MPs clash over maritime agreement with Sri Lanka

MPs clashed today over a motion without notice calling on the government to terminate a reported agreement with Sri Lanka to allow its vessels passage across Maldivian waters, raising fears of increased illegal fishing in the country’s economic zone.

The motion was proposed by MP Ali Saleem of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) in the wake of reports in the Sri Lankan media about the maritime agreement and contradictory statements by Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi and President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair in the local media yesterday.

“Parliament has to look into what is hidden behind this,” said Saleem in his opening remarks. “Did you know that even if Sri Lankan fishing vessels traveling to the Arabian sea are carrying sharks or fish catch, there is no way to know because of this agreement signed yesterday?”

The motion states that there was room to suspect “the beginning of hidden deals” behind the agreement and asks to clarify which maritime law facilitated the arrangement of vessels informing the Sri Lankan embassy 48 hours in advance to ensure safe passage.

In the ensuing debate, MP ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) suggested that “it would be better for us to find out accurate information on the matter” if fears of illegal fishing had resulted from misinformation.

DRP MP for Mathiveri Hussein Mohamed called on the government to inform the public  of “measures to protect Maldivian fishing areas and incomes of local fishermen if this [maritime agreement] is going forward.”

DRP MP Ali Arif argued that Maldivian foreign policy should remain “non-aligned” and neutral as “a small authorisation like this” could threaten “hundreds of years of independence.”

“Because the Sri Lankan government authorised many MDP activities in that country before the 2008 election when MDP was formed, I believe this is a gift to them in return for that,” claimed Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ibrahim Muttalib.

The government’s foreign policy was threatening sovereignty and independence, Muttalib continued: “We heard recently that from now on we will vote the way India wants at the UN. This is slavery, this is enslavement,” he said.

MDP MP Mohamed Shifaz meanwhile concurred with other MPs that the Maldives did not have the capacity to monitor foreign fishing vessels. All MDP MPs agreed with the consensus view that unmonitored illegal fishing posed dangers to the local fishing industry.

DRP MP Leader Ahmed Thasmeen Ali noted that Sri Lankan trawlers had been found fishing illegally in Maldivian waters in the recent past.

“And it is a fact accepted by all our fishermen that our country, our government, does not have the capacity to identify, locate and stop foreign vessels illegally fishing in our seas,” he said, warning that the new maritime agreement would further complicate monitoring of the economic zone.

Thasmeen added that Sri Lankan fishing vessels were known to engage in shark fishing, which results in dwindling fish stocks.

There must be “broad consensus” before such a maritime agreement was signed, the opposition leader said.

MDP MP for Billedhoo Ahmed Hamza however pointed out that previous government in 1982 had acceded to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, which stipulates that foreign vessels must be granted passage across territorial waters for sea travel.

While the convention allowed “innocent passage,” said Hamza, fishing by such vessels was strictly prohibited.

Hamza urged MPs to continue the debate after seeking official documentation to determine whether the maritime agreement with Sri Lanka was required by the UN convention.

“Why are we concerned about passage across Maldivian waters? [Because] we are talking about at least 424 nautical miles [of territory from the shore],” said DRP MP for Kelaa Dr Abdulla Mausoom.

While innocent passage was not an issue, said Mausoom, “history shows for certain” that Sri Lankan vessels would fish in Maldivian waters as trawlers from the neighbouring country had been detained by the authorities in the past.

MDP MP Ilyas Labeeb meanwhile accused the previous government of “selling the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone]” to enrich senior officials of the regime.

“We do not want to do anything that could harm Maldivian fishermen,” he said. “Before this government, fishermen got Rf3 or Rf4 for a kilo of fish. Now fishermen are glad that they get Rf20 or Rf30 [for a kilo].”