Minister Saeed, Minister Shahid, Minister Qasim, Ambassador Blake, Rear Admiral Bone, Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Let me, first of all, extend to all of you a very warm welcome to the sunny shores of the Maldives.
It is indeed a great honour for us to host a regional conference of such importance as this. It is my sincere hope that this conference will be a very successful one. I also hope that the delegates will take back with them many fond memories of our country and people.
May I take this opportunity to thank the Minister of Transport and Communication, Mr. Mohamed Saeed, and his dedicated staff, for the excellent arrangements that they have made for this important regional gathering.
I warmly congratulate and thank the US Government and all other partners in this venture for their initiative in promoting such collaborative efforts in the Indian Ocean region.
The Chairman of the Villa Group and owner of Sun Island Resort, Mr. Qasim Ibrahim, and the management and staff of this magnificent resort must be complimented for providing the necessary facilities to ensure that the conference is conducted smoothly and efficiently.
I thank Minister Saeed, Ambassador Blake, and Rear Admiral Bone for their insightful remarks.
I am pleased to see the range of representation at this conference. I am confident that this meeting will pave the way for the establishment of cooperative mechanisms to strengthen exchanges between states, organizations and multilateral agencies, in order to make our seas safer for all of us.
The objective must be to build capacity, share information and experiences and strengthen legislative arrangements among ports, customs, coastguards and related maritime security agencies and all other stakeholders.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
For us in the Maldives, the sea is indeed the source of our sustenance. Without the sea and its unlimited bounties, human survival on these beautiful islands is hardly imaginable. Our two most important industries are fishing and tourism, both of which are entirely or heavily dependent on the sea. The 1,190 islands of the Maldives are spread over 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean.
Such being the case, the method of travel most frequently used in the Maldives is, obviously, by means of the sea. The total number of sea-faring vessels of different sizes in the country now exceeds 26,000. That, together with severe weather conditions and poor observation of safety requirements has led to an increase in the number of serious accidents occurring at sea. The most tragic of such accidents in recent times was the ‘Enama Boat’ disaster in 2004, in which 24 people lost their lives. That tragedy, which took so many young and elderly innocent lives, left the nation in mourning. We must strengthen our resolve to ensure that such tragic incidents do not occur again in the country.
The Indian Ocean is possibly the birthplace of maritime civilization and home to numerous check points, and its significance has not diminished over the centuries.
It is believed that half the world’s maritime trade transits through the Indian Ocean annually. I understand that a third of the bulk cargo traffic also flows through the Indian Ocean. Also, two-thirds of the world’s oil, and a fifth of the world’s tuna trade transit through the Indian Ocean.
Each and every country in the region, as well as our trading partners and those who utilize the Indian Ocean as a vital transit route for cargo, has a stake in this drive towards safer and more secure seas.
For an island nation such as the Maldives, this conference is a timely initiative that enhances multinational regional cooperation in the region, as well as securing borders and sea lanes.
We face many challenges in this changing world. Piracy, poaching, terrorism, environmental degradation and trafficking of drugs, arms and humans are contemporary problems that have to be addressed effectively and urgently. Such threats have been steadily growing in the Indian Ocean.
The Maldives is vulnerable to acts of terrorism and weapons trafficking. In May of last year, an attempt was made by an armed foreign vessel to infiltrate into our waters. This attempt was thwarted by our Coast Guard with the aid of a local fishing boat.
Ambassador Blake just spoke about the threats faced by Sri Lankan ports and sea lanes by terrorists. I think all Maldivians and a lot of people present here today will remember the 1988 Tamil attack on Male’. That attack resulted in the loss of 19 innocent Maldivian lives and scores of people were injured. That was a very serious attempt made to usurp the country of its independence and sovereignty. But we were helped by India; the Indian government and Army responded very quickly to our request for help and with their aid and with the courage shown by our National Security Service, we were able to defend ourselves and to defeat the attack that was made on the country. This shows how vulnerable, we, as a small island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean is to terrorist attacks.
To the Maldives, though, there is no issue that generates greater concern and warrants more effective action than drug trafficking. It has become a major security concern for us. We have relatively extensive and extremely porous borders that lie in the Indian Ocean. We are therefore extremely vulnerable as a point for illegal shipments of large quantities of drugs meant for other countries. Also, we have reason to believe that a large amount of drugs that are smuggled into the country come in through vessels coming into our ports. We must greatly improve vigilance at our seaports.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
A small country such as the Maldives cannot be expected to face such challenges effectively without the support and assistance of the international community. Initiatives such as the Partnership of South Asia Regional Port Security are crucial links in the fight against such threats.
It is the responsibility of our ports, law enforcement agencies and industry leaders to put in place the necessary security apparatus and strengthen action to deal with such problems in the longer term.
Adequate funds must be made available along with the necessary training and associated technology. Our governance and regulatory framework must enable such initiatives. Mechanisms have to be developed to better assess and monitor our ports and transport systems.
We must learn from each other’s experiences and pool our resources and share information.
This conference, with its broad representation, is an excellent opportunity to chart a new framework for regional cooperation in this vital area. Such a framework must strengthen cooperation among Indian Ocean states and build capacity to implement international shipping and maritime conventions.
You will undoubtedly make a valuable contribution in the areas of navigational safety, environmental protection and maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Each one of these areas is significant to us all, and promoting it is our collective responsibility to our peoples.
As former President Clinton has so aptly put, “We know that when we protect our oceans, we are protecting our future.”
I wish you success in your deliberations.