Navigating a nuclearised Asia for smaller states: Reviving Sri Lanka’s commitments to disarmament

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Throughout its diplomatic history, Sri Lanka has maintained a strong anti-nuclear stance. Given the perceived need to avoid antagonising nuclear powers in the region, Sri Lanka has communicated this stance as a general normative and ethical position, rather than by criticising individual nuclear actors.

Recent global developments on nuclear issues, however, have tested the consistency of Sri Lanka’s anti-nuclear stance. In view of these developments and a need for consistency in its policy, Sri Lanka should reaffirm its past commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. It can advance these commitments by employing a ‘dual track’ policy, of working towards incremental denuclearisation in the Indian Ocean and by joining the growing list of nations advocating for total nuclear disarmament.

Sri Lanka took seemingly contradictory positions in 2017, on North Korea’s nuclear program as well as on the proposed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Nuclear Ban Treaty).

First, it issued a statement (1) on 28 July, 2017 condemning North Korea’s decision to conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test. However, there were reports that the statement was not sanctioned by the President (2). Second, while the Government initially supported the proposed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Nuclear Ban Treaty) in July, 2017, it did not sign the Nuclear Ban Treaty in September 2017 (3).

These developments indicate a lack of clarity about what the most tactical diplomatic response might be by Sri Lanka to the current crisis in the Korean peninsula, and on potential nuclear issues closer to home. They signal a need for Sri Lanka to formulate a nuclear policy that would be pragmatic for smaller states surrounded by competing nuclear neighbours while fulfilling the country’s prior commitments to promoting nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation (4). 

Furthermore, it is important to recognise that North Korea’s heady approach to nuclear weapons has been influenced by the regime change of authoritarian governments in Libya and Iraq. Therefore, any response from Sri Lanka should be undertaken with a commitment to non-intervention in sovereign states.


Sri Lanka’s evolving security context

Sri Lanka remains a non-nuclear nation both in terms of military and civilian use, and has ratified the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT or ‘Non-Proliferation Treaty’). Sri Lanka’s current geopolitical realities, however, dictate that it maintain a degree of sensitivity to the security interests of the three nuclear states battling for greater influence in the Indian Ocean: India, China and Pakistan.

There are several concerns for Sri Lanka to consider in this context. Firstly, Sri Lanka should be cognisant of the changing relationships between nuclear powers. In particular, India’s decision to forge closer relations with the US presents new realities for South Asian countries in regard to nuclear testing by North Korea. If North Korea assesses India as a US ally in the region, its rhetoric might evolve to encompass India. A threat to Indian security (even if an actual strike would be a remote possibility), would have an impact on Sri Lankan security.

Secondly, while North Korea has developed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of targeting US cities, there are valid concerns about the accuracy of North Korea’s missile guidance systems, ballistic trajectory, and re-entry capabilities. Thirdly, there is no historical precedent for nuclear warfare between nuclear nations, and the common understanding held by experts is that once first strike capabilities are employed by an actor, it is highly unlikely a nuclear conflict can be managed (5).

To guard against these risks, in a manner that also reflects its legacy of neutrality and non-alignment, Sri Lanka could consider an agreement with both India and China to eliminate the presence of nuclear vessels within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

As of yet, however, nuclear security has not become a mainstream internal political issue and certainly not to the extent of nurturing a stronger stance by the Sri Lankan government. By way of contrast and example, New Zealand’s‘Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act of 1987’ was the culmination of nearly two decades of public discussion and activism (6).


Non-security concerns

There are also pragmatic economic reasons for Sri Lanka to be more proactive on nuclear issues. The Sri Lankan Government’s plans to become a significant player in the global maritime transhipment sector could suffer significant setbacks if tensions between the regional nuclear weapons states escalate in the Indian Ocean.

Another factor to consider is the current and looming realities of climate change. A number of voices have advocated that nuclear energy should be adopted as a stop-gap measure until economies can transition to a fully renewable model (7). In view of its security interests, however, it would be more sensible for Sri Lanka to pursue a robust anti-nuclear policy, which includes avoiding nuclear power for civilian use.

Civilian use of nuclear energy has often been a precursor to a nuclear weapons program; this was the case for India and Pakistan with the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program (8). While Sri Lanka is very unlikely to attempt to gain access to nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, it should adopt a strict non-nuclear policy if it is to play a regional leadership role in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

Smaller states that have successfully advocated for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, such as Austria and New Zealand, have rejected nuclear power as an energy source or have made attempts to dismantle or halt the construction of nuclear reactors.

This, however, need not preclude research on nuclear technology; as has been the case in Austria, where the global headquarters of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) is located.

There are other reasons to reject the introduction of nuclear power as an energy source in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka as a developing nation suffers from weak management as far as its energy infrastructure is concerned. Even economically advanced nations have clearly inadequate (9), safeguards against natural catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis, as was demonstrated by the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan by a tsunami. Additionally, Sri Lanka’s small size does not permit it the luxury of isolating large tracts of land as ‘sacrifice zones,’ in the case of a nuclear catastrophe (10).


The way forward

The larger question of how to manage nuclear regimes remains controversial, with no global agreement between the main nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states. The former continues to push an agenda of non-proliferation, while a majority of non-nuclear weapons states – especially ones from the Global South – are pushing for disarmament, as indicated by their active role in the formulation of the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

The North Korean nuclear crisis presents an opportunity for Sri Lanka to regain its strong reputation as a global citizen on issues of peace and security, by revisiting the Sri Lanka-led declaration in 1971 of the Indian Ocean as a ‘Zone of Peace.’ Sri Lanka should also work within the Non-Alignment Movement as an advocate for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, by creating strategic partnerships with states such as Indonesia that are currently active in global nuclear disarmament fora.

Despite its current limited political influence on the global stage, Sri Lanka should not shy away from engaging in the nuclear debate. The role of smaller states such as Costa Rica, which played a crucial role in the recent adoption of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, is an indication that small powers can help shape the global conversation on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

(The writer is a Research Associate at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) in Colombo. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. They are not the institutional views of the LKI and do not necessarily represent or reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.)



1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sri Lanka (2017). Sri Lanka condemns hostile acts by North Korea which threatens international peace and security.

2. SBS. (2017).PresidentMaithri wants inquiry on N. Korea statement.

3.Deen, T. (2017). Sri Lanka not likely to sign nuclear weapons ban treaty at UN

4.Permanent Misson of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland. (2013). Statement by H.E RavinathaAryasinha Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka at the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

5.New Scientist. (2017). Talk of a ‘localised nuclear conflict’ is ignorant and dangerous.

6.Parliamentary Counsel Office. New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987

7.Grimes, R. (2017). Climate change is an energy problem, so let’s talk honestly about nuclear

8.Srinivasam, M. (2003). 50 years of Atoms for Peace. The Hindu.

9.Kaufmann, D. and Penciakova, V. (2011). Preventing Nuclear Meltdown: Assessing Regulatory Failure in Japan and the United States. Brookings.

10.Pruett, D. (2017). We’re All in the Sacrifice Zone Now. Huffington Post.

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