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Sri Lanka: War against terrorism

By Rohitha Bogollagama

(September 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I am pleased that we are here today at this meeting, the convening of which remained in doubt for some time, despite the fact that our Heads of Government in Kampala had welcomed a Ministerial Meeting on Terrorism. Although it is unfortunate that some members are not quite keen to pursue, perhaps one of the most important challenges faced globally, it is encouraging that the Commonwealth has finally agreed to deliberate on the issue, at least in a forum of this nature. There are a multitude of subjects which are discussed both by the Commonwealth and other international fora, and we believe that terrorism which threatens the very foundation of nations should also be accorded similar exposure and not be interpreted as duplication of the issue.

While we celebrate the ‘Commonwealth at 60’, bound by our shared principles and values of democracy, there are however, Mr. Chairman, challenges that we face in such pursuit. An all pervading challenge or should I say threat to our shared common values is terrorism, be it national, regional and international peace and security.

I make this statement based on the experience of Sri Lanka. As you are aware, Sri Lanka has successfully defeated the terrorists that had for 30 years brought much suffering and pain to the people of the country, in particular, the people of the North and East of Sri Lanka. The terrorists with their terror tactics prevented the people of the North and East from having their democratic rights, prevented democratic institutions and political parties from engaging in democratic practice and prevented any form of economic or social development in those areas. Democracy was simply dismantled by the terrorists. This underlines the manner in which Core Commonwealth values are seriously threatened in Member States affected by terrorism. As you are aware the terrorist group which operated in Sri Lanka had the reputation of being the most ruthless terror organization in the world. The means of survival of the terrorists was malicious propaganda designed to create divisions among the people, which regrettably continues to this date promoted by certain sectors for their own personal gain, carried out by their extensive international network. It is this international dimension which saw this terrorist group thrive and subjugate the people through terror. Their international complexion has been demonstrated in terms of extensive fundraising, arms procurement led by erroneous propaganda abroad. Globally looking around, areas affected by terrorism brings to the fore the manner in which the national boundaries have been overrun. This makes it more imperative for international cooperation in combating the scourge of terrorism, an area where the Commonwealth can do more.

The threat of terrorism is not localized to a few countries. It is common to all States in this increasingly interdependent world, which is why the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy has called for a holistic and inclusive approach to counter-terrorism. The need for international cooperation and enhancement of the role of regional and sub regional bodies has also been recognized. While these global initiatives on terrorism are bringing hope to a number of countries grappling with terrorism, it is surprising that some of our friends tend to shy away when it comes to the issue of tackling terrorism. This to me is sometimes puzzling.

At the South Asian regional level, SAARC has undertaken several initiatives in promoting and fostering regional cooperation in combating terrorism. Under the Chairmanship of Sri Lanka, one of the first such initiatives was the signing of the SAARC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters at the 15 SAARC Summit held in Colombo, in August 2008. The Convention provides for meaningful measures towards combating terrorism. Article 13 of the Convention provides for extending mutual cooperation to seize or confiscate funds collected for the purposes of financing terrorism, and to prosecute persons and groups involved in such activities. The most recent initative was the adoption of the “SAARC Ministerial Declaration on Cooperation in Combating Terrorism” at the 31st Session of the Council of Ministers also held in Colombo in 2009.

At the international level, Sri Lanka has been an active participant in promoting global cooperation in the fight against terror, within the framework of international law. Sri Lanka is party to 12 International Conventions relating to the suppression of terrorism and has been Chairing the United Nations Ad Hoc Committee, mandated with the task of concluding the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. Sri Lanka also fully supports the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy. It is recalled that this Strategy calls for States to take measures to address conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. It maybe observed that apart from the military strategy which helped overcome the terrorist activities in Sri Lanka, concerted international cooperation interdicting the flow of finances, arms and ammunition were factors that also assisted us overcome the menace of terrorism, bringing to the fore the importance of collective action. Therefore it is imperative that the Comprehensive convention on International Terrorism is concluded at the earliest, to which end the Commonwealth member states should use its network to contribute to this process.

While commending the work of the Commonwealth in furthering cooperation in the member states with regard to terrorism, through the Commonwealth Plan of Action on Terrorism (CPAT) and the meetings of the Law Ministers, I feel that we have not harnessed our advantages to the maximum and therefore there is room for broader and more comprehensive cooperation among us, in particular in the ‘counter terrorism’ work which has been limited to mainly helping Member States put in place a legal framework to address the issue. The Commonwealth being an important global player provides the ideal platform to pursue counter-terrorism initiatives. Member countries represent the world’s richest and poorest and share a commitment not only to the fundamental principles and values but also share a history, language, traditions and similarities in administrative, legal and education systems. The inter-governmental partnerships and people to people networks make it a unique institution linking countries in 6 continents. It is also a forum where all members have equal voices allowing small and less powerful states to be heard. These are the advantages that we have; the advantages that we should use to put into practice the call by the Heads of Governments and Law Ministers that counter-terrorism cooperation and assistance among member states at regional and international levels need to be further strengthened.

Over the years, with global changes and new technologies, the face of terrorism has also metamorphosised and its ugly tentacles have penetrated all domains of our society. Counter-terrorism techniques in trying to severe these tentacles have also revolutionized and the Commonwealth must keep abreast with these changes. There is a dire need for practical measures to be adopted by the Commonwealth that would help contribute towards cutting off the sources of funding of terrorist groups, both direct and indirect in particular through charitable organizations; establishment of effective mechanisms to counter the movements of terrorists across national frontiers. In this regard it may be noted that such cooperation resulted in the apprehension of one of the main LTTE operatives; preventive mechanisms to ensure that no safe haven is provided to terrorists in the Commonwealth by way of the abuse of asylum procedures. The Commonwealth with its reputed quiet diplomacy could contribute greatly towards such measures. We must hope that we are not too late, in providing the political will for this process. In this regard, the updated CPAT is most welcome and it must be implemented with much vigour. We may also consider a comprehensive review of the Harare document on Legal Assistance.

No doubt, such proactive work would call for agreements at Ministerial Level and that was why Sri Lanka has been requesting for such a meeting. While harmonizing the Commonwealth’s counter terrorism actions with those of the UN, an effective networking system based on collective cooperation and harnessing of resources among member states could be developed particularly in seizing assets of terrorist groups through intelligence sharing. In the long run, while member states would definitely benefit, such a system would help the work of other international fora. Therefore undertaking such action against terrorism would definitely not be duplication of the work of other world bodies but would be complimentary to their work. Sri Lanka hopes that the Commonwealth will find the courage to take this process forward and convene a dedicated Ministerial Meeting on Terrorism to explore new areas of cooperation sooner rather than later to discuss in detail these issues, bearing in mind that the CCT has managed to meet only 3 times in the last 6 years.

Lastly, I wish to state that the Commonwealth, by its nature has a duty to perform to make the global action on terror meaningfully effective, through its membership, which cuts across the globe and by virtue of its founding principles, committed to uphold democracy. We can no longer take the easy way out by echoing that the issue of terrorism and counter-terrorism is too broad a subject for the Commonwealth to handle, if we are to create a modern and vibrant Commonwealth that is responsive to the evolving needs of its members.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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