.”  Not only in Buddhism but also in other religions the arms trade will not be tolerated.  Sri Lanka as a predominantly Buddhist country with other religions (Hindu, Christian and Islam) is a multi-religious nation and should not be supportive of the illicit arms trade and should accede to the ATT without delay.  


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