Maritime conventions, disasters and hubs: Sri Lanka’s decisive hour is here

Tuesday, 8 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The disaster caused by the MV X-Press Pearl remains a clarion call for immediate action to ensure that the maritime conventions that have been ratified are invoked and adequate measures taken to address the catastrophe that is unfolding along the western coast of the island and has the potential to spread further


  • Today is World Oceans Day 2021

The territorial waters of Sri Lanka have experienced maritime disasters for centuries. The presence of numerous hulls on the sea bed around the country are testimony to the battles that were fought, and the accidents that occurred in close proximity to the island nation. 

Whilst the hulls are a grim reminder of the past, the impact on the environment at that time remains sketchy, and hardly any lessons seem to have been learnt from each disaster. Much has remained unaccounted for and hence the repetition of such catastrophes is witnessed. 

Sri Lanka, known by various names in the centuries gone by, was a shipping hub with the presence of numerous international traders, trading companies and countries that vied for engagement with the island from pre-colonial through to colonial times.

Sri Lanka’s strategic maritime importance

The island remained of strategic maritime importance to the British, whose military expressed concern at the granting of independence, owing to the connectivity the island afforded. A report of the British Chiefs of Staff dated 5 May 1947 noted: “The island forms an essential link in our cable and wireless network to Australia and the Far East. It is also the centre of our naval intelligence organisations for countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Inability to use Ceylon would deprive us of the only existing main fleet base between Malta and Singapore and would seriously weaken our control of the Indian Ocean…”

From the first Prime Minister onwards, attention was focused on the strategic importance of the island. D. S. Senanayake in his independence message observed: “We are in an especially dangerous position because we are on one of the strategic highways of the world. The country which captures Ceylon could dominate the Indian Ocean.” Such was the importance attached to the locality not only from a strategic perspective of geopolitics, but also owing to the relevance of the island from security and commercial angles. 

At the height of the Cold War nuclear action by the two power blocs in their tussle with each other could have had far reaching repercussions. In 1971, Ceylon’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Hamilton S. Amerasinghe called for the inclusion of an additional item in the agenda of the 26th session of the UN General Assembly on the ‘Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace’. 

Later in October 1971, Ceylon’s Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike called for the acceptance of this proposal to avert a crisis in the Indian Ocean by prohibiting the passage of military vessels. The effort was to raise concern about the potential impact that war could have on the countries of the Indian Ocean, and the disasters that would grip the countries of South Asia and its neighbourhood. 


Blue Economy

The continuous stress on the relevance of the oceans, is now on the concept of the Blue Economy and its potential, especially for a country like Sri Lanka. 

As the island looks to strategise beyond merely fishing, and focuses on the multitude of opportunities that oceans provide, Sri Lanka is looking to enhance its shipping connectivity, and evolve into a maritime hub once again. This potential could be realised through the multifaceted aquatic resources, aquaculture, seabed deposits, marine biotechnology, as well as the beaches which heavily support the tourism industry. 

However they would all be heavily affected not only in the short to medium term after maritime disasters, but would also face the long term impact which damages the ecosystem and the economy. At present urgent commitment to the improvement of standards, abiding by international regulations, and enhancement of facilities remain critical areas that deserve immediate attention. 

Maritime hub

In order to evolve into a maritime hub in the 21st century unlike how it was centuries ago, Sri Lanka needs to be more aware of its international obligations and effectively study the conventions which have been ratified, as well as those which have been bypassed for varied reasons at the time they were adopted at the international level. 

In the last two decades alone several maritime disasters caused immense concern, and much damage in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. In 1999 MV Melishka began sinking off Dondra and finally ran aground off the Bundala coast. It subsequently deposited 16,500 metric tonnes of fertiliser and 200 metric tonnes of heavy fuel oil. 2006 saw MV Amanat Shah causing a spill of 25 metric tonnes of oil and dropping over 800 teak logs into the ocean off Kogolla. 

Further up the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the seas off Trincomalee, the MT Granba experienced a leak in 2009, leading to the eventual sinking of the ship and its cargo of 6,250 tonnes of sulphuric acid. In 2019, when the vessel, Sri Lankan Glory washed ashore in Galle timely action resulted in the removal of 15 tonnes of fuel on board which averted a further disaster. Similarly in 2020, another large scale disaster was mitigated when the MT New Diamond carrying 270,000 tonnes of oil caught fire east of Sri Lanka but was eventually towed out of territorial waters although an oil slick was reported at the time. 

The latest incident concerning MV X-Press Pearl off the western coast of the island highlights once again the risks faced by maritime nations but more importantly draws attention to the need for countries to be prepared for such eventualities. Whilst the preparation remains very much national, it is only through international collaboration that countries are able to raise standards and ensure readiness for any form of disaster that might occur within and beyond its territorial waters. 

Maritime conventions

It was collective action that saw a Convention establishing the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO) in 1948, as the main specialised agency of the United Nations mandated to ensure ‘the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships’. The Convention came into operation in 1958 and IMCO convened for the first in 1959. Whilst the name of IMCO changed to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1982, the objective of ‘Safe, secure and efficient shipping on clean oceans’ continued. 

Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in 1972 only after the country called for international action to safeguard the Indian Ocean. Whilst the Convention had been in operation for well over a decade it was a national requirement that led to the subsequent ratification. Several Conventions that were initiated from then onwards have been ratified by Sri Lanka while many others remain unratified. It takes a national requirement to re-examine these Conventions. 

The current development off the western coast of Sri Lanka and the environmental disaster that is already being witnessed for miles along the coast is a critical juncture for Sri Lanka to re-examine the maritime conventions that have been ratified and ensure complete implementation, while also identifying those which have not been ratified and to take suitable action at the earliest.

The International Convention for Safe Containers (CSC) which came into force in 1977 is yet to be ratified by Sri Lanka. First drawn up in 1972, after a study of the safety of containerisation in marine transport, the CSC has two objectives. Whilst it is aimed at maintaining internationally accepted levels of safety of human life, it also attempts to lay out international safety regulations. This uniformity is crucial given the universality of the shipping industry. 

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) which was adopted in 1973 and has several Protocols that were introduced in the ensuing years, has seen Sri Lanka ratifying Annexes I, II, III, IV and V, but not VI. Covering the prevention of pollution of the marine environment and ecosystems by ships due to operational or accidental causes, the Convention’s six technical annexures call for strict adherence in the areas of oil, noxious liquid substances, harmful substances carried by sea in packaged form, sewage, garbage and air pollution. The Convention remains a landmark agreement that deserves much deeper study especially in addressing the current situation in Sri Lanka.

The International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties was adopted in 1969 and came into force in 1975. While Sri Lanka ratified the Convention, the 1973 Protocol is yet to be ratified. This Convention gives countries like Sri Lanka ample area for action when vessels cause maritime disasters and is yet another Convention that needs to be invoked in the current scenario. 

The International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC) which was adopted in 1990 and came into operation in 1995, has not been ratified by Sri Lanka. This Convention calls upon parties to it to “establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents, either nationally or in co-operation with other countries.” These are not ad hoc measures but instead are ones which are strategised upon well in advance and are thus operationalised as and when disasters occur. Ships are required to have a ‘shipboard oil pollution emergency plan’ and member states to have ‘stockpiles of oil spill combating equipment, the holding of oil spill combating exercises and the development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents.’ With the IMO playing the crucial role of coordination, this Convention is essential for countries, especially Sri Lanka as the island develops into a maritime hub. Further, a Protocol related to hazardous and noxious substances was adopted in 2000.

The International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (CLC) was adopted in 1969 and came into force in 1975, and thereafter was replaced by the 1992 Protocol which came into force in 1996. Sri Lanka has ratified the 1992 Protocol which calls for adequate compensation at times of oil pollution damaging the territory and territorial sea of a State Party to the Convention. The 1992 Protocol also expanded the operability of the Convention to include the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea (HNS) was first adopted in 1996 but did not come into force. It was superseded by the 2010 Protocol which is also yet to come into force. Only Canada, Denmark, Norway, South Africa and Turkey have ratified the Protocol which proposes the establishment of a two tier system for compensation wherein the first tier involves the ship owner’s insurance providing funds and the second tier draws from a fund formed by recipients of the HNS. The payment of dues towards this fund is seen as a stumbling block in its ratification as the amount is calculated based on the amount drawn in the preceding year. For it to come into force ‘at least 12 States, including four States each with not less than two million units of gross tonnage, [need to] have expressed their consent to be bound by it’. 

The International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage (BUNKER) which was adopted in 2001 and came into force in 2008 is yet to be ratified by Sri Lanka. The Convention lays emphasis on damage owing to spillage of fuel from the ships’ bunkers, and is free-standing covering pollution damage only, and applies ‘to damage caused on the territory, including the territorial sea, and in the exclusive economic zone of States Parties.’ This is yet another convention that enables countries to recover from disasters. 



Some of the aforementioned conventions have been ratified, others have not been fully ratified and still others have not been ratified at all. Although the immediate action required on the ground and at sea is to curtail the spread of the pollutants from the sinking vessel, it is paramount that steps are taken to address the issue from a holistic perspective wherein Sri Lanka does not have to suffer similar consequences and is instead further prepared to tackle such challenges, which will undoubtedly occur in the future. 

In the short term, the disaster caused by the MV X-Press Pearl remains a clarion call for immediate action to ensure that the conventions that have been ratified are invoked and adequate measures taken to address the catastrophe that is unfolding along the western coast of the island and has the potential to spread further. Coordination with IMO and States Parties to the ratified conventions need to be explored instantly to identify avenues for technical cooperation that is needed at present.

In the medium term, a comprehensive study is required of conventions which have not been ratified to date, noting the reasons for non-ratification and attempting to overcome challenges that might have been perceived in the past which stopped Sri Lanka from ratifying these conventions. Further, measures are required pursuant to a comprehensive analysis, to ratify these internationally recognised, standard setting instruments which are critical for island nations, and especially for Sri Lanka given its geographical positioning, and future ambitions. 

In the long term, a widespread study is required of all conventions that have been ratified and action taken to ensure that Sri Lanka continues to abide by the stipulations enclosed therein, which would eventually be rewarding for the country as it improves standards and journeys further down the path towards becoming a maritime hub. 

Sri Lanka has long yearned to be identified as a maritime hub. Yet maritime incidents such as that which occurred in May 2021 which possess the potential of escalating into massive environmental catastrophes the impact of which will continue to be felt for years, remain challenges that require concerted, strategised action. It is only when, at the national level, action is taken to implement conventions, which are directly beneficial to signatories as they hold state parties to high standards and regulations, that concrete steps would be taken towards maritime hub status. Such status is rewarding from an economic prism, and it is relevant to ensure that the standards prescribed by internationally-binding conventions are implemented as they thwart all forms of damage, if not, try to mitigate the damage that could be caused through maritime incidents.

However the damage experienced by each and every maritime incident cannot be undone or overcome completely, the compensation cannot bring the marine creatures back to life, the underwater world which was already under immense stress due to global warming has now been further impacted and those who relied on the seas to sustain lives and livelihoods have been collectively affected. 

It is a truism that development comes at a cost. Nevertheless urgent measures are needed to reduce the impact on the environment, stringent plans are required to have been formulated and rushed into operation when an incident occurs, and an overall vision is vital to diminish the negative impact of progress and development. All of this can only be achieved through thorough strategising across all sectors, under a comprehensive national plan of action. 

The disaster of 2021 is not the first to hit Sri Lanka, and will not be the last that the country experiences, but it should at least become a moment of realisation. Realisation of how all sectors are closely integrated across the country, how engaged Sri Lanka is with the international community, and very importantly, how cooperating in a proactive and mutually beneficial manner, will give Sri Lanka the opportunity to rise and take her place among counterparts in the region and beyond. Until this moment of realisation dawns, and appropriate action is taken, maritime hub status, or any other form of hub status, will remain elusive.