Ideals converge to tackle the unthinkable | Daily News
Colombo Defence Seminar – 2018

Ideals converge to tackle the unthinkable

Participants in the Colombo Defence Seminar – 2018. Pictures by  Hiranthantha Gunathilaka.
Participants in the Colombo Defence Seminar – 2018. Pictures by Hiranthantha Gunathilaka.

For two days, each year, 1,000 army personnel as well as foreign experts, gather to discuss global security threats at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in Colombo. Since its inception in 2011, the annual Colombo Defence Seminar has been host to discussions on urgent topics, a theme that continues in 2018, with discussions centring on ‘Security in an Era of Global Disruptions’.

One of the speakers, Aamna Rafiq, a research associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, (ISSI), explained this year’s theme with a quote from former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

In essence, Rafiq (through Rumsfeld), described the conference in terms of the possibilities of knowledge in an era when the limitations of knowledge converge with the limits of imagination. The purpose of Sri Lanka’s annual Defence Seminar, in this context, is global preparedness for the unimaginable.

The theme of ‘disruption’ could be broken down into two categories: human disruptions and technological disruptions. Within the scope of human disruptions, participants talked about global migration, political extremism, and urbanisation. Climate was broadly included in the topic of ‘human disruptions,’ for being induced by human actions, as well as a security threat to social, economic, and political systems. In examining technological disruptions, participants talked on cyber-security, social media, artificial intelligence and ‘future power’.

Human disruptions

Early on, Dr. Carolyn Halladay, a senior lecturer and Academic Associate at the National Security Affairs Department of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, contextualised global migration: in 2017, she said, 258 million people, or 3.4 percent of the world’s population, consisted of migrants; while today, migration flows are as high as they were during the end of WWII.

Halladay provided a more nuanced understanding of global migration as well: “At some level, these issues,” the issues that cause global migration, she said, “are interconnected, and impermeable borders will not solve the problem.” Halladay highlighted that the global community’s focus on strengthening borders would not solve the problems of migration. Instead, she said that embracing migrant communities to some extent, while utilising their strengths, may be a more productive approach to migration.

Another speaker, Eva Svoboda, turned the migration problem inside-out, in a similar way that Halladay did. Svoboda, the International Law and Policy Deputy Director in Switzerland, as well as a leader in in the International Red Cross organisation, said, “The most effective way to prevent displacement is to prevent conflict.” But Svoboda, recognising the improbability of her request, argued for a more moderate respect of international humanitarian laws that are already in place.

In the same panel, Dr. Lauren Twort of the Royal United Services Institute in the UK, spoke on the rising levels of global migration to urban areas and the threats that urbanisation poses to global security. By 2050, she said, “Asia and Africa will account for 87 percent of all of the urban population,” a total of about 3.5 billion people. “Poorly managed urbanisation,” cautioned Dr. Twort, “can create more poverty and conflict.” Trends of urban migration require proper infrastructure and coordinated planning, she said, not only from a human perspective, but also from a security perspective as urban spaces are the most vulnerable to terrorism and natural disasters. “There doesn’t seem to be a stop in terms of movement towards cities,” said Twort, highlighting a need for urban security planning.

The question of future urbanisation was also raised while discussing climate change. “Because of the changes in climate,” said Colonel Jethrow Chipili from Zambia, “the population that was once in rural areas is moving to urban areas.” Chipili focussed on Twort’s description of the easy targets that heavily urban areas posed and mentioned the possibility of urbanised warfare. “We are mostly looking at using unconventional methods of warfare,” he said, such as chemical weapons. “Resources have become scarce as a result of climate change, and social instability as well as economic instability” would be some of the consequences of climate change in future, he added.

Technological disruptions

The seminar’s discussions of technology showed a range of perceptions on controversial topics regarding technology. “Technology is like a paradox,” said Roshan Chandraguptha, Information Security Engineer from the Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) in Sri Lanka; “It has numerous opportunities and challenges.”

Dr. Kirklin Bateman, Retired Colonel of the U.S. Army, discussed the terrain of cyber-security since 2007. He highlighted the Russian hacking efforts in Estonia (2007), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014 and 2017), and the United States (2016) and mentioned the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (2010). In terms of cyber-restrictions, Bateman referenced the restrictions that China and North Korea employ to manage their citizens’ access to information. He said there was a need “to balance education, and training in the government as well as private training,” adding that addressing cyber-security threats “requires a national strategy.”

The seminar’s discussion on social media and authenticity was led by Dr. Rafiq. She said that more than half of the world’s population used social media—including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms. She described social media as a possible form of “colonisation,” with companies such as Facebook owning “social media empires,” that control vast amounts of personal data. Rafiq questioned, “How and to what extent can people safely use these platforms?” but offered no concrete conclusions. She said social media had the power to “reinvent and recreate reality.” As one example, she described the potential of social media to “create narratives for conflict.” Rather than merely sharing the narrative of a conflict, she said social media could perpetuate specific narratives that may be removed from the physical reality of a conflict.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was discussed briefly, but constructively, by retired Group Captain Ajay Lele, who is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. “AI has been around since the 1950’s,” he said, “but requires a significant amount of data to be effective.” He added that whereas AI was difficult to analyse when it first came into being in the 1950’s, at present, new and unimagined horizons for AI were emerging. The Chairman of the panel, Dr. Harinda Vidanage, Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) summarised the point: “If you look at the past four, five, or even 10 years, so much data has been created through social media information, that finally, AI got its data.”

Impressions of global experts

The Daily News spoke with several of the experts, asking them their perceptions of how helpful the Defence Seminar was in addressing problems that mattered to them, and whether or not they would return next year.

“The Defence Seminar is good,” Major General Lo Adeos from Niger, said, “It’s an opportunity to bring many people together to look to the future.” This was the Major-General’s first Defence Seminar, and he said it had exceeded his expectations. He said that given the opportunity, he would return next year.

“It’s educative,” Brigadier General H. Ngusa from Zambia, said; “There’s a lot we’ve learnt that we didn’t know…particularly on cyber-security and cyber crimes and how it affects media operations.” Brigadier General Ngusa said that discussing those aspects at the Defence Seminar, resonated with the challenges to security faced by his government in Zambia: “We must find a way of addressing it, as well as coming up with a cyber policy.”

Brigadier General M. Abo Tague from Niger, agreed with Generals Adeos and Ngusa and said, “The Defence Seminar is helpful for everybody.” In contrast, General Tareq Al Zaabi from the UAE, was less enthusiastic and was unsure whether or not he would attend next year’s seminar.

Two naval captains from Sweden, who are based in New Delhi, had attended the Defence Seminar 2017, and explained why they had returned this year. “It’s a good conference,” Captain Tas said. “Last year’s seminar was relevant,” Captain Henriksson said, adding that its topic, ‘Coutnering Violent Extremism,’ “is always on the top of our list. So, when I got the invitation this year, I decided to go.” Though the captains were not enamoured by all of the discussions at the seminar, Captain Henriksson said, “it’s very good networking as well,” and saw it as a valuable opportunity to meet with people from the U.S., Australia, Japan, China, Russia, and Europe.

Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam gave the Valedictory Statement at the Seminar, re-emphasising the importance of hosting an international conference on ‘Security in an Era of Global Disruptions.’ “Security, which in fact, can be seen as freedom from fear,” he said, “is essential for every human being, as well as society.”

Kariyawasam, highlighting his thoughts on security disruptions in an evolutionary context, said “It is a fact that disruptions have given rise to everything, including the evolution of our planet…and at every stage of this evolution, there were disruptions to the status quo.” However, Kariyawasam also acknowledged that never before in history, had there been an era where a single species caused disruptions on a global scale.

“On a philosophical as well as a factual plane,” he said; “as Homo sapiens have become the dominant species, it is their responsibility to protect all life, not just human life.”

He spoke on the intersections of disruptions taking place in the current global security landscape and concluded that, “We must take our citizenship seriously—not just for our country’s citizens, but the citizens of the world.” 


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