In 2023 October Sri Lanka will assume the IORA Chair and present its theme as “Strengthening Regional Architecture: Reinforcing Indian Ocean Identity”. This presents Sri Lanka’s vision and mission for IORA and its partner countries. Based on the above agenda, the meetings will focus on sustainable economic growth, environmental stability, management of marine resources, maritime security, blue economic opportunities, disaster resilience and climate change, technical and vocational education and training promoting industry sector skills councils.

Sri Lanka occupied the Chair in 2003 and again has the opportunity to provide its engagement towards a sustainable coexistence to one of the largest seascapes. Its member states are rich in cultural diversity and complex collections of languages, religions, traditions, arts and cuisine including a wide variety of valuable natural resources. In the course of these two years, Sri Lanka invites its partner countries to join hands in its endeavor to strengthen regional structure and its identity.

The concept of IORA originated with the vision of President Nelson Mandela (during his visit to India in 1995). His vision encapsulated the “concept of an Indian Ocean Rim for socio-economic cooperation”. It was realized with the founding of IORA in 1997 as an inter-governmental organization formed to foster regional economic cooperation.

Six Priority Areas have been identified as priorities for the work of IORA:

• Maritime Safety and Security (MSS);

• Fisheries Management (FM);

• Academic, Science and Technology Co-operation (ASTC);

• Trade and Investment Facilitation (TIF);

• Disaster Risk Management (DRM);

• Tourism and Cultural Exchanges (TCE).

·      Blue Economy and Women’s empowerment are recognized as cross-cutting issues

IORA also devised flagship initiatives such as The Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD)The Somalia and Yemen Development Program (SYDP);, The IORA-Nelson Mandela “Be the Legacy Programme”; The IORA-UN Women Women’s Economic Empowerment Project; IORA Sustainable Development Program (ISDP). Of these, the Indian Ocean Dialogue is held annually as a track 1.5 event.

Outreach & Connectivity

Sri Lanka needs to maintain the overall parameters as per the baseline set by the final CSO meeting (13-14 July 2023).  These need to be treated as Outreach and Connectivity programs. Engagements need to be undertaken as a supporting role for already established IORA initiatives/programs

In our engagement for the next two years, Sri Lanka will situate itself within the IORA frame work. Situating oceanic studies: We recognize the ocean as a resource base (providing water, salt, sand, and other minerals; faunal & botanical resources; bio-medical elements etc.) vital to us. It is also a buffer regulating climate. The ocean facilitates the movement of people, cultures and resources, technologies, languages, and economies recognizing trading portals, exchanges and markets along sea routes.

The ocean is not a standalone entity, devoid of Ocean–hinterland synergy. It organically shapes coastal and hinterland landscapes. The ocean also sustains multiple bio-spheres (underwater, surface water, lagoon-estuary- deltaic conditions). It also provides us with aesthetic/poetic inspiration as much as its actions also impact us in a destructive manner (e.g. tsunami). Hence, the application of the ocean through oceanographic studies becomes a vital need. One needs to recognize that IOR countries form an unbroken interconnected crescent of communication and cultural zones from the historic period. Importantly, the Indian Ocean essentially is an assimilative zone.   

Broader oceanic scape

The Indian Ocean acquired regional identity from the colonial and post-colonial periods. It was a zone of imperial conflicts and an area of major power dynamics in the post-colonial period. We also need to recognize larger land masses as macro-regions, which are better endowed with endowed resources and also big players in the international arena. As against this, micro-regions or, individual islands and island clusters (a collective) are found. These entities evolved their own identity and dynamic of economic and political interaction with the mainland. At the IORA’s 9th IORA Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD), held in Zanzibar, Tanzania (22-23 May 2023) noted “Our coastal and island states of the Indian Ocean Basin resonate on key IORA priorities in promoting and strengthening our collective blue economy aspirations, as well as addressing the regional ocean governance strategy”.  

Sri Lanka & its Engagement

Sri Lanka is situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In the world of antiquity, Sri Lanka (Tambapanni) represented a cross-pollinated land of convergence. Ancient material culture confirms the status of Sri Lanka as a major trading hub and exchange portal to multiple resource zones. 

Sri Lanka presents itself as a non-aligned nation and a willingness to work with other countries on an equal basis, recognizing mutual benefit and mutual respect. We will engage ourselves with neighbourhood zones (and theneed to map out these zones for mutually coordinated work). Our external relations, especially with IORA partner countries are guided by cooperation and essentially based on mutual respect and trust.  


Sri Lanka recognizes its own oceanic vulnerability and make the best use of our own resources and assistance with partner countries.

From the Sri Lanka end for oceanic studies, there are engagements through NARA (National Aquatic Resource Agency), the Sri Lanka Navy and Geological Survey Department, the Department of Archaeology,   and the Ministry of Tourism.  We need to place on track a regional framework for coastal vulnerability including an assessment and monitoring of sea level rise & storm surge prediction, sound pollution impacting oceanic life, tsunami warning and mitigation systems. This effort needs to be taken at a high level with partner support on ocean observation and digital data management, especially in relation to the blue economy, marine diversity and conservation, ocean ecosystems and human health. In addition, raw material extraction (connecting plate boundaries) coastline and deep-sea sources, sea grass cultivation, lagoon and estuary sea life cultivation, Oceanic and marine tourism and marine archaeology training programs could be listed as shared outreach programs with special reference to the blue economy initiatives.

Maritime Security & Challenges

Current engagements or priority areas are:global trade, importance of sea lane, energy and food security.  There are overlaps between maritime security and national security; marine security and environmental security, offshore security (OSC) and national defence.

Focal points of OSC are: Preserving the freedom of the sea, facilitating and defending oceanic commerce, maintaining good governance at sea. This is largely to neutralize maritime interstate disputes, maritime terrorism eliminating piracy, trafficking narcotics, humans, antiquities, artefacts and gun running, illegal fishing and environmental crime (e.g., oil spill near SL).

Of these, Sri Lanka had and continues to have its share of maritime terrorism, interstate dispute/illegal fishing, trafficking narcotics, humans and artefacts, including environmental crimes (e.g. oil spills). It is understood that fisheries management should be at the core of the new maritime policy, which IORA should strengthen and develop to build mutual understanding among all decision-makers and players of the maritime industry. Effective decision-making must also integrate gender issue and division of labour (sustaining factor), environmental concerns into maritime policies as maritime pollution and plastic debris, plays a major role in the decline of fish stocks.

Way forward towards a shared secured future

All members of IORA need to prosper together. We are also stakeholders of the family represented by the SAARC and BIMSTEC.  Our partnership and alignment revolve around the protection of the seascape embracing our lands. A shared secured future finds expression in the “blue economy” or the ocean industry. The blue economy envisages the sustainable harvesting of our oceanic resources.

As Sri Lanka welcomes partner kinsmen to its shores, we reach out to them with goodwill and in a spirit of trust and cordiality for a productive tenure of our engagement with the member states.

IORA – Sri Lanka Secretariat Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne, Executive Director General, IORA Sri Lanka Secretariat