Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe,
Vice President Faisal Naseem,
Distinguished Foreign Ministers,
Distinguished Representatives of the India Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
And a good evening to you all.
Welcome to the 4th edition of the Indian Ocean Conference, entitled ‘Securing the Indian Ocean Region. Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges.’ It is our pleasure to be your cohost along with the Indian Foundation. I hope your journey here has been pleasant and the arrangements made on your behalf excellent.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Consider these simple facts. The great ocean that our countries call home, boasts forty percent of the world’s oceanic trade, half of its container shipping, and two thirds of its maritime oil-trade. Its Sea Lanes of Communications are oceanic highways, providing sustenance and commercial opportunity for the over 2.7 billion people. The strategic significance of its critical straits, from Malacca in the East to Hormuz in the West, attracts the attention of the world’s nations, anxious to ensure their access to waterways, and their continued freedom of navigation.
It is more vital than ever to regularly convene forums such as this so that, together, we can effectively resolve our common concerns. At the heart of our concerns should be ensuring the security and prosperity of our peoples. The three priority areas that we will focus on during this event: ensuring navigational security; addressing the ever-looming threat of terrorism; and protecting our marine ecology - are essential to that security and to our continued well-being.
With regard to navigational security, we cannot overstate just how important this is to the Maldives. The Ocean has been our lifeblood since as far back as our history reaches – the territory of the Maldives being comprised mostly of water. Even today, ensuring the regular and safe flow of commerce, cargo and maritime travel, in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea is paramount.
Further, effectively policing our territorial waters and vast Exclusive Economic Zone of approximately a million square kilometers is vital to preventing illicit maritime activity including human and narcotics trafficking, and to safeguarding our essential fish stocks from encroachment by foreign vessels in the form of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.
The Maldives will implement measures internally to increase our Maritime Domain Awareness whilst partnering with neighboring militaries for joint patrols and exercises such as the ones we presently conduct with Sri Lanka and India, in the form of the DOSTI Trilateral Exercises, to safeguard our waters from trespass and illegal activity.
Unfortunately, Terrorism and Violent Extremism has become a regular threat in the 21st century. Its driving factors, including geopolitical strife and the various cultural and economic dislocations wrought by globalization, are no strangers to our region. Nor, unfortunately, are the opportunist demagogues who take advantage of vulnerable young minds and twist religion for their own sinister ends.
We were reminded of these sad truths on the Easter Sunday of this year by the cowardly terrorist acts perpetrated on our neighbor and friend Sri Lanka, which killed so many innocent people. It is essential to upgrade our security measures and facilitate information sharing across regional intelligence agencies in order to meet and fully eradicate this menace. To be successful in this endeavor we must also candidly address the underlying factors which drive violent extremism.
Preserving the integrity and diversity of our marine ecology is also another crucial priority area for our collective security that we will be discussing during this conference. Particularly alarming for the Maldives has been the steep decline in the Indian Ocean’s fish stocks, that are so essential to us as a source of dietary sustenance and economic enterprise, with tuna based products comprising the bulk of our exports.
To truly understand the gravity of the issue we must reflect on the Atlantic Ocean’s states’ failure to prevent the complete collapse of its Northwest Cod fishery stocks, because the precautionary measures they took proved too little too late. If tuna stocks in the Indian Ocean suffer a similar fate it will have a devastating impact on all our communities and Small Island States such as us in particular.
The Maldives will do its part to ensure that we abide by sustainable fishing practices and we enjoin all our international friends and regional partners to do the same.
Ladies and Gentleman, in truth, we cannot meet any of these challenges well if we are lacking effective institutions, that can properly regulate and oversee progress in all of these spheres. We must be honest and acknowledge our shortcomings in this regard.
The Indian Ocean Region, especially in its South Asian Core is one of the most poorly integrated regions in the world. This is costing us not only in terms of effective collaboration on substantial issues but also materially as well, consigning our people to a slower pace of economic progress.
Consider that Intraregional trade in South Asia comprises a dismal five percent of our collective GDP, contrast this to ASEAN countries’ twenty-five percent. It has been estimated that if we reduce our non-tariff trade barriers within the Indian Ocean Region we can increase our collective Gross National Product by 568 Billion Dollars, underscoring the great loss we suffer by not doing our utmost to facilitate political and economic linkages between us.
The Maldives is keenly resolved to increase the scale and depth of all our cooperation across the entire expanse of the Indian Ocean. We believe that this is best accomplished through effective regional organizations dedicated to such ends.
One organization which is fast becoming the main vehicle for providing for the Indian Ocean a coherent governance framework has been the Indian Ocean Rim Association – IORA – which, since its founding in 1997, has brought together the littoral states of our Ocean into a formal body devoted to increasing the well-being of all of its people.
Joining IORA has been a longstanding foreign policy goal of the Maldives for many years. We were elated when at the 18th Council of Ministers Meeting held in Durban South Africa last year we were finally approved for membership. This decision will be formalized at the 19th Council of Ministers meeting which will be held next month in Dubai.
As the Maldives prepares for membership in this important organization, we will lay the groundwork for our proactive involvement by engaging on every single one of the substantial policy issues relevant to the Indian Ocean.
This conference provides us a wonderful opportunity to do just that. We are keen on learning from the collective expertise of our distinguished panelists, speakers and guests, so that we can in turn make our positive contributions to the many spheres of common interest that we share.
I am eager to hear from all of you and I hope that this forum proves a fruitful one, which will aid us in our overarching goal of building a more secure and prosperous Indian Ocean Region.
Thank you very much.