Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Lecture on "The Role of the Small Island State in the Global Tapestry" by James Alix Michel, President of the Republic of Seychelles

August 21, 2012: The visiting President of the Republic of Seychelles, H.E. Mr. James Alix Michel, delivered a lecture on "The Role of the Small Island State in the Global Tapestry" at Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka, this afternoon. The event was attended by dignitaries including the Foreign Ministers of Sri Lanka and Seychelles, Hon. Prof. G. L. Peiris and Hon. Mr. Jean Paul Adam respectively, Mr. K. Amunugama, Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Sri Lanka, Mr. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director of the LKIISS and Minister Hon. Mr. Rajitha Senaratne.

Seychelles is a small island nation with an area of just over 450 square kilometres and home to 85,000 people. It gained independence from the British in 1976 and was a one party socialist state from 1979 to 1991. James Alix Michel, the 68 year old President of Seychelles has been serving various ministerial positions from 1977 and in 1996 became the vice president of the country. From 2004, he has been the president of Seychelles. He has overseen a significant economic development mainly due to the tourism and fisheries sectors.

The proceedings of the public lecture got underway at 5 p.m. The welcome speech was delivered by Mr. Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director of LKIISS. He emphasized the importance of the event to the LKIISS as it was the first occasion in which a Head of State was delivering a lecture at the institute. Furthermore, he declared the importance of the topic on which H. E. the president of Seychelles was to speak as Sri Lanka and Seychelles has many similarities including natural beauty, fisheries resources and proximity to emerging markets.

Following Mr. Abeyagoonasekera's speech, Sri Lanka's external affairs minister Prof. G. L. Peiris rose to make some introductory remarks. He said that Mr. Michel's speech was important in three aspects. Firstly, as Mr. Abeyagoonasekera had already mentioned, it was the first time a Head of State was delivering a lecture at the LKIISS. Secondly, Mr. Michel's contribution to education and environment of his island nation had been recognized even internationally. Also, his experiences in the private sector, especially in the tourism sector, before coming to public office had helped Mr. Michel to improve the country's economy. Prof. G. L. Peiris emphasized the experience of Mr. James Michel by stating that there was practically no ministerial portfolio he has not held during his long service as a political leader of the country.

However, the third and the most important factor for the importance of the lecture was the relevance and pragmatic importance of the topic Mr. Michel was to speak on. Prof. Peiris was confident that Sri Lankans could broaden their knowledge by listening to Hon. Mr. Michel as both the countries shared common interests such as tourism and other leisure activities and threats such as piracy.

Rising to speak after Prof. Peiris's remarks, Hon. Mr. James Michel drew attention to the importance of treating all nations with equanimity in world politics. He stated that "no man or no country has a monopoly over ideas for all the problems." Island states, he further stated, should work together to develop synergies to deal with challenges in the volatile global political arena.

Islanders have a risk of isolation and a sense of disconnection which has to be overcome for their nations to prosper. Island nations could develop trade and other connections. The Oceans surrounding them should be viewed as an Ocean of opportunity rather than a source of isolation. Although international trade rarely reach small island states, there were other aspects that can be developed. Fisheries was one such area which can be developed. The president of Seychelles drew attention to the fact that much of the profit from fisheries was reaped by developed countries although much of the fishing is done in the southern Oceans. He was confidant that increased cooperation between island states would help them to increase their benefits also.

Oceans, as Mr. Michel argued, were not to be exploited, but explored. Seven out of ten coral reef hotspots and a considerable number of richest areas in Ocean biodiversity were in small island states. Therefore, these states should perceive the Oceans as spaces of development and research. Mr. Michel made his view clear that island nations should take control of the Blue Economy.

Island states however, had their limitations. As Mr. Michel pointed out, "All islanders know where the land ends." The most valuable resource they possessed were the human resource. This epitomized the importance of education for development. Mr. Michel declared that "we must not think small." In that aspect, small island states were taking a more vocal stand on issues affecting them in the global arena. The ultimate goal of these endeavours should be the establishment of an egalitarian world order.

Seychelles, as its president mentioned, was taking her own initiatives in trying to find solutions for problems faced by small island states. The Seychellois believe that the Indian Ocean region should be used in a sustainable manner with a long range plan. The country had declared 50% of its land area as nature reserves, making it the highest percentage of land declared as reserves in any country. The president seemed to say that in that aspect his country is much bigger than many bigger countries.

Then Hon Mr. Michel turned his attention to international security and piracy. He declared that every Seychellois was praying for the safe return on their two compatriots held hostage in Somalia. He also mentioned that he was aware of the plight of Sri Lankans who were held hostage by pirates. Indian Ocean region should be a region of peace and development and not a source of anarchy. Sri Lanka's experience in countering terrorism was important for the Indian Ocean region countries in their quest to counter threats such as piracy.

Thereafter, the president of Seychelles turned to international affairs. He emphasized the importance of regional cooperation such as in the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. South-South partnerships should be developed. Also, he made clear his interest on the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of State meeting to be held in Sri Lanka. Mr. Michel put forward the intention of his country to seek a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council by 2017 as a move to strengthen the role of island states in global tapestry. He declared that "all nations matter; big or small."

Hon. Mr. James Michel reiterated his vision of a circle of friendship in the Indian Ocean region. Sri Lanka was important to his country as the two nations shared common desires of increasing trade, investment of its peoples and increasing prosperity. Concluding his speech, Hon. Mr. Michel stated that "we are proud to stand together to champion this movement."

Image taken by me.

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