The Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s statement on Monday that the fishing dispute between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen should not be viewed from a legal perspective, but from a humanitarian standpoint is half right, but mostly wrong.
The International Maritime Boundary Line that separates the Republic of India from the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay and the Bay of Bengal was mutually agreed by the then Presidents of India and Sri Lanka, Indira Ghandi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1974. The agreement followed the United Nations promulgation of the Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in 1972. Not UNCHOS Honourable Minister, but UNCLOS. The two bilateral agreements signed between Sri Lanka and India in 1974 and 1976 are internationally binding legal instruments. Is Ms Swaraj suggesting that India no longer respects the bilateral and international agreements pertaining to its borders with its many Asian neighbours? Pakistan for example, or China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar? I suspect not. If 5,000 Sri Lankan farmers from the North decided to ignore the International Maritime Boundary Line and begin cultivating big onion, chillies and tobacco in Tamil Nadu later in the year, would India’s External Affairs Minister applaud their initiative? Again, one suspects not. The fishery dispute between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen over who has the right to fish in the narrow body of water that separates India from Sri Lanka is a legal issue, plain and simple. It is a legal issue because legally binding bilateral agreements have been signed between both sides demarcating the ‘Indian side’ and the ‘Sri Lankan side’. Paragraph 1 of letters exchanged between the Kewal Singh, Foreign Secretary to the Government of India and W.T. Jayasinghe , Secretary to Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs, Government of Sri Lanka on 23 March 1976, delineating the boundary between the two countries in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal and related matters, reads as follows: “With the establishment of the exclusive economic zones by the two countries, India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zone. The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of Sri Lanka nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be”. What’s not legal about this? Permission has not been given by the Sri Lankan authorities for Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters ergo Indian fishermen are breaking the law Ms Swaraj. The Indian External Affairs Minister is right however when she says that the fishery dispute is a humanitarian crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis for Sri Lankan fishermen.
For the last six months I have been working / fishing with Tamil fishermen in Irainamathanagar, a small fishing village in Poonaryn Division in Kilinochchi District. This previously LTTE controlled area was among one of the first to be attacked by the Sri Lankan security forces’ northern offence, launched in 2008: the final offensive that led to the eventual defeat of the LTTE and the liberation of the North. The fishermen I’ve been working with and their families walked from Irainamathanagar on the west coast to Nanthikadal on the east coast, whilst being shelled and shot at. Then they escaped to government-controlled territory, also whilst being shelled and shot at. Then they were interned for anything up to two years in a series of IDP camps. Eventually they returned home in 2012 with no belongings, to destroyed houses and with no boat, nets or engines with which to harvest fish. Since their return, Kilinochchi fishermen’s livelihoods have been constantly threatened and the marine resources that they depend upon illegally harvested or destroyed by Indian trawlers. From a humanitarian standpoint it’s not difficult to see where the humanitarian crisis lies. And which Honourable Minister is responsible for continuing it.
Comments - 2
Sam Wednesday, 11 March 2015 02:00 PM
Great but the problem is how far and how long Mr. Wickramasingha will stand for his words. if he and the Gov. of SL backs the story. then the matter is solved. One easy thing is to have visible floating buoys planting along the boundary with the joint funds and monitoring.Problem we are facing is Big brother does not want a permanent solution as it wants a volatile situation to meddle with.
Kingsley Wijesinhe Wednesday, 11 March 2015 02:35 PM
It is embarrassing that a foreigner should have to tell our (and Indian) policy makers the plain truth that stares us in the face. Dr. Creech has said it as it is. There is no need for interminable "negotiations" to settle the "fishing problem. The solution is simple. Let the Indians not poach in Sri Lankan waters and let the Sri Lankans not poach in Indian waters. End of problem. If Indian fishermen have overfished their waters and destroyed their fishing grounds by using harmful practices such as bottom trawling, that is their problem. It is not going to be solved by their coming into our waters and destroying them as well.
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