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Impact of UNHRC Resolution on India-Sri Lanka relations

India was among the 24 countries that voted for the U.S. draft resolution on Sri Lanka’s accountability in respect of human rights violations which was passed at the 19th meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at Geneva. Fifteen member countries opposed it while eight abstained.

The text of the resolution is at Annexure. By voting for the resolution, India has shown it concurs with two core issues contained in the resolution:

1. Sri Lanka has not adequately taken up follow up action on the LLRC’s recommendations on a host of issues. It needs “to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all and enact rule of law reforms.”

2. The need for Sri Lanka to speedily work out a “comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s report, and also to address alleged violations of international law [presumably including the allegations of war crimes as well].

One of the core aspects of India’s foreign policy has been to build strong strategic, political, and trading relations with Sri Lanka. In the past India had stood by its ally on a wide range of issues both outside and inside international forums. When Sri Lanka faced a similar predicament in the UNHRC in 2009 India worked behind the scenes to bale out Sri Lanka.

India’s support to the U.S. sponsored resolution was out of sync with other members of the Asian bloc in the UNHRC who did not support the U.S. move. Presumably India’s vote also influenced a few other fence sitters to vote in favour and enhanced the credibility of the resolution.

Impact on India-Sri Lanka relations

Viewed in this background, India’s vote for the U.S. resolution may be considered a major departure from the past in India-Sri Lanka relations. Many media pundits were quick to explain internal political compulsions as the reason for India’s volte face. But they are missing the larger issues involved in India-Sri Lanka relations. Over the years relations between the two nations have become multifaceted with a larger strategic security content as India considers Sri Lanka as the vanguard of Indian Ocean security. This is one of the main drivers of India’s Sri Lanka policy which has been reciprocated by Sri Lanka as well.

But in this process, the historical lessons that had kindled passions in Tamil Nadu after the 1983 pogrom against Tamils in Sri Lanka and its gory aftermath were apparently forgotten in New Delhi in its enthusiasm to build cosy relations with Colombo. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by the LTTE followed by the banning of the LTTE alienated the people of Tamil Nadu from the Tamil struggle. With bitter memories of its 1987-90 experience, New Delhi decided to keep a low profile during Sri Lanka’s Eelam confrontations and peace process 2002 as well.

President Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 and emerged as an assertive leader; he abandoned the peace process and waged war against the LTTE. India which did little to save the peace process 2002 probably thought it expedient to go along with Sri Lanka during the war. It suited India that the LTTE terrorism, which had the potential to spread the philosophy of Tamil separatism, was meeting its logical end when Sri Lankan army decisively defeated it and eliminated Prabhakaran.

Though the Eelam War made headline news in India, it was the death of thousands of civilians in the war and the sufferings of Tamils as a result of the war that kindled emotions in Tamil Nadu. It was further whipped up when Rajapaksa trivialised allegations of war crimes in the last stages of war came up at the end of the war and dragged his feet in going through the national reconciliation process.

After the UN advisory panel on the issue found the need to investigate them further it provided a rallying point for political parties of all hues in Tamil Nadu. Demand for international investigation into the allegations was taken up in a big way by the Tamil Diaspora and it found its echo in Tamil Nadu.

Though earlier India had not taken a vocal and public stand on most of these issues (which are also contained in the resolution), it had been regularly conveying its concerns to Sri Lanka at the highest level during and after the Eelam War.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa had repeatedly promised to attend to Indian concerns, particularly on national reconciliation, but fell far short in performance. He depended on rhetoric rather than action to keep New Delhi at bay. On the other hand he found it expedient to delay national reconciliation process through political manoeuvring probably to retain Southern Sinhala vote-banks.

Initially, New Delhi tried to soft pedal the Sri Lankan President’s lackadaisical attitude to India. But New Delhi was fast losing credibility at home and it became an irritant in its relations with Tamil Nadu coalition partners. Over a period of time, Sri Lanka’s inaction had its adverse fall out on Tamil Nadu politics as well. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue which was shunted to political sidelines in Tamil Nadu staged a major comeback during Tamil Nadu elections and the DMK, coalition partner at New Delhi suffered a severe drubbing. The writing on the wall for New Delhi was clear: it has to urgently recoup its credibility suffered due to its pedestrian Sri Lanka policy.

The political turbulence in Tamil Nadu also gave a lease of life to extreme Tamil nationalist elements and fringe elements of Tamil separatism. These elements gathered momentum and threatened to erode support bases of competing Dravidian parties. Velupillai Prabhakaran, who was shunned for blooding his hands in Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, was rehabilitated to the status of a folk hero when Sri Lankan soldiers killed him at the battle front.

Now Sri Lankan Tamil issue soon became a major source of not only embarrassment but also political confrontation for New Delhi with the rise of Ms Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. New Delhi’s decision to vote for the U.S. resolution has to be viewed in this overall political context.

To trivialise the developments in Tamil Nadu as merely coalition politics would be ignoring their strategic implications. By voting for the resolution India has sent a clear signal to Sri Lanka to speed up national reconciliation process with all its ramifications spelt out in the resolution. In the process it has also sent a signal to the people of Tamil Nadu and Tamils everywhere that their concerns have not been marginalised in India’s agenda.

India has probably realise that resolving the Sri Lankan national reconciliation issue is as much in its own interest as Sri Lanka’s as survival of coalition government in New Dedlhi is increasingly controlled by regional satraps. Moreover, if the Sri Lankan issue is not attended to it has the potential to adversely affect not only India’s long term relations with Sri Lanka but the national security of both the countries as well.

India has bent over backwards to explain to Sri Lanka the rationale behind its vote. Explaining it immediately after voting, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said: “one has to weigh the pros and cons. What we did was in line with our stand on Sri Lanka. We did not want to infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka, but concerns should be expressed so that Tamil people can get justice and lead a life of dignity.” What he left unsaid was of India’s growing concern at Sri Lanka’s failure to fulfil commitments made to India. In other words, while India values Sri Lanka’s friendship, it should not take it for granted.

Later in his letter to President Rajapaksa on the subject, Indian Prime Minister has also emphasized the constructive aspects of Indian stand to erase the construct that it was anti-Sri Lanka. He has also affirmed India’s firm belief in firming up India-Sri Lanka relations to ensure a win-win situation for both countries.

However, this is a deeply emotive issue in Sri Lanka as many feel Sri Lanka did a favour to India and the world in eliminating the LTTE terrorism. So there is a great deal of disappointment at all levels at India’s support to the resolution. This is bound to have its backlash on India related issues for some time to come.

At the same time, there had been a grudging realization in some quarters in Sri Lanka that not enough had been done to attend to international concerns in the post war period. Coupled with Indian political situation, it was inevitable that India would vote for the resolution.

If President Rajapaksa takes the UNHRC resolution as a challenge to his style of governance we can expect some quick progress. However, given his strong personality traits, it would be difficult for him to accept Sri Lanka’s “defeat.” He has a large political stake on the issue as he gave it a big build up, spinning conspiracy theories of international collusion between LTTE elements of Tamil Diaspora and Western powers – the U.S, Canada, the EU and UK in particular. So it would be difficult for him to brush aside the Indian stand and carry on business as usual with India. His immediate reaction to the UNHRC resolution also indicates this, though he had not specifically referred to India.

However, the Indian vote would not have come as a surprise to Sri Lankan political and government leadership. They are astute enough to have gauged the Indian mood after the Indian Prime Minister spoke of India’s inclination to vote for the resolution in parliament. In the past they had shown a remarkable understanding of the Indian political situation and kept their cool. So we can expect them to slowly cement the cracks that have appeared in India-Sri Lanka relations just as Indians are likely to do. But the Indian stand at the UNHRC is always likely to be hyphenated in Sri Lankan perspectives on relations with India in the future.

The public reaction to Indian vote is rather muted as the shock effect is still there. However, already there are indications the ever present anti-Indian elements in Sri Lankan politics would waste no time to come into action sooner than later. We can expect some of the competitive political elements of this lobby to come to the streets in the coming days, unless the President wants to avoid it.

There is a grudging realization in some quarters in Sri Lanka that not enough has been done to attend to India’s concerns in the post war period. The Sunday Times, Colombo in its editorial said: “The resolution calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations. As we have stated before, had the Government shown some interest and speed in implementing at least some of the Commission’s recommendations on which there is common ground among political parties and the vast majority of the people, then the US resolution would have looked foolish.”

Inevitably the relations between India and Sri Lanka countries are bound to be at low ebb now. At this delicate stage, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayalalithaa having smelled blood on the Sri Lanka issue has the option to flog it further to settle score with New Delhi’s ruling coalition. Instead, she can take make a positive contribution by ensuring that the UNHRC recommendations are fulfilled by Sri Lanka. In order to keep the issues in New Delhi’s focus, she can initiate action to build a Caucasus in parliament cutting across party lines. Such action would elevate her to national stature; but “will she” remains the moot point. It is not impossible as it would only be furthering the rare show unity the members from Tamil Nadu demonstrated in parliament recently for the same cause.

Regardless of other aspects, New Delhi has the unenviable task of winning over Tamil Nadu support to keep on leash anti-Sri Lanka elements in Tamil Nadu from raising the pitch of their rhetoric and getting into some ‘direct action’ (euphemism for anti-Sri Lankan hooliganism). This is likely to be an emerging challenge for New Delhi on the home front as it will have its impact on shaping India’s Sri Lanka relations in the near term.

The tides of good will can be helped by some quick action from Sri Lankans to attend to the issues raised at the UNHRC. As Sri Lanka human rights lobbies have Sri Lanka is required only to speed up its follow up action on the LLRC report in response to the UNHRC resolution.

But we cannot see Sri Lanka going beyond implementing the major recommendations of the LLRC report. It is likely to switch on its bureaucratic process to attend to human rights grievances; if past experience is any guide, this could mean bleak prospects for quick resolution. The national reconciliation process may also face the same prospect as it is difficult to see the President rolling back the Parliamentary Select Committee he had pitched upon to do the task.

Now that New Delhi has played its UNHRC card, its political credibility at home will be increasingly dependent upon how well Sri Lanka attends to its concerns. As the Sunday Times pointed out in its editorial “Sri Lanka’s ineffective foreign policy must take some blame for this – for its inability to reach out and engage these influential quarters. It did not cultivate Indian political parties over the years. Knee-jerk reactions were the order of the day when the US resolution became a reality and delegations were sent to faraway Uruguay but not to Chennai or New Delhi.” But Sri Lanka will have to show substantive results as the time for a mere PR exercise in India is gone.

In a number of articles in the past, I had written on the need for Sri Lanka remove avoidable irritants to improve the climate of confidence internationally. Some of them like publishing the list naming all casualties, prisoners and missing in action as a result of war, and ensuring rule of law by cracking down on political killings are well within the realms of administrative bureaucracy. Other actions like thinning out of army personnel in Northern Province, vacating high security zones, and appointing Tamils as governors would increase the confidence levels among Tamils.

Impact on strategic security

Some analysts have condemned the Indian vote as disastrous to its strategic security as it would help China increase its influence in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, the Indian vote has provided an opening for China to exploit the situation in its favour.

But there are some harsh realities in the India-Sri Lanka-China triangular relations that have to be taken into reckoning while assessing the scope and content of China’s forays in Sri Lanka. These are:

· India’s geographic proximity to Sri Lanka which enable India to respond in real time to developments in Sri Lanka. This was amply demonstrated when Indian naval ship reached Sri Lankan shores in matter a few hours after the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in 2004. This gives India an enormous strategic advantage over China which is a few thousand miles away. So any adverse Chinese initiative in Sri Lanka could find quick response from India. Both China and Sri Lanka are sure to be aware of this reality.

· On the other hand geo-strategically, it is important for China to retain a strong foot print in Sri Lanka to fulfil its global ambitions in the coming years. So Sri Lanka will continue to be a focus of Chinese attention with emphasis on building close economic and political relations rather than laying emphasis on military relations at present. Of course, Chinese arms sold at diplomatic prices are always an attraction for nations and we can expect more of them in Sri Lanka’s armouries. India is unlikely to take it as a provocation as it has problems in adequately arming its own forces.

· It would be incorrect to view Sri Lanka through the prism of India-China competitive strategies only. China is already in the South Asia in a big way. Both India and China are trying to build a win-win relationship by focusing on positives. As a result China has emerged as India’s largest trading partner. And India-China trade is worth over $120 billion with huge potential for further growth. This process of expansion of Chinese trade in South Asia headed by India has become important now as China’s export markets have shrunk due to economic recession in the U.S. and Europe. And Chinese foreign exchange surpluses are showing a 2 % deficit for the first time now. Considering this environment, China will have to factor Indian sensitivities while taking any security initiatives in countries with close security linkages with India like Nepal and Sri Lanka. China is likely to factor this aspect while building its relations with Sri Lanka.

We will have to consider the impact of India’s demonstrated support to the U.S. at the UNHRC on the strategic security picture of the region. When the U.S. introduced a similar resolution on Sri Lanka using Czech Republic as a proxy in the UNHRC in 2009, it was Indian initiative and help that defeated it. So the positive Indian response now probably came as a refreshing relief for the U.S., particularly after India’s reluctance to toe the U.S. line on Iran and Syria. This augurs well for furthering India-U.S. strategic ties in the region. This is yet another aspect that would be taken into consideration by both China and Sri Lanka in their strategic construct on India.

(The writer, Col R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog:


Text of Resolution L.2 Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka

22 March 2012, 7:04 am

Human Rights Council Nineteenth session Agenda item 2 Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General

United States of America: draft resolution

19/… Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka

The Human Rights Council,

Guided by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and other relevant instruments,

Recalling Council resolutions 5/1 and 5/2 on institution building of the Human Rights Council,

Reaffirming that States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, as applicable,

Taking note of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission of Sri Lanka and its findings and recommendations, and acknowledging its possible contribution to the process of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka,

Welcoming the constructive recommendations contained in the Commission’s report, including the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all and enact rule of law reforms,

Noting with concern that the report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law,

1. Calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to take all necessary additional steps to fulfill its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans;

2. Requests the Government of Sri Lanka to present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s report, and also to address alleged violations of international law;

3. Encourages the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures mandate holders to provide, in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka, advice and technical assistance on implementing the above-mentioned steps; and requests the Office of the High Commissioner to present a report on the provision of such assistance to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-second session.

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