SL provided case studies on operation of IHL and humanitarian diplomacy: Foreign Secretary

Friday, 15 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha 

Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha has said that over the past four decades Sri Lanka has provided valuable case studies to the world on the successes of the operationalisation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and humanitarian diplomacy, as well as the challenges entailed in doing so, for many of which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been a valuable partner.

The Foreign Secretary made this observation on 11 November when he delivered the opening statement at the ninth South Asian Regional Conference on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – ‘IHL in Action: A Narrative of Prevention and Protection’ - organised by ICRC Colombo in collaboration with the Government and held from 11-13 November at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. 

Attorney General Dappula de Livera delivered the keynote address, while ICRC Head of Delegation Loukas Petridis and the Head of Advisory Service of the ICRC in Geneva also addressed the gathering. Government representatives from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Nepal, Nepal, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka participated in the conference. 

Following is the full text of Ariyasinha’s speech.

It is a pleasure to be present here with you all this morning, as ICRC launches its 9th South Asia Regional Conference on IHL. 

As the world celebrates 70 years since the ratification of the Geneva Conventions, which now form the core of the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the means and methods of warfare also have evolved greatly; perhaps unimaginably so, from when Henry Dunant first set his gaze over the expanse of human suffering upon the bloodied earth of Solferino in 1859. Unfortunately, the nature, gravity and scale of suffering faced by civilians and other living beings embroiled in conflicts - both collateral and direct - remain largely unchanged. 

However, it is our collective sense of accountability and respect for dignity, even towards foes, that has shaped the contours of engaging in warfare and thus united those engaged in bitter armed conflicts, to agree to a universal basis for humanitarianism and paved the way for the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and its subsequent Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005.

Historical roots

It may be recalled that the notion of protection of parties to a conflict and prevention or limiting of mass scale destruction through the application of humanitarian principles is not alien to those of us in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka’s own historic chronicle, the Mahawamsa, cites the story of the epic battle between King Dutugemunu and King Elara in the 2nd century BCE, when the two leaders opted for a duel in their final battle, sparing the lives of many warriors on both sides. The edicts of Emperor Asoka, which speaks of his remorse for the loss of innocent lives during the Kalinga Wars, also exemplify that South Asian civilisations became conscious of the humanitarian consequences and sufferings of war and conflict in centuries past. These gestures, built upon the social, ethical and religious norms and practices of our societies, have paved the way towards creating a more humane society. 

I speak today not only in my current capacity as the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, but also grounded in my experience as the former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva. 

During the course of my career, I have had the opportunity and privilege of working closely with diplomats of other countries and members of international organisations like the ICRC, IFRC, OCHA, the UNHCR and OHCHR on the intricacies and challenges of humanitarian diplomacy, its nexus with development and building consensus towards creating a more humane, just and secure global environment, while also ensuring our respective national interests. 

As for the challenges in building consensus when implementing IHL compliance – my tenure in Geneva in the immediate aftermath of the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka gave me a vantage point to understand the pragmatic application of humanitarian and human rights law, particularly in a post-conflict context and the attendant dilemmas. It was during this period that we engaged in initial discussions at the 32nd Meeting of High Contracting Parties on establishing appropriate mechanisms to enhance compliance of IHL. It is therefore with a deep sense of reflection on these universal values of humanity on the one hand, and the legitimate and sacrosanct rights of States for defence and security, and protecting the right to life of their peoples on the other, that I address you today. 

Evolution of modern warfare and IHL

The principles of IHL should be understood in the present context of armed conflicts, which are more dynamic, sophisticated and multifaceted, than in the context in which the Geneva Conventions were formulated in the 1940s. 

Unlike in the past, battles are now fought mostly within States and take the form of internal armed conflicts, which are made complex by the multiple parties and involve non-state actors - private military groups, paramilitary groups, multinational partners, and indirect participants in hostilities. 

Furthermore, conflicts today are generally more protracted, with the methods of warfare continuing to affect the lives of generations of civilians. They have also moved from conventional war theatres to urban settings aggravating the damage both to property and peoples. 

Further, in the present global era of advanced technology, the debate on the use of new technologies such as lethal autonomous weapon systems and their legality, accountability and the acceptable degree of machine versus human control in the context of IHL, are very real. The concepts of direct participation in hostilities, principles of proportionality in armed conflicts, urban warfare, concept of global war on terror, issues of practical ability of states and armed groups to abide by their legal obligations under IHL, are also highly contested. The question of parity between State and non-State actors, applicability of IHL in non-international armed conflicts (NIACS) are further serious impediments in ensuring full compliance of IHL by all parties to a conflict.  

Unfortunately, for most of us in the South Asian region, protracted threats of terrorism and armed conflict have been the norm, rather than the exception. Hence our understanding of the principles of IHL and their relevance have to be viewed taking into account the specific contexts within which conflicts happen and the comparative experiences through our own prism of experience. 

In Sri Lanka’s context, for nearly 30 years pre-May 2009, it was the reality of a democratic State fighting to preserve its territorial integrity against a non-state, separatist, terrorist group. Military necessity, differentiation between military and civilian objects, the obligation to provide protection to the civilians in areas under their control and ensuring continued humanitarian supplies, including medical supplies, were our unenviable challenges as a responsible State.

In the UN in Geneva, I remember not only the principles which my able colleagues and I represented and often defended Sri Lanka, but also the genuine conviction by which humanitarianism was extolled by both the institutional mechanisms in Geneva, and those who sought redress on behalf of the victims. This is a fair contestation, which must necessarily be resolved in an objective manner. However, in doing so, it is important that international institutions and its membership are not arbitrary, selective or engage in double standards in applying these principles, which are universal; as we see often happen, eroding the trust in these very principles and cast doubts on the credibility and integrity of the institutions that represent service to humanity. It is only if States demanding IHL are sincerely humanitarian in what they demand, apply the same standard across the board and do what they promise, that credibility can be restored to the system.

Sri Lankan case studies in the application of IHL and humanitarian diplomacy 

Besides signing up to the Geneva Conventions and also all other core International human rights treaties, if I were to put a date, Sri Lanka’s 1989 signing of the agreement with the ICRC probably would count as the most tangible manifestation of Sri Lanka’s international commitment to IHL and to humanitarian diplomacy. 

Significantly, this was a time when there was considerable debate about doing so, in the throes of not only the separatist terrorist conflict with the LTTE in the North and East often spilling into Colombo, but also the insurrection in Southern Sri Lanka by the JVP. I would dare say, that if not for that decision, the next 20 years of mainly the separatist conflict, until 2009 in Sri Lanka, might have been very different.

Over the past three decades, Sri Lanka has provided several valuable case studies to the world in at least seven areas, in the operationalisation of IHL and helping us in understanding the practice of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ – which I regard as “maximising support for operations and programs, and building partnerships necessary to achieve humanitarian objectives” .

Operationally, the first case study I would like to mention with regard to Sri Lanka’s experience of protection, was the food convoys to the North & East and the 100% coverage of the national immunisation program carried out including in terrorist held areas. The world forgets that successive Governments of Sri Lanka, routinely sent food, petrol, school supplies, medical equipment, vaccines and paid the salaries of teachers in the conflict area throughout the conflict. 

At the time, UNICEF Executive Director James Grant described this as being “uniquely humanitarian in a conflict situation”. There was also acknowledgment by Mr. Francis Deng, then Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons about Sri Lanka sending food convoys to the displaced persons bearing its huge financial cost involved despite criticism that some of this assistance would trickle down to terrorists. 

This was also brought out in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2004 that struck Sri Lanka. While many lives were lost and property damaged, where many countries might have gone down with disease and suffering – Sri Lanka did not, because the channels of communication were good and people knew what to do the day after. As a result, lives were not lost in the aftermath of this natural disaster and society got back on its feet quickly. While we are very grateful to all the foreign assistance we got, including the important role played by the ICRC, let’s be clear that it was because we were prepared for humanitarian emergencies that we were able to minimise the casualties and the damage post tsunami.

An experience many of you serving in Sri Lanka as diplomats will be familiar with is the mine-clearance and resettlement in the post-conflict period. In this respect, since the conflict ended three decades ago and vast extents of land were left contaminated with landmines and explosives, mine action experience in Sri Lanka has proved to be both complex and unique particularly due to the non-availability of mapping of mines laid by non-state actors. However, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist conflict in 2009, most areas were speedily cleared, which enabled the resettlement of most of the internally displaced in record time. In achieving this vision, while Sri Lanka worked with its international partners – the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, India, Norway, Sweden, Russia and China, it is important to note that over 80% of the landmine clearing in this country was done by the Sri Lanka Army. As a result, Sri Lanka is now being internationally hailed as a success story in mine risk reduction and stands by its pledge for a mine-free Sri Lanka in 2020. 

After the end of the protracted conflict, Sri Lanka worked with the ICRC in relation to the issue of disappearances and subsequently in supporting the work of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). The access ensured to detention centers for the ICRC was an important component. Systematising the more ad hoc arrangements that previously prevailed, it is noteworthy that in 2018, the Sri Lankan Government entered into an agreement with the ICRC offering unhindered access to all places of detention in the country. 

Access to detention centers as well as complying with ICRC guidelines on treatment for people deprived of their liberty and trying to enhance the standards by building a new space for prisoners complying with international standards are considered decisions by the Sri Lankan Goverment. As I was to detail in the Valedictory Address at the ‘Defense Seminar 2019’, the recent tragedy on Easter Sunday on 21/4 was a ‘litmus test’ as to our resolve to ensure national security, while applying human rights and humanitarian law, which in effect turned out to be a test of our democratic institutions that have been strengthened in recent years.

Another test of Sri Lanka’s capacity in its historical commitment to protect the vulnerable was seen in the safeguarding of the interests of refugees and asylum seekers housed in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Though not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Sri Lanka’s upholding of the principle of non-refoulement, to protect those who have sought shelter in Sri Lanka, was an instance where the Foreign Ministry as the focal point of the Sri Lankan Government engaged with the UNHCR and other organisations in humanitarian work. 

Since the Easter Attacks, we have been successful in addressing issues of these vulnerable group of people whose presence and status of no-solution was in fact feeding back into a system which already had some sensitivities. Together with the UNHCR, over the past three months, we have been able to expedite the resettlement of over 800 refugees who have been languishing in an undecided transitional state, in third countries to find permanent homes. 

Internationally, an area where Sri Lanka has traditionally played an important role over the years in its international advocacy of IHL, is in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation. In this area, Sri Lanka shares with the ICRC its firm belief that these two (i.e. disarmament and non-proliferation) are not just tools to maintain international peace and security. They are also critical means to mitigate the impact of armed conflict when it occurs”, which is also the aim of IHL. There are several case studies to draw on in this regard.

It may be recalled that it was in 1971 that Sri Lanka initiated the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOPZ) at the UN – a concept of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake dedicated to ensuring peace and security in the region. 

Its longstanding commitment to disarmament was also exemplified most notably through the role played in negotiations with respect to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) including the Chairing of the 1995 NPT Review Conference.

In November 2015, under Sri Lanka’s Presidency the States Parties Meeting on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), we were able to forge a consensus to move discussions on LAWS to State level. Sri Lanka has encouraged states with capabilities to develop autonomous weapons to take immediate action in placing national moratoria, as a temporary regulatory measure, and engage fully within the GGE discussions, while emphasising that negotiation of a binding legal framework which, inter alia, provides for regulatory norms with meaningful human control as its central thrust.

Furthermore, in 2018 the Conference of Disarmament in January/February 2018 under Sri Lanka’s Presidency was able to evolve and adopt consensus decision (CD 2119) to establish five subsidiary bodies related to the core issues of the CD Agenda, ending a stalemate that had lasted for 22 years and re-affirmed Sri Lanka’s continued strength when it chooses to lead from the middle, in building a consensus to enhance international security, through multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation.

In the recent years, Sri Lanka also acceded to the Ottawa Convention on Landmines and the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions, and in September 2019 also presided over the 9th States Parties Meeting of the CCM in Geneva.

Another area that Sri Lanka has discharged its humanitarian vision of protection and prevention, is the participation of our forces in UN Peacekeeping Operations, since 1957 – in the Central African Republic, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, South Sudan, Timor and Western Sahara, demonstrating our commitment to global peace and security. Altogether there have been more than 22,587 Sri Lankan troops who have served as UN peacekeepers and some have made the supreme sacrifice. 

At present, troops of the Sri Lanka Army are deployed at six UN missions and are working as Staff Officers in the UN Headquarters in New York. There more than 400 troops deployed as members of three contingents in Lebanon, South Sudan and Mali, and 35 officers serving as Staff Officers and Military Observers in UN missions and also in the UN headquarters in New York . Given Sri Lanka’s experience of the recent past in low and high intensity conflicts with terrorist groups, few countries can qualitatively match the troops sent by Sri Lanka who have extensive professional experience in all aspects of peacekeeping and providing humanitarian assistance.  This is illustrated each passing day, most recently in Mali. 


In conclusion, as you commence deliberations over perspectives on IHL and its application in various contexts, with the aim of working to advance the recognition of, and respect for, legal and operational IHL compliance mechanisms, I trust that the practical experience of Sri Lanka will resonate.  

I request that you to be wary of politicisation of the application of IHL. No one solution fits all circumstances, and local sensitivities and nuances must be taken into consideration in finding the correct balance in assessing a conflict situation. This has been a prime concern in the ongoing discussions following from the decision of the 32nd Meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, where many countries urged to prevent naming and shaming in order to maintain a healthy dialogue which is apolitical and facilitates countries to share best practices. Let me assure you that Sri Lanka is ready to share our knowledge, experience and expertise with any who might need them.

ICRC has, admirably, in its quiet humanitarian diplomacy, succeeded in circumventing to a great degree, the danger of politicisation. So much so that while neutrality is an important aspect in not getting involved in a conflict, it could also be a drawback in certain situations, like in the case of Sri Lanka, where key humanitarian agencies which operated in the field till the end of the conflict, who were privy to the truth – sometimes revealed courtesy WikiLeaks, but had to protect vital information under confidentiality provisions of the organisation.

The ability of ICRC to bring together actors from diverse countries and political divides within the region, and provide a platform towards a common goal in this contentious field, is reflected in the gathering this morning, and many others I have had the pleasure of being a part of both in Geneva and in Colombo. I wish you all fruitful deliberations and outcomes that would serve all our countries better in engaging in humanitarian diplomacy, and in easing human suffering, if it cannot be halted. I thank you.