Bringing the Security Dimension back into Sri Lanka Foreign Policy | Sunday Observer

Bringing the Security Dimension back into Sri Lanka Foreign Policy

Until the April 21 bomb attacks, the word ‘terrorism’ had almost disappeared from the Government vocabulary, probably under the mistaken notion that it was necessary to banish that ‘dread’ word in order to entice investors and tourists. There was hardly any discussion on the rise of ISIS in Asia although the intelligence community in Sri Lanka must have been fully briefed by its foreign contacts. The Government was focusing only on economics - debt, raising revenue, infrastructure growth mainly new high-rise construction, FTAs. This attitude was evident in a recent seminar on Arms Race in Asia at a Foreign Ministry think tank when the moderator asserted that what keeps him awake at night was not nuclear fall-out but rather worrying about whether Sri Lanka would end up like Argentina declaring bankruptcy! Yet, in countries like Singapore best known for its economic progress, security has remained a primary directive since independence and experts there are constantly studying the evolution of threats, assisting the government to put in place counter- measures.

The current focus of our Foreign Ministry on mainly ‘economic diplomacy’ is a deviation from the past. Even in the early days of independence, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy had given primacy to security with Defence and External Affairs initially combined, coming under the Prime Minister.

Fear of India, issues relating to persons of Indian origin (whose numbers far exceeded the indigenous population in the hill country) and illicit immigration from South India, referred to as the “Indo-Ceylon problem” dominated early Sri Lanka foreign relations. Today, even as threat perceptions have changed over time, the two Ministries now separated as Defence and Foreign Affairs need to find more ways to work together bridging the present gap, share intelligence, joint training, on a routine basis as well as in crisis response.

After World War 11, the UN was established primarily to maintain global peace and security, hence the very first United Nations General Assembly resolution adopted in January 1946 called for the elimination of atomic weapons and all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction (WMD). In the following years, Sri Lankan diplomats were active in the conclusion of many international conventions, to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, banning chemical and biological weapons, agreeing on a comprehensive test ban treaty. The discovery of chemicals in terror hideouts after the April 21 attacks, underlines the relevance of that UN work even today. Sri Lankan diplomats also led the campaign to prevent an arms race in outer space and to declare the seabed as the common heritage of mankind, opening the way for developing countries to benefit from many peaceful applications.

During the Cold War era, the threat of a nuclear holocaust led wealthy countries like Switzerland to construct some 300,000 underground shelters. Developing countries like Sri Lanka chose instead to contribute to building international security norms. Initially, international negotiations focused on Government controls over WMD but later moved to conventional arms, small arms and light weapons, mines and explosives as the threat grew of terrorist resort to such weapons.

Sri Lanka contributed to the conclusion of a number of terrorism prevention conventions under the UN auspices covering crimes from bombing of aircraft to terrorism financing. Our activism in these international negotiations had a valuable outcome in enhancing intelligence cooperation with a number of key countries during the armed conflict period.

Thanks to these efforts, global norms have been established, mobilizing huge public lobbies for arms control. Today, young activists like Vidya Abhayagunawardena have somehow managed to overcome Foreign Ministry malaise and convince our policy makers to sign the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty and the Cluster Munitions prohibition. These measures have brought world recognition for the Army and its sterling work in removing LTTE mines towards the goal of a mine-free Sri Lanka by 2020.

Unlike in the past, the narco-terrorism nexus receives little attention today. Are there links between the April 21 attacks and the recent crackdown on drugs, launched from the highest levels in Sri Lanka? Experience from the Philippines –often cited as an example – underlines the precautions where bags are routinely checked in public places, visitors scanned for explosives with both machines and sniffer dogs.

Earlier, Sri Lankan diplomats had led the UN campaign to control the spread of illegal small arms and light weapons, after which a program of action was launched in Sri Lanka which had caught thousands of unlicensed small arms. But the control process has not been followed after 2008.

Today, appalled at the damage to our heritage, environmentalists have been asking how 64 elephants were shot by poachers in 2018 and for the first time even inside national parks? Amateur divers have for months been exposing the commercial quantities of dynamite, explosives and detonators that appear to be available, used ostensibly for illegal ‘fishing’ ,which are destroying our coral reefs.

Our problems are compounded because this appears to be a new phase of terrorism which cannot be addressed by traditional approaches of seeking root causes and remedies for addressing minority grievances. Nor can the earlier approach be applied of taking down the messenger like Osama Bin Laden or ISIS in Syria by military means . Doing so may have just diffused the message of terror and sent the contagion to the four corners of the world. Counter-terrorism measures today are technology based ,tracking radicalization, financing and early warnings.

France and New Zealand are spearheading a new campaign to audit the internet and block ‘fake news’ and ‘hate speech’ which has parallels with an earlier Sri Lankan diplomatic initiative against the propagandizing of terrorism which at that time had run up against those agitating for press freedom.

Foreign Ministry attention may have moved away from security issues due to complacency after the end of the armed conflict. There is also a popular impression that the global nuclear threat has reduced under the international regimes. However, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the nuclear danger, given the two rival nuclear power states in our sub-region and a number of nuclear military and civilian sites in close proximity to the island.

New challenges are emerging ranging from the advent of 4th generation technology moving cyber security and protection of critical infrastructure to the forefront, along with threats of climate change. According to international assessments, Sri Lanka is among the most vulnerable to all these new threats. Our UN missions should be re-oriented to cover both traditional and new emerging security threats to provide the backup advocacy for timely domestic action.

About the writer: Dr Sarala Fernando is a retired Sri Lankan career diplomat who has served as Permanent Representative to the United Nations and International Organisations in Geneva. 

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