Sri Lanka Violates UN Law of the Seas?

The damage caused to the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen by Indian bottom trawlers needs to be carefully examined by the Government of India, especially the ruling dispensation in Tamil Nadu.

by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

 Let me start by explaining the symbiotic relationship between fishermen and the sea. To fishermen, maritime boundaries are man-made creations. Throughout the centuries they have been fishing in all areas, where there is plenty of fish. It is a universal phenomenon. The restrictions imposed by the State on cross border movements of the fisherfolk have led to strains in bilateral relations, loss of human lives and destruction of fishing crafts.

The root cause of the present tension in Palk Bay is the conflict of interests. On the one side are the Governments of India and Sri Lanka, who in furtherance of good neighborly relations, concluded the maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976. These agreements ceded the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka and also gave away the traditional fishing rights enjoyed by the Indian fishermen to fish in and around Kachchatheevu. On the other side are the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen, who will not easily give up their means of livelihood. With the declaration of ceasefire by the Tigers and Colombo in 2002, and more so, after the end of the Fourth Eelam War in 2009, a new dimension was added to the conflict. The Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, who resumed fishing after several years, found the presence of Indian trawlers in their waters to be the major threat to their livelihood. It would be imprudent to create a Berlin Wall in the Palk Strait, for the simple reason that the links between the two peoples cannot be severed. They are like Siamese twins, what afflicts one will affect the other.

A misconception in Sri Lanka must be highlighted. The senior officials in the Government maintain that Indian fishermen are the major offenders. They ignore the fact that Sri Lankan fishermen also trespass into other country’s waters. A Sri Lankan diplomat based in the Maldives told me that his main job was to get Sri Lankan fishermen released from prison after paying the fine to the Maldivian Government. Basil Rajapaksa, a few years ago, admitted in an interview to the Asian Tribune that Sri Lankan fishermen are equally guilty of the same crime.

 Crossing the international maritime boundary and fishing in another country’s waters are considered civilian economic offenses. Article 145 of the UN Law of the Sea stipulates “Measures will be taken to ensure effective protection of human life”. Article 75 mentions that a coastal state can take measures including boarding, inspection, arrest and judicial proceedings to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations”. Shooting and killing of fishermen, who cross the international maritime boundaries, violate the UN Law of the Sea and is against all cannon of natural justice and militates against friendly neighborly relations. It must also be pointed out that when fishermen from Pakistan and Sri Lanka enter Indian waters they are detained and tried according to the law of the land. There had been no occasion when the Indian Coast Guard had resorted to shooting and killing of intruding fishermen.

According to the statistics published by the Government of Tamil Nadu, some years ago, since the conclusion of the maritime boundary agreements, over 100 fishermen from Tamil Nadu have been killed, 326 fishermen seriously injured and 35 fishing vessels destroyed, and fish worth crores of rupees dumped into the sea. After the end of the Fourth Eelam War, there had been no deaths due to shooting, but the detention of erring fishermen and trawlers were taking place. What happened recently in Sri Lanka, which led to the death of 4 Tamil Nadu fishermen, has the potential of enraging the fishing community in Tamil Nadu and creating further tensions in bilateral relations.

The background to the incident is shrouded in mystery. According to the spokesperson of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF), the Sri Lankan navy had beaten the four fishermen to death. According to Arulanandan of ARIF “The pictures of the bodies of fishermen bear many injuries and deep cuts. Blood clots and stains could be seen. There would not be blood clots if they were drowned”, as alleged by Sri Lankan Navy. The four fishermen, A Messiah, 30; V Nagaraj, 52; N Samson Darwin, 28, and Senthil Kumar, 32 – all hailed from Ramanathapuram district. They set sail on January 18 along with 200 mechanized trawlers. While all other trawlers returned the trawler containing four fishermen was missing. Indian fishermen have demanded that post mortem must be video graphed and bodies handed over to relatives.

According to Ramanathapuram fishermen, the incident took place very near Kachchatheevu.  it must be highlighted that this is the standard answer given by fishermen. In the course of my fieldwork among fishermen in the Ramanathapuram district, I have met several injured fishermen and relatives of those killed by the Sri Lankan Navy. They invariably replied the incident took place near Kachchatheevu. The fact is that our fishermen go very deep into Sri Lankan waters. According to Colombo Telegraph, the trawler was apprehended by Sri Lankan Navy near Neduntheeevu and sunk. There were three naval aircrafts present in the area. The bodies were recovered by the Sri Lankan Navy on 20th January.

The situation in the Northern Province is deteriorating day by day. The Memorial in the Jaffna University was razed to the ground by the University authorities on the instructions of the Government, much against Indian opposition. According to informed sources, the Government of Sri Lanka has also decided to grant a power project in one of the islands to China over “several objections”. The question naturally arises would Sri Lanka hold the St. Anthony’s festival in Kachchatheevu in March? The implications of China’s entry into the Northern Province need to be closely watched by Sri Lanka watchers in India.

The damage caused to the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen by Indian bottom trawlers needs to be carefully examined by the Government of India, especially the ruling dispensation in Tamil Nadu. A solution could be found only if Tamil Nadu persuades New Delhi to withdraw all trawlers from the Palk Bay. I have pointed out elsewhere that the crisis provides an opportunity for Indian diplomacy. The trust deficit, which characterizes Sri Lankan attitude on the fishermen issue, could be removed only if New Delhi pursues a policy of asymmetrical reciprocity and tries to convert the contested territory into a common heritage.

Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Founding Director and Senior Professor (Retd.), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. His email id:      

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