Neutral foreign policy in practice



by Neville Ladduwahetty

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has repeatedly declared that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is neutral. However, he and his government, meaning the Foreign Ministry in particular, has not elaborated on how a policy of neutrality works in practice. Notwithstanding this lacuna, the policy of neutrality as the foreign policy was first adopted by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his acceptance speech, perhaps, influenced by the six foreign policy options presented in an article titled “Independence: Its meaning and a direction for the future” (Neville Ladduwahetty, The Island, 14 Feb., 2019). Despite the fact that the policy of neutrality has been accepted by two Presidents and the current Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, on grounds that it legitimately permits Sri Lanka to be free from getting entangled in major power rivalries, members of this government still publicly announce their preference for a Non-Aligned foreign policy.


The lack of consistency has manifested itself in several instances. For instance, despite the Policy of Neutrality, an assurance given by the President to India’s Prime Minister was that Sri Lanka would factor in the security concerns of India in the implementation of the Policy of Neutrality. In the background of such assurances India did not hesitate to raise objections when a Chinese Research Ship, with surveillance capabilities, sought permission to dock at a Sri Lankan Port. However, because India could not present sufficiently valid grounds for its objections, Sri Lanka stood by its decision to permit the Chinese ship to enter Sri Lankan waters; thus living by its commitment to the Policy of Neutrality.

It is reported that the Chinese Embassy is again seeking permission for Shi Yan 6 to enter Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone from October to November 2023. It is reported that Sri Lanka is considering this request. The practice of considering such requests on a case by case basis should stop. After the previous experience, the Defence Ministry, together with the Foreign Ministry, should have developed a Standard Operating Procedure in keeping with the Policy of Neutrality to handle requests relating to scientific studies or any other capabilities that could be a threat to the inviolability of Sri Lanka’s territory as a declared Neutral State and circulated it among the Foreign Missions. Such an exercise would convey how the Policy of Neutrality operates in practice.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka failed to live by its Policy of Neutrality when it conceded to the objections raised by India for the construction of a Solar Power Plant on the Island of Delft on grounds that it was a threat to the security of India without any elaboration, despite it being a contract offered by the Asian Development Bank after calling for international tenders. Sri Lanka did not question the grounds for the objections. Instead, it caved in without question, thus compromising its Policy of Neutrality.

The most recent manifestation of the lack of consistency was when the President signed 5 MOUs with India, all of which was to advance connectivity with Sri Lanka to the point of integration with India. The Policy of Neutrality flies in the face of such undiluted integration with one country at the expense of its relations with other countries, thus making a mockery of the credibility of Sri Lanka, its leaders and the dignity of its Peoples.

The perception that the current economic crisis justifies Sri Lanka accepting grants and lines of credit from India or from any other country should be seen as an opportunity by any country to exploit Sri Lanka’s current economic weakness to further its own interests by controlling the destiny of Sri Lanka. This after all, is not looking at a gift horse in the mouth. It is nothing but a Trojan horse that demonstrates how unadulterated realpolitik works. The reality is that India took the initiative to lend a hand to Sri Lanka during its hour of need in order to prevent any other State from lending a hand to Sri Lanka that is in its own backyard.



Based on an ICRC Publication on Neutrality, June 2022.

The Introduction of this publication states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977.



The territory of a neutral State is inviolable. It is prohibited to commit any act of hostility whatsoever on such territory. Neutrality describes the formal position taken by a State which is not participating in an armed conflict or which does not want to become involved. This status entails specific rights and duties. On the one hand, the neutral State has the right to stand apart from and not be adversely affected by the conflict. On the other hand, it has a duty of non-participation and impartiality.

Neutral space comprises the national territory of the neutral State, its territorial waters and its national air space. Neutral persons are nationals of neutral States. They lose their neutral status if they commit hostile acts against a belligerent. Individuals may join the armed forces of a belligerent party, but then they also lose their neutral status. They still have all the guarantees of protection that a member of those forces would enjoy, and therefore are entitled to POW status if they are subsequently captured. If, however, they can be defined as mercenaries, whom we covered in an earlier lesson, they do not have the right to be considered as combatants or POWs.

As long as their home State maintains normal diplomatic relations with the belligerent State they are living in or visiting, neutral persons are to be treated in the same way as they would be in peacetime. They remain under diplomatic protection. If there are no such diplomatic relations, neutral persons are entitled to be treated as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It makes no difference to their status if they are civilians or members of the armed forces of the neutral State to which they belong”.


Policy and instructions – the neutral State must also take measures to ensure and enforce the protection of its neutrality in the neutral space for which it is responsible in relation to the belligerent parties and, in particular, their armed forces. To obtain neutral status, the State does not have to make a formal declaration, nor do other States or parties formally have to recognize such status. A formal declaration will only have the effect of making Neutral status better known.

The armed forces of the neutral State also require clear instructions on how they are to operate in relation to the defence of their territory and in dealing with incursions. For isolated and accidental violations of neutral space, the instructions might include the need to issue warnings or give a demonstration of force. For increasingly numerous and serious violations, a general warning might be called for and the use of force stepped up.

Particular obligations – the neutral State must ensure respect for its neutrality, if necessary, using force to repel any violation of its territory. Violations include failure to respect the prohibitions placed on belligerent parties with regard to certain activities in neutral territory, described above. The fact that a neutral State uses force to repel attempts to violate its neutrality cannot be regarded as a hostile act. If the neutral State defends its neutrality, it must however respect the limits which international law imposes on the use of force. The neutral State must treat the opposing belligerent States impartially.

This obligation does not mean that a State is bound to treat the belligerents in exactly the same way. It entails a prohibition on discrimination.

It forbids only differential treatment of the belligerents which in view of the specific problem of armed conflict is not justified. Therefore, a neutral State is not obliged to eliminate differences in commercial relations between itself and each of the parties to the conflict at the time of the outbreak of the armed conflict. It is entitled to continue existing commercial relations. A change in these commercial relationships could, however, constitute taking sides inconsistent with the status of neutrality.

A neutral state must never assist a party to the armed conflict, in particular it must not supply warships, ammunition or other war materials directly or indirectly to a belligerent power, but otherwise its trade with the belligerent States remains unaffected”.

The material presented above embodies internationally recognized practices that should be adopted by a neutral state.

Therefore, as a neutral state it is appropriate that issues relating to the armed conflict that ceased in May 2009 are also addressed under provisions of international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict as codified in additional protocol ii of 1977.



The general understanding is that the focus of Foreign Policy is how a State maintains friendly relations and cooperation with other States in the pursuit of its national interests. However, the fact that origins of national interests are influenced and often driven by domestic interests is not given the attention it deserves. For instance, a key national interest is food security. Therefore, the domestic policy should be how to implement agricultural policies that ensure food security in a manner that assures access to food at affordable prices.

However, food security is possible only if there is sufficient water. This is where irrigation becomes a vital component in a domestic policy of food security. These issues were presented in the article referred to earlier that advocated Neutrality as the appropriate Foreign Policy for Sri Lanka in the context of geopolitical rivalries titled “Independence: Its meaning and a direction for the future”. The relevant section with appropriate updates from this article is presented below:

“Since Sri Lanka possesses skills, technical knowhow and materials locally, except for a small component of imported items to design and build infrastructure projects relating to water supply, highways and high-rise structures, and the only shortcoming is finance, the government should facilitate financing arrangements through local banks, through Treasury Bills or through specific taxes instead of taking bilateral loans from any of the major powers blocks. If Sri Lanka is compelled to take loans to implement infrastructure projects to further its economy, at least Sri Lanka should insist whenever possible that the design and construction of such projects should, as a policy, be undertaken by Sri Lanka. However, there are projects beyond the capability of local talent in fields such as power generation and value addition of raw materials that are currently being exported. One way of attracting Foreign Direct Investment is for the government to encourage and facilitate the emerging class of astute entrepreneurs to engage with the private sector in countries that have the know-how to implement those projects that are beyond the capabilities of local talent”.

“In the meantime, the government should focus on food security by giving every possible incentive locally, not only because tried and tested skills and knowhow are available locally through centuries of experience but also because it is the fastest and most effective way to improve the livelihood and wellbeing of the bulk of the nation. Such traditional agricultural practices should be coupled with up to date technologies relating to transport, packaging and processing of agricultural products together with marketing the end products for local consumption as well as export’.

“Since water is the most vital input for agriculture the government should undertake a programme to restore the ancient tanks that dot the landscape of Sri Lanka as part of food security, because the consequence of climate change is the certainty that it is not possible to predict when and where it would rain. As a key feature of such a programme, the upper elevations that form the catchment area of the major rivers in Sri Lanka should be declared a natural reserve under the control of the central government and reforested to harvest precipitation from either of the monsoons”.

“A development strategy that should run parallel with food security should be the development of a whole range of organic agricultural products including spices outside the range related to food security e.g. horticulture, flowers, ornamental plants and foliage along with spices and herbal medicinal plants not only for local consumption but also specifically targeted for export. A few pioneering entrepreneurs have already embarked on this field of activity but it is only a serious and concerted thrust undertaken by the government as an integral part of a National Economic Policy to develop agriculture and agriculture-based products that could take this field of economic activity far beyond what it is today. Each of the 24 Districts should be declared the epicenter of such agricultural endeavours based on targets set by the Center. Such a strategy would contribute directly to the human development of a hitherto neglected section of the rural population with the minimum of external input”.

It is evident from the foregoing that a whole range of Economic Policies could emerge based on the Domestic Policies adopted. These Domestic Policies would contribute immeasurably to Sri Lanka being free of the dependence on imported agricultural products. For instance, the declaration by the Minister of Agriculture that Sri Lanka imports nearly 2 Billion Dollars of fruits and vegetables is a shameful admission of a failed and flawed Domestic Policies. In such a background to talk about competitive export oriented Economic Policies is to reverse priorities.

An issue that is of vital importance to a State that practices Neutrality as its stated Foreign Policy is that it cannot afford to entertain unsolicited infrastructure projects such as the Light Rail Project from Japan and the offshore Nuclear Power Plants from Russia. Since the actions of a Neutral State must be neutral and therefore act free of any preferences or biases in the implementation of its Economic Policies or any commercial activities, its engagement with other States should be transparent and open. Furthermore, the initiative to implement such projects should be formulated by the Neutral State as part of its Domestic Policy.


Now that the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka have declared that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is neutral, the material presented herein gives the internationally accepted norms by which a Neutral State should conduct its Foreign Relations and in turn how other States should respect its Policy of Neutrality. One vital aspect of such a norm is the respect of other States for the inviolability of the territory of the Neutral State and its integrity.

The Policy of Neutrality is the best defence Sri Lanka has to deter global powers from attempting to get control of Sri Lanka because of its strategic location on grounds internationally recognized norms of conduct applicable to a Neutral State. The extent to which Sri Lanka succeeds in retaining its Freedoms and Independence amidst such challenges depends on how Sri Lanka conducts its Foreign Relations as a Neutral State.

The most recent concern to the Policy of Neutrality is the request by the Chinese Research Ship to enter Sri Lankan waters to carry out research studies in collaboration with National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA); a practice they have been engaged in since 2017 after signing an MOU. The MOU has lapsed and is due for renewal. The recommendation is that if such concerns are to avoided the Defence Ministry together with the Foreign Ministry should develop a Standard Operating Procedure relating to the entry of any sea going vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters and circulate it among the Foreign Missions so that they are forewarned about the internationally recognized rights of a Neutral State.

The other aspect addressed is the symbiotic relationship that exists between Domestic Policies and Foreign Policies. In this regard the recommendation advocated is to seriously and strenuously focus on developing internal strengths particularly in the fields of agriculture to ensure food security and in the field of horticulture for export. In short, the Domestic Policies should focus on reducing imports in all fields that Sri Lanka can free itself of external dependence. The fact that Sri Lanka imports fruits and vegetables is a shame that Sri Lanka can do without.

As a Neutral State, Sri Lanka should conduct its Foreign Relations in a manner that underscores its core civilizational value of self-reliance to meet future challenges