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April 11, 1998


West stymies proposal to declare Indian Ocean a peace zone

The United States, Britain and France -- three veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- have virtually killed a longstanding proposal to declare the Indian Ocean a zone of peace.

''The proposal is in jeopardy because of the very rigid stand taken by these three countries,'' says ambassador Herman Leonard de Silva of Sri Lanka, outgoing chairman of the 44-member UN ad hoc committee on the Indian Ocean.

The committee was set up in 1972 to implement a General Assembly resolution calling for the establishment of a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean. A proposed global conference in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo was scheduled and re-scheduled no less than eight times, but it never got off the ground.

The key Western members of the committee withdrew in 1989 arguing that superpower rivalry in the Indian Ocean had been diminished with the end of the Cold War and, therefore, there was no justification for a zone of peace.

de Silva, until recently Sri Lanka's permanent representative to the United Nations, said he had personally visited the capitals of all the three countries to convince the respective governments of the need for a zone of peace.

''But they said the present mandate was not in their interests,'' he added. de Silva said if the proposal continues to be left out of the General Assembly agenda till September this year, ''it will die.''

In a resolution adopted in November last year, the General Assembly said it was convinced that the participation of the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- would greatly facilitate the work of the committee. All five countries are also considered major maritime users of the Indian Ocean, with China and Russia the only two permanent members serving on the committee now.

The proposal to declare the Indian Ocean a zone of peace was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly as far back in 1971. The assembly declared that the Indian Ocean, ''within the limits to be determined, together with airspace above and the ocean floor adjacent to it,'' be designated a zone of peace.

The proposal, a brainchild of Sri Lanka, was also endorsed by the 113-member Non-Aligned Movement. The main element that formed the basis of the 1971 declaration was the steady escalation of the arms race and the competitive military presence in the region.

At the height of the Cold War, the US, France, Britain and the former Soviet Union had naval bases in the region, including refuelling facilities in Socotra island in the former South Yemen, Gan air base in the Maldives, Asmara in Ethiopia, Port Victoria in the Seychelles, Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

Although the US withdrew from its bases in the Philippines in 1991, it still has a significant military presence in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Lying almost 2,000 miles north-east of Mauritius, Diego Garcia was ceded to Britain under an agreement signed in 1965. In the same year, Britain leased the island to the US for a 50-year period.

Currently about 25 per cent of all oil used by the US comes via the Indian Ocean sea lanes and Persian Gulf regions. The US also depends on the Indian Ocean for the movement of about 50 different strategic materials, including manganese, cobalt, titanium, chromium, platinum, tin, nickel, tungsten, iron, lead and copper.

A zone of peace is also closely linked to one of the most militarily sensitive issues in the Western world: a possible curb on the naval arms race.

The US, which traditionally has opposed the concept of peace zones, has also reacted strongly to the initiative known as the South-East Asia nuclear weapons-free zone launched by the nine-member Association of South-East Asian Nations: Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The US State Department has publicly declared that ''the zone arrangement should not seek to impose restrictions on the exercise of rights that are recognised by international law...''

These rights, according to the State Department, include the right of navigation and overflight and the right of transit passage of international straits. The US believes that a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean may restrict the movement of its ships and aircraft in the region.

Ambassador Prakash Shah, India's former permanent representative to the United Nations, said the concept of an Indian Ocean zone of peace was originally conceived in the context of superpower rivalry.

''Peace in the Indian Ocean area is not a function of only the active members of the region but also the big powers and the major maritime users,'' he said.

''We believe they must participate if we are to move forward in declaring the Indian Ocean a zone of peace. What is the point in continuing with an organisation that cannot attract the most important actors?'' Shah said.

He said the committee had given Sri Lanka a mandate to persuade the three Security Council members to come back but it has not succeeded. Shah said he does not know whether the committee should be dismantled, ''but this is where we are stuck.''

Washington, meanwhile, already has called for the elimination of the ad hoc committee as part of an attempt to reduce overheads in the financially-ailing organisation. The United States has said that UN bodies such as the ad hoc committee on the Indian Ocean no longer serve any meaningful purpose.


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