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Colombo Defence Seminar 2018: Security in an era of global disruptions


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By Shanika Sriyananda

No country will be able to survive without national security intact and the absence of security would definitely push the entire population into a state of horror and anarchy, President Maithripala Sirisena said at the Colombo Defence Seminar 2018 held in Colombo last week.

“We have undergone those bitter experiences, and overcome those threats against our survival as a multi-ethnic nation thanks to our own armed forces,” he said in a videoed speech presented to the audience.

President Sirisena, who was unable to participate in the inaugural session as he was at the fifth Summit of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation held in Nepal last week, said nations need to take a serious note of own existence in an era of digitalised technology with the avowed objective of mitigating, if not avoiding such tense political compulsions and associated ad hoc violent solutions that bring untold misery and death.

“The Colombo Defence Seminar since its inception has been fully dedicated and committed to promote global partnership through extensive discussions of current relevance particularly in the wake of appearance of different disruptive forces that would multiply grave threats to the democratic statecraft, political and socio-economic stability, and more significantly to the very existence of the mankind living in this amorphous milieu,” he said.

‘Security in an Era 

of Global Disruptions’

Colombo Defence Seminar, Sri Lanka Army’s flagship international seminar held for the eighth consecutive year since 2011, had many thought provoking discussions on the theme ‘Security in an Era of Global Disruptions’.

Apart from creating a forum for local and international scholars to discuss the importance of security and remedial actions, the seminar has been able to promote intellectual connectivity amongst those who seek strategic, sub-regional, regional, and global partnerships through discussions by and with prominent and renowned national and international scholars, think tanks, and diplomats.

The top military experts, including high ranking officers of the Sri Lankan tri-forces and international military and academia, had discussed several important themes including ‘Demographic Transformation and Implications on Security’, ‘Technological Disruptions’, ‘Human-Induced Climate Change’ and ‘Political Extremism’ themes with close focus on ‘Human Factors and Homeland Security’, ‘Global Challenge of Internal Displacement’, ‘Urban Security in the 21st Century’, ‘Cyber Conflicts and Future Power’, ‘Social Media and Authenticity: Global Security Challenges’, ‘Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Weapons’, ‘Climate Geo-Engineering: Challenges and Opportunities’, ‘Ideological Polarisation’, ‘Destabilising the International System’, ‘Diaspora Communities Amidst and Conflict’, ‘Climate Change: Future of Warfare’ and ‘Leadership in Mitigating Violent Extremism’.

Broadening horizons 

of knowledge 

Highlighting the importance of broadening horizons of knowledge on defence and challenges that prevail among all nations across the world, Commander of the Sri Lanka Army Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake said that the military forces were generally regarded as the first respondents to deal with in any crisis situation that takes place in the country. 

“Due to the nature and the extended connectivity of non-traditional security threats, a solution to today’s problems could not be found within the national boundaries of a single state. Hence, the collective efforts of many nations is required. Collective engagement and a range of policy instruments are necessary to respond to these challenges effectively. This broadened concept of security has in turn influenced how countries presently view national safety,” he said.

The Army Chief said that during the past seven years, the Defence Seminar has evolved into a round table of intellectual interaction to identify and discuss geostrategic and security matters in global, regional and internal context as well.

“This broadened discourse focused on the scope of security and its challenges would certainly generate a forum that would stimulate critical thinking and geostrategic security matters. These carefully articulated themes would analyse emerging threats and disruptions, for which the armed forces are the first to respond in any land. It also provides a platform which could shed light on geostrategic security concerns,” he noted. 

Lt. Gen. Senanayake said that the Defence Seminar forum would set the stage for active discussions to simulate critical thinking on the theme and a global network of defence partners would take part in crucial discussions towards formulating a collective and assertive approach to repel security threats on nations. 

The inaugural session was attended by the State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene, Minister of Defence of Rwanda General James Kabarebe, governors, Presidential Secretary, Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, Chief of Defence Staff, Commander of the Air Force, Inspector General of Police, members of the diplomatic corps, former tri forces commanders, senior tri-forces officers and a large number of distinguished invitees.

Unprecedented 

rapid changes

Defence Ministry Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne making the opening remarks said that the present political and security environment was witnessing unprecedented rapid changes, complexities and unpredictability which pose many challenges that were beyond the capacity of sovereign nations and sometimes even regional order. 

“The object of security is no longer just state sovereignty or territorial integrity but also the people, their survival, wellbeing and dignity at both individual and societal level. Intellectuality is envisaged as the weaponry to carefully handle and counter operations among the people. Present and future security concerns require more vigorous and deeper understanding on surrounding factors to take effective and realistic decisions,” he noted.

“Since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan Government, we haven’t seen many insurgents going toe-to-toe against states. They lose – or at least they don’t win,” Director, Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, College of International Security Affairs, National Defence University, Washington, DC Dr. David H. Ucko of Sweden said. 

‘Role played by Violent Non-State Actors’ 

Delivering his 20-minute presentation themed ‘Role played by Violent Non-State Actors,’ he said that ISIS and some factions fighting the Syrian war were exceptions but also illustrated the point that once they give up on their asymmetric advantage – the shapelessness, the dispersion – once they claim territory and try to build, they become a far easier target for largely conventional clearing operations. 

“States struggle to follow up on these operations and deal with political and social drivers of alienation,” he said.

Speaking on ‘insurgent’s dilemma,’ difficulty of asserting yourself as a start-up of challenging state authority, and of establishing yourself sustainably as the new source of power, he said the track record was abysmal, with not many recent cases of insurgent groups winning militarily over a state and establishing themselves as the new authority.

He said yet if this form of insurgency was dying, it would adapt and one would find the potential rebirth of insurgency as a strategic threat to democratic norms and stability.

Commenting on three broad trends – localised, infiltrative, and ideational – he explained that in localised insurgencies, the group survives by aiming not for regime change, but for shared sovereignty with the state, so that its subversive agenda can be pursued without provoking an armed response. 

“I don’t see rural conflict disappearing due to urbanisation, but what happens on the periphery will become increasingly peripheral to the concentrations of power and people in sprawling city-scrapers. Elites will simply give up on the hinterland, cede that which they can’t hold and focus on where they think the future lies. The challenge is how we conceive of insurgency; tend to see it as centred on the government as the seat of power and involving a zero-sum competition between state and challenger in which both pursue the same goal,” he noted.

He noted that specifically, the group poses as a legitimate social movement by exploiting social and political causes and communities, yet uses covert violence and intimidation to infiltrate the institutions of formal political power, and use these to implement its an extremist agenda. 

“Localised insurgencies must be recognised as potentially existential threat to the notion of state,” he stressed.

‘Leadership in Mitigating Violent Extremism’

Col. Robin Jayasuriya of the SLA and Brigadier General Mohammed Hasan Uz Zaman of Bangladesh Army presenting their findings on ‘Leadership in Mitigating Violent Extremism’ said that a range of issues including politics, ethnicity, religion, criminalised violence and gender relations make the root cause for emergence of extremism but pointed out that no human society or religious community or worldview is immune to such atrocities.

“Leadership portrayed by own, neighbouring, regional, international, international organisations and international community therefore serves towards special measures that could be adopted to mitigate violent extremism,” they said, explaining the possible preventive and countering measures need to be taken to mitigate extremism.

They also stressed the importance of independent, effective and transparent legal system in mitigating violent extremism, governmental leadership and a whole of societal leadership, including leadership of faith community, empowering society leadership-civil society leadership and assessing degrees of leadership-community, local, regional, global levels.

“Similarly, using the information highway and social media network as a counter measure to spread of extremist ideologies taking account of media dimensions with a proactive approach, along with gathering of intelligence is therefore of paramount importance. Countering of ideology by strengthening democracy and prevention of use of terrorism as an extension of foreign policy are among other processes that have to be in place with the support of multinational leaderships which adopt a global strategy towards mitigation of violent extremism, they emphasised.

‘Urban Security 

in the 21st Century’

Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, UK Dr. Lauren Twort speaking on ‘Urban Security in the 21st Century,’ said that the respective state machinery and civil society should join hands together to ensure urban security. 

“Especially after 9/11, the critical roles of cities were revealed as key strategic sites of military, economic, cultural and representational struggle. Natural hazards, urban violence, human-induced threats, open armed conflict, endemic community violence, organised crime, anomic crime and climate change are some of the threats to urban security,” she explained.

She said that the Government had taken some important steps to implement Sri Lanka’s urban vision, recognising need to improve resilience and social preparedness

“Threats aimed at cities in the 21st century are terrorism and cyber threats, national urban policies, stronger urban governance and reinvigorated long-term and integrated urban and territorial planning and design and effective financing frameworks,” Dr. Twort said, adding that the authorities must become institutionally adaptable.

She noted that changing social, political and economic conventions were often as crucial to the success of city resilience as upgrading physical assets and shared responsibility between governments, private sector and members of civil society will become imperative for maintenance of urban security and disaster management.

“Urban public safety is handled in the 21st century will determine citizens’ perceptions of the accountability and effectiveness of the state in upholding the social contract with its citizens,” she said quoting Vanda Felbab-Brown who said ‘Urban spaces are the new frontier for international security’.

‘Demographic Transformation and Implications on Security’ 

Deputy Director of International Law and Policy of the ICRC, Switzerland Eva Svoboda speaking on ‘Demographic Transformation and Implications on Security’ said that States face real challenges in preventing, responding and addressing internal displacement and in many countries, legal and policy frameworks need to be developed and implemented. 

“This is a first step in ensuring a consistent, coherent, predictable response to displacement. States affected by displacement often have to deal with competing priorities, with limited resources or capacity,” she noted.

Svoboda said that the militaries had a vital role in ensuring that their members respect international humanitarian laws and prosecute those who violate it.

“Balancing security considerations and humanitarian considerations can be a real challenge. In several places, displaced persons coming from specific areas are seen as security threats. They are sometimes confined to camps, kept in isolated areas. They might be suspected of sympathies to a party to the conflict, their family members might have been combatants and among displaced persons, there might be active combatants,” she emphasised.

However, Svoboda said that displaced persons in general should not be treated as a security threat and isolated in the name of security and that might create real and lasting tensions and resentment within societies. “It might also force IDPs to resort to harmful coping mechanisms,” she noted.

Panel sessions

A panel of eminent intellectuals, military think-tanks and world-wide reputed scholars guided the Groups A, B, C, D in the preparatory sessions for participants who were entrusted the responsibility of making their presentations known to the expert panellists in the Session 2 of the final day of the seminar. The syndicate groups were chaired by Dr. Sarala Fernando, Former Ambassador Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations.

Deshamanya Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Civil Representative of the Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka and Major General Dushyantha Rajaguru, Commander, Security Force Headquarters – Mullaitivu of the Sri Lanka Army headed the Group ‘A’ discussions and deliberations on ‘Diaspora Communities amidst Peace and Conflict’.

Air Vice Marshal P.D.K.T. Jayasinghe, Director Administration, Air Force Headquarters, Colombo and Eng. Roshan Chandraguptha, Principal, Information Security Engineer, Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT), Sri Lanka led the Group ‘B’ on the theme ‘Technological Creativity Challenges to Armed Forces’ for presentations.

Rear Admiral N.P.S. Attygalle, Director General Operations at Colombo Navy Headquarters and Niruthan Nilanthan of National Law School of India and the visiting Research Fellow at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies gave leadership to the presenters in the Group ‘C’ on ‘Climate Change Future of Warfare’.

Prof. Gamini B. Keerawella, Executive Director, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo and Indika Perera, Visiting Lecturer at University of Kelaniya and Faculty Member at Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo monitored and advised the presentations of the Group ‘D’ on the theme ‘Leadership in Mitigating Violent Extremism’.

Dr. Sarala Fernando who chaired the expert panellist group spoke high of the quality and perspectives, submitted by presenters in all four Groups and maintained that these findings and different perspectives, articulated in the seminar would go a long way as the timely topic, ‘Security in an Era of Global Disruptions’ asserted during the two day deliberations which were highly thought-provoking and should be focused for ‘follow up’ plans of action both at local and global arena.

A call for vigilance

In his closing address to the seminar, Foreign Ministry Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam urged the participants to be vigilant against violent extremism and terrorist organisations worldwide. “Present-day disruptions are multidimensional, multifaceted and security is the right to live without fear,” he said.

Kariyawasam noted that people needed to understand the disruptions in correct perspective as at every level of the human revolution there were disruptions, which had become a norm. 

Kariyawasam emphasised that the States needed to respond by sharing intelligence, training and knowledge wherever relevant. “The good rapport and working relationship among security stakeholders locally internationally are keys to success in making future security challenges that are disruptions,” he stressed.

Pix by Lasantha Kumara


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