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Sunday, 22 November 2015





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Navy Commander sets record straight

MV Avant Garde’s actions suspicious, President’s action legitimate:

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, were suspicious.

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 Mahanuwara.

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 investigations.

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 far.

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 transfer operations.

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.


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