Sri Lanka “Internationalising” the bi-lateral fishing issue with India Could lead to Further Consequences

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

It did not require rocket science to decipher what Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was referring to when he addressed the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), Rio+20, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“A cardinal principle governing the behaviour of nations in the modern world should be recognition of the principle that the resources of a country, whether on land or in the oceans, belong to the people of that country,” he said, referring to Sri Lanka’s ocean wealth, though without reference to the expanded EEZ under UNCLOS-II.

“Their enjoyment of these resources for the improvement of their economic and social condition should in no way be hampered by encroachment on these resources by external interests. Protection of the sea-bed and ocean-floor against damage by the use of environment unfriendly methods of fishing, such as bottom trawling should be guaranteed by international law and practice, by means of effective remedies,” he said further.

The reference to bottom-trawling in President Rajapaksa’s speech gave the game away, as it is a burning issue between India and Sri Lanka, contributing to continuing harassment of fishermen from the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, which charges the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), with occasional mid-sea killings, from time to time. This time too, reaction to President Rajapaksa’s Rio speech from across the Palk Strait too has been quick in coming, with some political party leaders readily referring to international laws providing for up to 20-year prison term for violators of the international maritime border line (IMBL) between nations. Apart from livelihood issues that concerns fishermen from the two nations, violation of the IMBL, bottom-trawling and use of banned fishing nets in the Sri Lankan waters, are charges that the Indian fishermen had to answer over the past decades.

President Rajapaksa’s reference to the fishing issue came around the time he was meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the side-lines of Rio+20, and ahead of National Security Advisor (NSA) Shiv Shanker Menon’s visit to Colombo, scheduled for June 29. At the political-level the President’s reference to the ‘fishing issue’ in his Rio speech may read like a tit-for-tat for the Indian vote at the Geneva UNHRC resolution, sponsored by the US. It could also mark a vague and unsure internationalisation of a bilateral issue, for the record, just as New Delhi is seen by many in Colombo as having contributed to the internationalisation of Sri Lanka’s human rights record at the UNHRC.

If so, the parallels are dis-similar. Sri Lanka’s HR record became internationalised even as the nation was wounding up the conclusive ‘Eelam War-IV’ in May 2009. If anything, India was on Sri Lanka’s side, out and out. Less than a fortnight after the war, the UNHRC voted on a EU-sponsored resolution. At the time, India, with unlikely cooperation from China and Pakistan that their common approach to Sri Lankan issue commanded, caused the defeat of the EU resolution that sought to condemn Colombo. The three, along with other friends of Sri Lanka, also had a counter-resolution successfully voted in at Geneva at the time.

The internationalisation of the HR issue at the time owed to the readiness with which Sri Lanka participated in the processes, little realising at the time that it would not end there. The 2012 resolution too would not end here. Instead, it could be revived ad infinitum in the years and decades to come, given the complexities of the processes and certain compulsions of the parties concerned, both on the domestic and international planes. The resolution as passed by UNHRC has in-built mechanisms to activate the process. Yet, unlike in 2009, and even once later, Sri Lanka had taken the Indian vote for granted, without having to earn the same by keeping up the bilateral commitments given to New Delhi on the ethnic issue.

The justification for India having to ‘internationalise’ its position at Geneva-2012 thus flowed from bilateral commitments that were not kept. They were neither addressed at the bilateral-level in any serious way during the run-up to the Geneva vote, possibly because Colombo might not have had the answers to India’s legitimate concerns over inexplicable delays in not meeting commitments and keeping deadlines. Post facto, it can be argued that Sri Lanka, even while confidently hoping for India to vote in its favour at Geneva, was working over-time for the numbers that were just not happening. Unlike in 2009, it did not seem to have approached New Delhi for its broader support against the US resolution, lest it should face embarrassing questions for which it did not have convincing answers any more.

Lost lives and livelihood

The complexities of internationalisation of bilateral issues being what they are, setting the process in motion, be it on the HR front or the fishing front, comes with consequences, the like of which States have often found hard to face up to. Independent of the Sri Lankan position on the fishing issue at Rio, there has always been cries for a similar Indian approach to resolve the issue from the affected fishers, their representatives, including political and governmental stake-holders in Tamil Nadu. Based on theoretical constructs and legal arguments, such demands have often included India approaching international judicial forums for relief ? for lost lives and livelihood.

If the intention of the Sri Lankan State was to flag the options available to Colombo for finding a solution acceptable to it on the fishing issue, the current approach, however subdued, may only be counter-productive. Having opened the Pandora’s Box, it may not have the key and the option to close it at will. In the prevailing Sri Lankan situation, there are more nations and civil society organisations that want to see Colombo in a corner, wherever and whenever possible, whatever the reason, whatever the issue. Any unthinking approach by Colombo to problem-solving thus would only give yet another handle to the detractors of Sri Lanka.

Better or worse still, the innocent Indian experience with the ‘internationalisation’ of the Kashmir issue at the turn of Independence should have been an eye-opener for Sri Lanka. At the time, in good faith, New Delhi took the issue to the UN, where it still rests. It took India decades before Pakistan agreed to resolve all bilateral issues through bilateral mechanisms under the ‘Shimla Agreement’ in 1972. Yet, nothing has come out of the Agreement either, with bilateral mechanisms becoming the victim of ISI-induced anti-India terrorism, with greater periodicity than the bilateral peace process. The ISI as Pakistan’s ‘first-line of defence’ as later-day President Pervez Musharraf described once, had not even been thought of when the Shimla Agreement was up on the anvil but no one could re-rail the peace process when it was being continuously de-railed.

Kachchativu and expanding the scope of internationalisation

Such has been the travails of bilateral issues between India-Sri Lanka, if taken out of context or when placed before forums that are driven by politics and geo-strategy and not necessarily by fair-play and an overwhelming motive to resolve the issue through mutual understanding and accommodation. Sri Lanka’s experience with the human rights issue and the UNHRC too should have taught the nation some lessons, on approaches and attitudes. At the end of the day, Sri Lanka and India are neighbours, bound as much by contemporary politics and geo-strategy as by history and culture. Any pragmatic and practicable solution to any problem, as should be the case with any two neighbouring nations, lies in them and not beyond them.

As bilateral domestic fronts are concerned, if the fishing issue is here, the ‘Kachchativu issue’ cannot be far off. Or, that is how the political class and successive Governments in Tamil Nadu have treated them, despite the repeated reiterations of the Indian Government delinking them at every turn. The Government of India has also repeated the known official position that the 1974 transfer of the Kachchativu isle to Sri Lanka cannot be revisited. Yet, New Delhi would have no answer if the internationalisation process were to be initiated by non-State actors in this case, as a response to any Sri Lankan initiative of the kind, however minor and transient the intention and purpose could be.

‘Internationalisation’ of one issue could then lead to a similar approach to an accompanying one from the other stake-holder, and no solution, stand-alone or otherwise, could even attempted, owing to political compulsions nearer home and legal entanglements, otherwise. Internationalisation of one issue could thus lead to internationalisation of many, which is what the ethnic issue too should be teaching the stake-holders on the fishing-front.There would then be no question of any bilateral solution to the problem on hand, even if one were in sight, as linkages would be established and collective campaigns launched ? with no reference to the consequences, particularly for those directly involved and thus affected.

It is easy for either or both, India and Sri Lanka, to take bilateral issues out of context, to forums whose understanding of the regional culture, sensitivities and contexts do not match their action-oriented approach with their basis in template-models that might work in classroom conditions and given contexts, but not elsewhere. Once again, Sri Lanka’s exposure to internationally-driven peace processes involving the LTTE should have educated it on the limitations involved, however proven the processes and however genuine the intention. The accompanying complexities to the internationalisation process of domestic and bilateral issues are often episodes-driven, and are punctuated by global and regional responses by countries that have no stake in the peace and prosperity in the region, but still seem wanting to have a stake otherwise, wherever and whenever possible.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written)