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Abstain on Lanka vote now, vote for it next time

Last updated on: March 20, 2012 12:51 IST
Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, notwithstanding all his assurances to India, has shown little interest in promoting the process of genuine reconciliation with the Tamils by bringing to book those responsible for the horrific war crimes against Tamil civilians in April-May 2009, says Satish Chandra, the former deputy national security advisor and distinguished fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.

One of the many thorny foreign policy-related issues currently confronting India is the upcoming vote on the United States-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The resolution is prima facie clearly unobjectionable and calls on Sri Lanka to:

1. Initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans,

2. Present a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps the government will take to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and also to address alleged violations of international law,

3. Accept the advice and technical assistance on implementing the aforesaid measures from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

India has, for the last several years, been voting against country-specific human rights resolutions as these are usually selective and motivated. If strict objectivity had been observed in the matter, Pakistan would surely have been in the dock as it has over the decades been unabashedly engaged in massive human rights violations.

There is, nevertheless, a good case to re-examine the manner in which we vote on the Sri Lanka resolution. This is not because of the outcry in the matter in Tamil Nadu but because President Mahinda Rajapaksa, notwithstanding all his assurances to India, has shown little interest in promoting the process of genuine reconciliation with the Tamils by bringing to book those responsible for the horrific war crimes against Tamil civilians in April-May 2009 and by proceeding forward on devolution.

On the contrary, Sri Lanka appears to be set on the path to militarise and Sinhalise the Northern Province. Indeed, the International Crisis Group has gone so far as to project in its report of March 16, 2012, that by adopting policies that will bring fundamental changes to the culture, demography and economy of the Northern Province, the government of Sri Lanka 'is sowing the seeds of future violence there'.

On accountability, the LLRC report virtually exonerated the Sri Lankan authorities of having committed atrocities despite findings to the contrary by several credible human rights bodies including the UN secretary-general's panel of experts. This was only to be expected, as the LLRC was a government-appointed body whose independence and impartiality was compromised ab initio by its composition and conflict of interest of some of its members.

On devolution, Sri Lanka has made known that police and land powers will not be devolved to the provinces -- a key demand of the Tamil National Alliance. Talks between the TNA and the Sri Lankan authorities on devolution are on halt since January 2012 as the latter insist that further discussions in the matter be held in a Parliamentary Select Committee which the TNA regard as a stalling effort.

Lending further credence to the view that President Rajapaksa is in no mood to engage in any reconciliation with the Tamils are the recent findings of the ICG that the Sri Lankan military in the Northern Province has 'become an army of occupation physically and psychologically' and 'manages many aspects of everyday life and is the final authority on virtually all important decisions. It controls the population in part through tight surveillance, high levels of fear and occasional strong doses of physical repression'.

The ICG further points out that the Sinhalisation of the north is underway through 'numerous different processes, ranging from changing the names of streets and villages from Tamil to Sinhala and the building of Buddha statues to the movement of large enough numbers of Sinhalese to the north to change the population balance in politically and socially significant ways'.

It is unfortunate that President Rajapaksa should have chosen to renege on his promises to work towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka as following the resounding defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam with his popularity at an all-time high, he had an historic opportunity to do so. All that he needed to do to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people, so necessary for long-term peace and stability in the country, was to implement the 13th amendment, set up an impartial and credible commission to enforce accountability in respect of human rights violations and sincerely work for the promotion of Tamil resettlement and rehabilitation in the north.

Not only have the Sri Lankan authorities failed to take these steps but have chosen to further exacerbate Tamil fears by undertaking the militarisation and Sinhalisation of the north. There can be little doubt that President Rajapaksa's short-sighted policies will lead to the renewed embitterment of the Tamils and the re-emergence of the LTTE in another form. While this will be very dangerous for Sri Lanka in the long run, it also has very obvious negative consequences for India and hence our unceasing behind the scene efforts to persuade President Rajapaksa to deal with the Tamil issue with much greater sensitivity and maturity.   

Since our efforts at quiet persuasion have not yielded the desired results, it is perhaps time to exert more pressure by taking a more public position in the matter and the upcoming vote on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council is an opportunity to do so. Ideally, we should have warned Sri Lanka in advance that we would be constrained to vote differently from what we normally do on such resolutions unless it provided firm guarantees that it would act in a time-bound framework to address the genuine grievances of the Tamils.

It is argued that such a move would drive Sri Lanka further towards China. This is, of course, always a theoretical possibility. However, the extent to which it would align itself with China would always have to be tempered by its geographic proximity to India and by the fact that such moves would not be without consequences. Moreover, the China factor is in a sense already at play in terms of enabling Rajapaksa to defy India on the issue of Tamil reconciliation. India needs to signal that such defiance cannot be taken lightly.

In these circumstances, we would be well advised not to oppose this resolution but to abstain. In our explanation of vote we also need to make it clear that Sri Lanka needs to act and act fast on reconciliation in its own interest. Furthermore, we should also indicate that if Sri Lanka does not move forward on accountability and devolution, we would in future be constrained to vote in favour of the next such resolution.

Finally, it may not be desirable in the 21st century, in the context of the emergence of human rights as a powerful emotive factor and of India's rise as an important player on the regional and global scene, to place self-imposed restrictions on the way we deem fit to vote on human rights resolutions. There could be occasions on which it may be advantageous for us to support some of them rather than to mechanically oppose them. For instance, if there are resolutions on Pakistan's human rights violations in Baluchistan or on China's human rights violations in Tibet, should we not consider supporting them?
Satish Chandra