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Embattled Sri Lanka reiterates plea for making Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace

Last Wednesday, for the second time in its post-independence history, Sri Lanka made a strong plea to the international community to turn the Indian Ocean into a Zone of Peace. Five decades ago, in 1971, the then Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, had proposed to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that the Indian Ocean be made a Zone of Peace. The world body had considered her proposal very seriously despite opposition from the powers represented in the Security Council, barring China. 

Since the security situation which exists in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) now is as grave as the situation in 1971, incumbent Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterated Mrs. Bandaranaike’s call to make the IOR a Zone of Peace, when he addressed four newly accredited foreign envoys here. 

Gotabaya said that since Sri Lanka is located in a place of strategic importance, it attracts the attention of many powers. But Sri Lanka has chosen neutrality as its foreign policy and would like to be kept out of international rivalries. The Indian Ocean should be a free zone open to every country he said and went on to recall that five decades ago, it was Sri Lanka which had proposed that the Indian Ocean be declared as a Zone of Peace.

Gotabaya was led to making the above plea because of the growing rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region between the Western powers and India on the one hand, and China on the other. China’s acquisition of the Hambantota harbor on lease from Sri Lanka; its role in the construction of harbors in Pakistan and Myanmar; and its alleged plans in the Maldives, have given rise to fears in the West that these facilities will be used for military purposes. 

Allaying these fears, Gotabaya told the envoys that the Hambantota Port has enormous development potential, “although some call it a debt trap”. The previous Government had leased the Hambantota Port to China but it is being used only for commercial purposes, he assured. 

Recalling the origins of the demand for making the IOR a Zone of Peace, in an article in The Island, former Lankan diplomat Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, said that Mrs. Bandaranaike first mentioned the idea in her speech at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Lusaka in September 1970. It was reflected in the final declaration of the Lusaka summit. 

According to Dhanapala, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s proposal was an immediate response to the expulsion of the people inhabiting British-owned Diego Garcia island in the IOR and its conversion into a US naval base. But Indian academic Prof. K.P. Misra said that the objective behind the move was to strengthen the sovereignty and the independence of the Indian Ocean states against the hegemonic drives and struggles of the major world powers. 

“The dangers of external military presence in the area was amply demonstrated, when the US sent a naval task force lead by a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean during the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1971. This show of force served to demonstrate a dangerous implication of great power presence in the region i.e. potential source of military intervention in the regional political developments,” Misra said in his paper. 

On October 12, 1971, when Mrs. Bandaranaike raised the issue at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), she made the following suggestions: (1) warships and ships carrying war material would have the right of transit but they will not to be allowed to stop except for emergency reasons. (2) there should be a ban on naval manoeuvres, intelligence operations and naval tests. (3) all foreign military bases should be excluded from the littoral and hinterland states.

But the world’s powers felt that the treatment of the problem by her and the UNGA in general was simplistic, idealistic and naïve. 

Their arguments against the Zone of Peace concept were mainly four: (1) implementation of such a proposal would violate international law on the freedom of navigation on the high seas for all ships guaranteed by the 1958 Law of the Sea (2) a group of states in any given region cannot establish a separate legal regime for the high seas. (3) the Indian Ocean is of concern not only to the littoral states but also to the entire international community. (4) verification of intent of any warship would be difficult.

However, supporters of the resolution led by Sri Lankan delegate Shirley Amarasinghe, argued that the freedom of the high seas does not adequately serve the fundamental interests of all nations alike, and that it is clearly weighted in favor of the interests of the dominant user nations.

Sri Lanka proposed a resolution on its Zone of Peace proposals in the UNGA’s First Committee dealing with Disarmament and International Security Issues. NAM countries supported the resolution, but most of the West abstained with the US, UK and France strongly opposed. According to Dhanapala, there was opposition to the IOR as a Zone of Peace concept in Sri Lanka too. Some nationalists felt that it would lead to the monopolization of the IOR by India, he recalled.

However, by Resolution 2832 (1971), the UN General Assembly declared the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace. It called upon the great powers to enter into immediate consultations with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, the aim being to halt the further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the region. 

“The declaration upheld the need to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states of the Indian Ocean region and sought to resolve political, economic and social issues affecting the region under conditions of peace and security, Dhanapala noted.

On December 15, 1972, the United Nations resolution 2992 (XXVII) was adopted in which an Ad Hoc Committee of fifteen members was set up pursuant to resolution 2832 (XXVI).

But as Misra points out, the Ad Hoc Committee, which was set up to study the implications of the Indian Ocean peace zone proposal, produced no recommendation as to what measures should be taken to halt the great powers' acceleration of their military buildup in the Indian Ocean, and to eliminate all bases, military installations, logistical supply facilities, nuclear weapons, and any manifestation of great power military presence in the area.

However, when the issue was brought before the United Nations General Assembly in 1976 for a vote, the tally was 106 for, none against and 26 abstaining. The US and the USSR abstained.

The US delegate submitted that the resolution might adversely affect the security interests of his country and its friends and allies in the Indian Ocean area. 

‘‘This [resolution] may affect the fundamental security interests not only of states compelled to maintain significant military preparedness. . . but also of states that rely on the stability created by, a political and military balance,” he said. 

He also argued that the resolution was likely to pre-empt efforts to create a new regime of the law of the sea in as much as it proposed a special set of rules for a particular area, thus setting a “dangerous precedent. 

“We reject the view that a group of states in a certain region can establish a legal regime for the high Seas in that region.” The USSR concurred. 

However, the superpower balance started to change in 1977. In the General Assembly vote on the issue, the Soviet Union was among the 123 states which voted in favor of the resolution. The U.S. voted against. The Soviet decision to vote in favor was meant to gain more influence among the littoral and hinterland states of the IOR, it was said. The expansion of Diego Garcia and the accommodation of US submarines such as Polaris and Poseidon, among others, also made the USSR side with the littoral state of the IOR.