A top British official, who was in Sri Lanka in view of Galle Dialogue at the invitation of Sri Lanka Navy, speaks, about the global importance of Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning and the expansion of China’s trading activities. Judge Advocate General – UK Jeff Blackett said China’s expansion from a trade perspective should be welcomed. The First Galle Dialogue was held in 2010 under the leadership of then Navy Commander Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe and at the direction of former Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa as a post conflict reach out to the world with confidence and competence. Excerpts:
Q How do you view Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean?
It is clearly very important, particularly with the expansion of China and Chinese trade routes. If you look at the map of trade and track where overarching ships move, a huge number of world trades takes place through the south of Sri Lanka. That puts Colombo into a strategically very important place. It is not only about trade. There are a lot of crimes in the sea- drug smuggling, people’s smuggling and arms smuggling heading towards East Africa. Again, all these put Colombo in the axis. The other things are also important. The 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port demonstrates how significantly China thinks about Sri Lanka. The West should take note of that. We should pay attention to it.
Q When you say the West should take note of that, what do you mean?
We have to engage more closely. One of the issues we discussed in the conference (Galle Dialogue) is combatting crimes through cooperation. Cooperation means we have to get on with each other. One way of doing it is using the points around the globe. I think Sri Lanka is a place where you need to have cooperation. From a British perspective, it is sensible that we enhance our political presence here.
Q Actually, how can Sri Lanka manage its relations to get the maximum benefit out of this situation?
Sri Lanka can do so by telling the world that it is a hub. As a hub, it can tell that the world needs to be here to conduct trade, to protect trade, to combat crimes, and to talk to other colleagues here. Really, Colombo is a diplomatic hub for everybody to meet.
Q How does the West view Chinese investments in the development of ports in Sri Lanka?
I am not representing the British government in this instance. But, certainly, I would not criticise China for what they are doing. China is trying to reach out. They are trying to develop their economy. They are trying to do it through trade. I won’t criticise that. The more they influence here, the less influence we may have here. This will make it more difficult for us to trade because trade is dominated by China.
If there is expansion from a trade point of view, that should be welcome. The competition between us and China should be through trade, not through violence.
Q This has placed Sri Lanka in the spotlight with China, India and the United States harbouring their interests. How can Sri Lanka stand up to the situation in your view?
It is a hub. If you take, for example, air travel, Dubai has positioned itself as a hub. Now, if you want to fly anywhere, you will have to fly to Dubai. I think, as far as trade and fighting crimes are concerned, Colombo can position itself as a hub or a host.
Q How do you define the role meant for Sri Lanka Navy in this instance?
I think Sri Lanka Navy is going to have transition from fighting war to something else.
The war fighting Navy it was during the recent troubles where they had to have a naval force which was to counter the threat. They’re going to have transition to being something else. Now, what are they going to be? They still need to protect their own waters, they still need to protect their own fishing fleet, and they still need to protect the Exclusive Economic Zone. They still need to do all those things, they still need to provide protection within their territorial waters targeting crimes.
Q What do you think of Sri Lanka Navy’s experience in countering terrorism?
Sri Lanka Navy has a lot of experience in countering the scourge of threats which other Navies are finding elsewhere in the world- suicide attacks, attacks by large numbers of small vessels. They got practical experience in that. That is something they can help with the other Navies to develop their counter-terrorist activities.
Q What is your impression about Sri Lanka Navy in dealing with terrorism?
I visited Trincomalee. I have seen the Navy. When I was up there, I was briefed about all the naval engagements during recent troubles. Sri Lanka Navy suffered serious casualties. I think they learnt from their experience. By the end of troubles, they have become a very professional naval force.
Q What is the kind of contribution it can make in combatting crimes such as piracy?
Piracy is very difficult to combat, as you know. Piracy is a different issue from terrorism. Terrorists are likely to attack you for a political point. But, pirates are trying to capture for economic advantage. Two different roads are required to counter them because it is not something explored by me being here. I do not know how strong Sri Lanka Navy is in countering piracy. But, I know they can certainly provide great assistance and advice in countering terrorism.
Q You mentioned that you went to Trincomalee. How significant is the habour there?
I observed the flour mill and the petroleum tanks. It is a wonderful deep harbour. It is up in the north –east.
Trade routes come down to the south. I am not quite sure how significant it is for trade. There is certainly going to be a lot of growth to be generated. I met the Governor there. I was told the flour mill contributed US $ 1.1 billion to the economy. It is a significant benefit to the economy.
There are so many interests around it. It is the second biggest deep sea harbour in the world.
- I think it is important that Sri Lanka itself investigates the allegations quickly. If there is evidence against people, then they must be brought to account
- If you do not have some form of reconciliation and accountability, there will be people having grudges forever.
Q In a war situation, it is argued that human rights violations are unavoidable. Sri Lanka is facing these allegations. What is your view?
First, I will talk about the UK experience. In the UK, we had long conflicts with Afghanistan and Iraq. There were serious allegations of abuse by the British troops during the conflict. We have had a couple of cases. One is the case in which a young Iraqi boy was taken into custody by the British troops.
Three days late, he was dead. It was absolutely clear that the British soldiers killed him. It was impossible to prove. Nobody was brought to book. That generated the significant amount of concern in the UK.
A lot of other allegations were made. The International Criminal Court (ICC), to which the UK is a signatory, received complaints as well. If the state is unwilling to deal with its own people, then the ICC can step in. It is important that we, in Britain, dealt with our own people. We set up something called’ Iraqi Historic Allegation Team (IHAT)’. They received over 200 complaints which they investigated. Equally, we have set up another organisation to investigate allegations in Afghanistan.
We are coming to end of IHAT period. A large number of allegations have proved to be false. There are some allegations of abuses that need to be dealt with.
In any country, there is going to be claims and counter-claims of abuse. In any conflict, there will be abuses. It is inevitable. People, being in operation for a long time and desensitised, may be killing unlawfully. The services themselves need to investigate what happened. It gives public the confidence. That is very much the British perspective.
How do I see that in Sri Lanka? There have been allegations of issues in the battlefield- abuses, disappearances of people, torture etc. I think it is important that Sri Lanka itself investigates these allegations quickly. If there is evidence against people, then they must be brought to account.
If you do not have some form of reconciliation and accountability, there will be people having grudges forever. Reconciliation and accountability is somehow important. There will be many false allegations.
Q Is it natural that false allegations come out?
Yes, of course. It is better to have a mechanism to get rid of those allegations quickly.