Navy Commander sets record straight
MV Avant Garde’s actions suspicious, President’s
Article 51 of the UN Charter is very clear about the rights of a
sovereign nation to act in self defence, said Navy Commander Vice
Admiral Ravindra Wijayagunaratne, emphasising that the Article gives
legal cover for governments of member nations to take control of any
weapon dealing activities handled by private companies, in the interest
of self defence.
The Commander was speaking in the context of the Sri Lanka Navy
taking control of the armouries maintained by Avant Garde Maritime
Security Services (Pvt) Ltd. on the orders of President Mithripala
Sirisena. Explaining the Navy’s legitimate rights, he said it was
incumbent upon the President as the Commander in Chief and the Defence
Minister, to take any decision to defend the country’s self interests
and on matters concerning national security.
“If the President believes a private company should not be given the
responsibility of handling weapons issued to maritime security services,
that’s it. No one can challenge that decision,” the Navy Commander said,
countering arguments raised by the pro-Avant Garde lobbies challenging
the recent decision taken by the President.
He said if gazette notifications were required to take over such
responsibility, the Navy would have had to wait for gazette
notifications to destroy the floating warehouses of the LTTE in
international waters during the conflict.
Vice Admiral Wijayagunaratne said there were reasons for the
President’s decision to hand over the maritime security operations back
to the Navy, as the movements of the floating armoury, MV Avant Garde,
which was detected by the Sri Lanka Navy in the sea off Galle Harbour,
He said no legal issues cropped up when dealing with the floating
armoury, MV Mahanuwara, because all the weapons on board had proper
documentation, but claimed it was not so with MV Avant Garde, as
investigations carried out by the Sri Lanka Navy had found the crew to
have given false information about the ship when challenged in the sea
off the Galle harbour.
The Navy had found the Global Positioning System (GPS) of the ship to
have been switched off violating internationally accepted maritime laws.
This is the only means for sovereign states to trace the movements of
ships when they pass closer to territorial waters.
Tampered serial numbers
“MV Avant Garde had sailed closer to India and Maldives, and there is
suspicion about its movement. Sri Lanka is answerable to those countries
if they raise any issues over the vessel’s movement as it was carrying a
Sri Lanka flag,” the Navy Commander claimed.
The issue becomes significant in the context that the floating
armoury had in its cache, 43 weapons with tampered serial numbers. “This
raises questions about the legality of the weapons it was carrying. The
CID is still investigating into it,” he pointed out.
Following the decision by the President to cancel all deals with
Avant Garde Maritime Services (Pvt) Ltd. and hand over maritime security
operations back to the Navy by November 18, the Navy had taken control
of 2410 weapons belonging to 20 foreign maritime security companies on
board MV Mahanuwara and stored them at the Sri Lanka Navy Base Dhakshina.
The private companies, which had stored them on MV Mahanuwara had
retrieved them from Avant Garde Company and deposited them in the
armouries of the Sri Lanka Navy during this process. However, one of the
foreign companies has complained that one of the pistols deposited with
Avant Garde had gone missing when they were retrieving them from MV
The foreign company has lodged a complaint with the Harbour Police
about the missing weapon. The Police on the request of the Sri Lanka
Navy are inspecting MV Mahanuwara, to ensure there are no other weapons
on board the vessel.
However, the Sri Lanka Navy had not touched the weapons on board MV
Avant Garde as the CID and the Government Analyst Department are still
in the process of carrying out investigations. The Navy will take over
the weapons on board MV Avant Garde only after the CID complete the
Adding to the Navy Commander’s argument on the legality of the
weapons on board the floating armoury, Omega Research Foundation, an
independent UK-based research organisation conducting research on
floating armouries handled by private maritime security companies,
states in its executive summary that the UN Monitoring Group in Somalia
and Eritrea had raised concerns about the lack of monitoring and
regulation creating opportunities for unscrupulous actors to exploit the
situation. They had also expressed concerns that floating armouries and
private maritime security companies could become a threat to regional
peace and stability rather than the solution
Limited or no controls
The research titled ‘Floating Armouries Implications and Risks’ and
released in December 2014, also raises concerns about the flag state
having limited (or no) controls over the storage and transfer of
military equipment, and the company’s home state having no
extraterritorial brokering controls on the weapons.
“The Sri Lanka Navy is entrusted with the sole responsibility to
defend the territorial waters of the country from external threats and
to prevent any illegal arms and ammunition from coming to the country by
sea. Therefore, it has the legitimate right to control the weapons
reaching the country and going out of the country on sea marshalling
duties,” the Navy Commander said, pointing out that such duties were
handled by the Navies or the Maritime Police in countries like Kenya,
Tanzania, South Africa, UAE and India.
When private maritime security companies were allowed to engage in
providing security for merchant vessels, due to Somali pirate issue, it
was the Sri Lanka Navy which handled the process of hiring and storing
weapons and equipment for these maritime security firms. “From 2008 to
2011 the Sri Lanka Navy handled this process and it generated a huge
income for the country,” the Commander said, pointing out that the Sri
Lanka Navy also had the opportunity to make use of a part of the huge
income, with the approval of the Treasury, to improve its buildings.
Rs.780m owed to the Navy
The Navy had contributed an income of nearly Rs.1.2 billion to the
Treasury every year from 2008 to 2011 through these operations.
Emphasising this point, the Navy Commander asked,
“If the Sri Lanka Navy could handle it from 2008 to 2011, why can’t
the Sri Lanka Navy handle it now?”
Revealing that the Avant Garde Company owes Rs.780 million to the Sri
Lanka Navy for duties extended since, January this year, he pointed out
that the company had not paid a single cent to the Sri Lanka Navy so
According to the agreement reached between the Ministry of Defence
and the Avant Garde Company on maintaining floating armouries, the Sri
Lanka Sri Lanka Navy is entrusted with the task of providing security
and supervision for all service boats during weapon and Sea Marshall
The control of the floating armoury, however, was handled jointly by
MS Avant Garde Maritime Private Ltd. (AGMS) and Rakna Arakshaka Lanka
Ltd (RALL), legally incorporated under Sri Lankan law.
The Commander refuted claims by Avant Garde employees that Sri Lanka
was losing credibility after the Navy took control of the duties carried
out by Avant Garde, saying there was an average of 44 movements by
shipping companies per day since the takeover.
“It is only the minor employees of Avant Garde who are raising these
issues. If the Chief Operations Officer of the Avant Garde Company talk
about this issue I will respond to him with facts and figures, but not
to others,” Commander Wijayagunaratne said.
According to figures issued by the Sri Lanka Navy, an average of 44
operations take place per day for sea marshalling activities recording a
turnover of Rs.22 million each day. Denying claims by the Avant Garde
Company, the Commander said there has been no reduction in operations
after the Navy took control of the operations.
Responding to the issue raised by the employees of the Avant Garde
Company, Commander Wijayagunaratne said there were no risks of job
losses due to the Navy taking control of the operation.
“It is only 10 to 15 people who were employed on board the two
floating armouries who are going to lose their jobs. Others will lose
their jobs only if Avant Garde Company is closed, he pointed out.
There are over 54 other companies registered in Sri Lanka that are
continuing to function after Navy took control of the duties of storing
arms belonging to them.
Commander Wijayagunaratne said the Finance Ministry will come out
with a report about the income generated by the Sri Lanka Navy from
these duties soon and added that Navy will respond to the issues raised
by the Avant Garde Company when the authoritative person on behalf of
the company raise those issues.