A section of the audience
- Following is the valedictory address by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha at the Colombo Defence Seminar 2019 themed ‘Evolving Military Excellence in the Contemporary Security Landscape’
Let me at the outset, extend my warm congratulations to the Sri Lanka Army which has conceptualised and organised this annual Colombo Defence Seminar for the ninth consecutive year. This Seminar has become an internationally recognised forum for intellectual exchange and discussion on issues of contemporary relevance, particularly related to strategic issues and security – nationally, regionally and internationally.
I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the valedictory address this year, to this gathering which comprises eminent practitioners and scholars from 40 friendly countries, as well as prominent defence policy planners, practitioners and analysts within Sri Lanka. As I am addressing this gathering at a time when there was change of Command in the Sri Lanka Army, I wish to acknowledge the former Commander Gen Mahesh Senanayake who invited me to deliver this address, while also wishing the new Commander Lt. General. Shavendra Silva, a very successful tenure.
Over the past two days you have together deliberated on some of the most challenging contemporary issues faced by the international security community, under the theme ‘Evolving Military Excellence in the Contemporary Security Landscape’. The Army Commander in his welcome address yesterday emphasised that the ‘Colombo Defence Seminar’ was designed to share Sri Lanka’s experiences – not necessarily the successes, but also the debacles endured. No doubt these critical discussions have contributed towards formulating a collective and assertive approach to repel security threats to all our nations.
Many people think – that a valedictory address – is the graduation speech given by the kid who got the highest grades in school, and often it is. But valedictory words don’t have anything to do with schools or grades or throwing your cap in the air.
In the context of this seminar, I intend to fulfil the meaning of the valedictory speech in giving some insight from my vantage point, which I hope would add to the rich food for thought gleaned during this seminar, as we go our ways to make better informed decisions.
It would be fair to say that this year’s Colombo Defence Seminar, taking place as it does in the backdrop of the Easter Sunday Terror Attacks in Sri Lanka, where the attackers claimed allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and were at a minimum inspired by them – the causes that precipitated the attacks, Sri Lanka’s reaction to it, the world’s response, and possible continuing vulnerabilities – have dominated conversations both within and outside this seminar.
Given that the recovery over the past four months has demanded a stronger than ever before ‘whole of government’ approach – one in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially through its International Security and Counter Terrorism Division established at the beginning of this year, has been integrally involved – I intend to focus my comments this afternoon, from a civilian perspective, on the lessons learnt in dealing with the challenges that Sri Lanka has faced in the past four months, and where we go from here.
As I do so, I am deeply conscious that while this is essentially a case study of contemporary Sri Lanka, there are lessons from it that could be drawn by all countries, vulnerable to the threats posed by contemporary terrorism.
In approaching the response in the aftermath of the horrific attacks, viewing it from where I sit – from a Foreign Policy perspective - I do so within the framework largely set by the UNGA Resolution of December 2002 on ‘Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism’, as well as the UNGA Resolution 56/160 of December 2001 and UNHRC Resolution 2002/35 of April 2002 on ‘Human Rights and Terrorism’.
As you are aware, post 9/11 many States were thrust into a myriad, complex challenges of countering terrorism – a phenomenon Sri Lanka and a few other countries across the world had previously experienced first-hand, for many long years until 9/11, with little or no support from the developed states to counter it. Despite the fast-developing understanding of the field from then on, terrorism continues to elude a comprehensive and agreed treaty definition under international law, even as it continues to pose devastating human cost worldwide as well as destabilise governments and undermine economic and social development. Terrorists’ choice of targets, methods of financing and inspiration for attack have been constantly evolving.
In response to this complex, growing threat of terrorism, the international community, over the years has developed a common universal legal framework, which comprises 19 international legal instruments strengthened by relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions. This framework confers a general obligation on Sates to ensure right to life and security of their citizens and recognises the necessity and sufficient conditions to activate the threshold of emergency in the fight against terrorism, subject to the requirements of legality, proportionality and non-discrimination.
Equally relevant in this context is the UN framework on Countering Violent Extremism reinforced by the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism presented by the UN Secretary General in January 2016 where States are called to adopt a comprehensive approach encompassing not only security-based counter-terrorism measures but also preventive measures to address the conditions that drive individuals to radicalise and join extremist groups. This Plan of Action also calls out for a holistic approach grounded in human rights in the efforts to prevent VE.
Growing global consensus in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism is also reflected in the UNGA Resolution adopted by consensus in 2016 in the ‘United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review’.
However, as actors immersed in this field, I am sure we are all acutely conscious that despite the best efforts, the very delicate balance between ‘fighting terrorism’ and ‘protecting human rights’ has been elusive – often veering towards one extreme or the other, applying double standards to similar situations and often politicising these issues, which results in our not only failing to address pressing issues, but in fact acting in a manner that is counter-productive to our respective national interests.
I strongly believe that we must do both - ‘fighting terrorism’ and ‘protecting human rights’, and not sacrifice one, at the altar of the other.
1. Measures Post-Easter Sunday attacks
In this context, the recent tragedy on Easter Sunday was a litmus test of Sri Lanka’s resolve to apply human rights and humanitarian law, and especially a test of the strengths and shortcomings of our democratic institutions that have been strengthened in recent years.
a. Security response and community engagement
In the aftermath of 21/4, we witnessed the re-confirmation of the strength of law enforcement and security apparatus of Sri Lanka to secure the country and prevent any further attacks. We have done so, while allowing for the mourning and coming to terms with our loss, and embarking on the rebuilding and recovery process necessary after such horrific attacks on a citizenry. The speedy and effective restoration of security has been central to ensuring that the impact on the country was lessened – politically, economically, socially, and in terms of international reputation.
This security response would not have been possible without the assistance of the Sri Lankan community at large. The resilience of the social trust within Sri Lanka, despite the attempts of terrorists to destroy the social fabric of the country, was evident in the aftermath of the attacks. It speaks to the enduring link built in the past, between our communities and law enforcement authorities, that communities themselves were coming forward to warn of dangers to society. This is not to be lightly overlooked or taken for granted. It must be maintained and nourished with continued, good faith engagement.
The swift imposition of the State of Emergency, the temporary suspensions of social media to arrest escalation of the situation and mitigate the ability of mischief makers to destabilise society at a vulnerable junction and the re-operationalisation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) - which had been held in abeyance for a while, were the main tools deployed by the Sri Lankan State in the course of swiftly restoring normalcy in the immediate aftermath of 21/4.
It is to Sri Lanka’s credit, that as of this month the emergency has been lifted. The suspension of social media was very short lived and has had the spill-over effect of forcing some of these platforms to pay greater attention to vernacular language based communication – which is to the benefit of many other countries as well. The quest to get the Counter Terrorism legislation right, has become both more informed and urgent, within the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on International Relations, where it has presently been referred to by the Parliament, and is being studied with officials from Foreign Affairs, Defence, Law & Order, Justice, the Attorney General’s Department and other relevant branches of the Government.
All these acts bear testimony to the practical relevance of the need to balance – security and freedoms, where the tools at the disposal of governments and law enforcement authorities to ensure security, as exercised by all governments the world over, is tempered with our sense of protecting the rights of the citizenry who must be allowed to benefit from a secured country.
b. Arrests and detention
In the immediate aftermath and ongoing efforts to restore a sense of security of citizens at large, persons suspected or revealed to have connections with the Easter Sunday attackers were detained/arrested. Full access to these individuals in detention by the ICRC was guaranteed and any complaints regards detentions or any reports of mistreatment were immediately directed to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, who have already launched investigations and issued guidelines.
In this manner, the effective neutralising of the terrorist threats by prompt action by the intelligence and law enforcement authorities, has been also balanced by independent Human Rights mechanisms. This speaks of a robust, healthy system that works in tandem to check and balances each other for the betterment of society.
c. Legislative responses that conform to the international standards
These attacks also brought into the fore the collaboration between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence in the security sphere. In previous collaborative attempts, the Ministries had, by way of Regulations No 1 of 2012 under the United Nations Act of 1968, Sri Lanka has enacted legislation to give effect to; UNSCR 1373 (2001) – (terrorist financing and assets freezing), 1267 (1999) Sanctions covering Al Qaeda and Talban and 2252 (2015) Sanctions framework to include Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the authorities coordinated legislative measures to list the three groups (National Thowheed Jam’at (NTJ), Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), Willsyath As Seylani (WAS) which were revealed to have been instrumental in the Easter Sunday attacks, under UNSCR 1373 on terrorist financing. In addition to the listing of these entities, action is being taken under the same regulation, to identify and designate individuals affiliated with the proscribed organisations, with a view to freezing their assets and preventing terrorist financing.
Amendments have also been made to Regulations relating to UNSCR 1267 and 1373 to expand the regulations to include provisions to request foreign states to designate individuals, entities and groups suspected of being involved in terrorist activities and widen the coverage of freezing orders.
We are also working on legislative measures on Foreign Terrorist Fighters as a priority. In this context, it is imperative to promulgate domestic regulations to give effect to the UN Security Council Resolution 2178 (2014) pertaining to Foreign Terrorist Fighters, that will address the issues of Sri Lankan nationals travelling to join ISIS, Fighters returning from conflict zones in the world, prevent Sri Lanka from being used as a transit point for Foreign Terrorist Fighters.
As previously noted, the relevant authorities are also coordinating on reviewing the counter terrorism legislation in view of the Easter Sunday attacks through the prism of the new aspects of terrorism revealed by these attacks, including the abuse of social media.
‘Community standards’ localised to suit the needs of the centuries strong Sri Lankan multi ethnic, multi-cultural, multi lingual context must also be set when it comes to engaging with social media giants of the world, to ensure the protection of peace and stability among communities. Aspects of hate speech, dealing with fake news, disinformation that incite violence are vital components of reviewing standards of engagement online. This would allow these platforms to continue without interruption to be positive, vital drivers of information dissemination and economic growth, including supporting entrepreneurship in startups, the SME sector and online economic endeavours.
d. Administrative responses
In the immediate aftershocks of the ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks, the Government took action to ban full face covering clothing or accessories under the Public Security Ordinance. In deference to the sensitivities of the requests of the Muslim community, clarifications were also issued later on the use of other types of religious clothing. This demonstrated the self-reflective, self-critical and constructive engagement of the government, even in the conduct of its security measures.
e. Addressing the lacuna of knowledge and international collaborations
As you are all aware, while violent extremist movements and terrorist attacks are not a new phenomenon to Sri Lanka, the violent extremist terrorist threats we face at present have evolved over time and morphed through forces of globalisation, monumental expansion of means of communication, high tech financial conduits and fed by global tensions and conflicts. All countries and international organisations are struggling to mitigate the threat to security posed by these insidious actors. Collective international action in addressing these challenges is paramount given the borderless nature of the challenges confronted.
In his inaugural address yesterday, Secretary Defence Gen. Shantha Kottegoda called for a global joint strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism, insisting that developing countries need special assistance and support to upgrade their capabilities to combat radicalisation and extremist organisations.
Identifying the need to support the country’s security apparatus, the Foreign Ministry has coordinated closely with multilateral and bilateral partners who have the capacity and expressed a wish to assist Sri Lanka in addressing this global threat. International and regional organisations, including the UN Counter Terrorism Directorate and the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, in working closely with the country to assist in the development of capacity and knowledge. The assistance we have sought is for tangible measures to enrich, support and expand the work already undertaken by Sri Lanka’s authorities already working in this regard.
Additionally, and even more crucially of course, many of you in uniform are aware of the considerable extent of cooperation that has been both ongoing and stepped up since 21/4 between Sri Lankan intelligence, criminal investigative and criminal justice agencies, with their respective counterparts from friendly countries and global and regional police organisations across the world.
GOSL has also participated in international conference/seminars/workshops and trainings on CT and related subjects in the past several months in order to learn from best practices in law enforcement, community engagement, PVE and CVE, relevant legislation, policy, from countries that have been facing this new phase of terrorism over the past decade. Close coordination among relevant divisions of the Foreign Ministry and other relevant Ministries and agencies has enabled to avoid duplication of these efforts.
As we move forward the need for shared understandings on these issues, intelligence cooperation and adopting the best practices related to each of these issues from other countries in a Sri Lankan context specific manner, must be emphasised.
2. Ongoing projects/processes being put in place
Armed with knowledge and capacity building measures, which may be renewed periodically, officials from the several spheres have been deployed to create and implement, with national and international support, context specific response efforts for Sri Lanka geared towards achieving tangible outcomes.
Some of these initiatives being formulated and would soon come into fruition includes:
a. Securing borders
With a view to better securing Sri Lanka’s borders, the relevant local agencies of the National Border Management Committee in garnering required international support in the latter’s needs in implementing the Sri Lanka Integrated Border Management Strategy (IBMS) 2018-2021, approved by the Cabinet of Ministers in July 2018.
Of special mention is the API/PNR system in order to secure Sri Lanka’s borders from being breached by those traveling for ill-founded purposes – be it terrorism, narcotics, human smuggling or any other nefarious activity. These mechanisms will be in line with the international standards set to secure the safety of travellers globally, making it more difficult for terrorists to abuse freedoms and safety of global citizens at large.
b. Internet and social media
Given that the propagation of violent extremist and terrorist ideologies, knowledge of terrorist tactics, weaponry and technology, aggrandising of terrorist activities, as well as recruitment of vulnerable sections of society, including youth, through the internet and social media are ever increasing global threats that defy physical borders – global and collective action is required to address these grave concerns.
Understanding that Sri Lanka alone cannot curb the abuse of the internet by terrorists for inciting violence, Sri Lanka has expressed its desire to join global initiatives such as the ‘Christchurch Call to Action’ spearheaded by France and New Zealand, where Governments and tech companies undertake voluntary obligations in the use of the Internet and social media platforms.
c. De-radicalisation and PVE measures
While efforts can be made to curb the terrorists’ use and abuse of internet and social media platforms, and legislative measures and law enforcement mechanisms may be put in place to counter radical ideologies leading to violent extremism, it has been made clear through the decades that a community approach is required for sustainability of these efforts.
In this context, it is necessary to develop the critical thinking capacity of youth, strengthen community bonds, sense of civic duty, and build community resilience to mitigate the effects and influences of violent extremist ideology leading to terrorism that may escape the ever-watchful eye of law enforcement authorities. The role of the community and their resilience against the local drivers of extremism are essential in preventing violent extremism.
Sri Lanka takes justifiable pride in its successful rehabilitation programme for over 12,000 LTTE cadres following the end of the conflict, which has been lauded internationally including by the UN. The key to its success is the reintegration into society of the rehabilitated cadres where they resume a normal life within the community, and have not returned to violence.
However, radicalisation due to religious ideology is a new, complex and extremely sensitive phenomenon, and requires a whole of society approach.
In this context, the Foreign Ministry has taken the initiative to seek assistance to support the GOSL national plans and goals of preventing violent extremism. The current visit of Dr. Khalid Koser, Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) who is also joining us here today, is in this context both timely and significant as we can draw from his expertise and experience in working in several countries, as we chart our way forward in drawing up measures on how to address this issue.
Efforts in this regard must be extremely sensitive to the context specificity of issues and therefore its solutions. It is imperative to avoid broad brush strokes in identifying the needs of communities in different countries, with their own unique histories and context.
3. Setbacks to the economy
Overcoming setbacks to the economy in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 21/4 has been a greater challenge. In the immediate aftermath, in addition to the general concerns of security which however were fast overcome, the travel advisories imposed by some countries that lingered on possibly a few weeks too long, created an exacerbated negative impact that was a clear drawback to the economy.
However, Sri Lanka, has as it did throughout the 30-year struggle against LTTE terrorism, shown its characteristic resilience, despite the initial plunge in the tourism, export and investment sectors. The good news is that, four months later, the economy is re-bouncing. With Russia this week agreeing to the relaxation of its travel advisory, all significant tourist sourcing countries have enabled their citizens to visit Sri Lanka. This development amply showcases the trust placed by the international community on the capability of the Sri Lankan Government in maintaining safety and security of the country with able and skilled security forces deployed to protect its interests. Initiatives taken by key Government stakeholders and the private sector in image rebuilding has yielded in positive results.
According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Chairman Johanne Jayaratne, the number of tourist arrivals during the first seven months recorded a drop of 18.7% to 1.12 million, compared to 1.38 million in the same period last year. In April, soon after the Easter Sunday attacks, tourism officials had estimated a $ 1.5 billion revenue loss this year, while projecting a 30% drop in arrivals. Revising the estimates on volumes and earnings, Authority’s current projection for the year 2019, expects a decline of 10% in tourist arrivals from the original estimate of 30% by the end of this year, while the projected dip in earnings will be 20%.
The solidarity shown by friendly nations such as India, with the visit of Prime Minister, His Excellency Narendra Modi on 9 June 2019 – less than six weeks after the attacks, demonstrated to the world that Sri Lanka is back on track and is a safe place to travel. It would be amiss not to mention some of the international accolades from Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure Magazine, which re-ranked Sri Lanka as the most desirable tourist destination and number one island to visit in 2019, even after the terrorist attack, which added strength and encouragement to the promotional campaigns launched by the Government authorities.
As I speak today, Dawoodi Bohra community’s ‘Ashara Mubaraka’ is being held in Si Lanka with the participation of nearly 21,000 visitors from 40 countries. I am informed that approximately 3,000 rooms in 100 hotels, and 200 apartments have been occupied. Such events being hosted in Sri Lanka consolidates the confidence placed on Sri Lanka by the world – that it is a safe place to travel, do business and invest.
In respect of our economic relations, exports have continued to grow despite the Easter bombings, attributed mainly to the reputation and assurance that Sri Lankan businesses have been a reliable partner in global supply chains. According to data from the Export Development Board, in April 2019 export figures were recorded at $ 772 m (an increase of 0.6 from 2018), in May $ 957 m (an increase of 5.2% from 2018) and in June $ 1,084 m (an increase of 6.47% from 2018. In July, the numbers have shown a slight drop from the figures in 2018 to $ 979 m, whereas in July 2018 they were reported at $ 1,031 m which in percentage wise is only a drop of 0.5%.
In terms of Investments, according to the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka since Easter Sunday attacks to date, the Board of Investment has received 33 applications for new projects and expansions amounting to $ 184.27 m out of which 63.14 is foreign capital, mostly in the manufacturing sector. Further, since the attack, Sri Lanka has managed to sign 31 agreements for new investments and expansions out of which 11 are in manufacturing and four are in tourism. The total value of the agreed investments within this period is estimated at $ 252 m of which 90.9 m of the total investment is foreign investment.
Overall, as stated at a news conference held yesterday by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne, the economic recovery has exceeded expectations, when compared with countries that were placed in similar circumstances and took considerably more time to re-bounce. It is good to know that notwithstanding all we have been through, according to the Ministers, Sri Lanka will grow by about 3.2% in 2019.
All these figures show one thing. Sri Lanka took a serious hit, but we were and we are resilient and are bouncing back, with a lot of hard work and effort from everyone within the Government, the private sector and our friends in the international community. All we need to do now is to continue to identify priorities, recalibrate our economic interests and to re-build on these positive strides.
4. Way forward for Sri Lanka
As we evolve ‘military excellence’ in facing the challenges posed by the ‘contemporary security landscape’ of Sri Lanka and the world at large, Sri Lanka’s national security outlook requires a radical reorientation in the context of the Easter Sunday attacks. The vulnerabilities that come from being strategically located, realities of globalisation and technological advancements which force us to look at security through a borderless prism and the challenge of tackling terrorists who are equally if not more adept and have the means of using new technologies to achieve their ends, are challenges that require non-traditional methods.
No longer can governments look at security issues – whether counter terrorism, transnational crimes or the threat of regional and international security – in isolation. Inter and intra agency cooperation is key to successfully addressing the new threats to security, while close coordination is a must between not only the Defence and Foreign Affairs authorities, but also Justice, Home Affairs, Finance, Aviation and Shipping, given the global and extra territorial nature of the issues involved that require both a foreign policy and security perspective to be effective. We must in fact move from a ‘Whole of Government’ to a ‘Whole of Society’ approach, if we are to truly overcome this challenge.
This is a truism that will apply to Sri Lanka, as it probably will to most of the countries you represent and beyond.
I thank you.