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Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and the UN

March 29, 2013 15:07 IST

India's vote on the Sri Lanka resolution in Geneva may well have speeded up the general elections in the country and reduced our effectiveness as a regional power, says TP Sreenivasan

A resolution of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly has asked the Government of India to take up the Sri Lankan Tamil issue at the UN Security Council and propose a referendum for a Tamil Eelam. Nothing can be farther from possibility for India to accomplish. Other than noting the strength of emotions in Tamil Nadu and dealing with the political forces there, India can do little at the UN.

India made the best of a bad bargain in Geneva, but it will be disastrous to go to New York with the same issue. Domestic politics does impact on foreign policy, but it cannot be dictated by domestic political compulsions.

It is incredible that a resolution of the Human Rights Council should shake the foundations of the Union government. At no other time in history has a vote in the UN mattered so much for the survival of a government in India. The utter lack of any knowledge of the dynamics of the UN and its procedures was evident in the way the whole episode played out. It made India look pathetic in the eyes of the world as a country, which cannot make up its mind on the approach to a crucial neighbour.

The decision that India took at the Human Rights Council last year to vote for the Sri Lankan resolution was a landmark event. After the tense moments in the Human Rights Commission in 1993, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Salman Khurshid battled a possible Pakistani resolution against India, we had decided that we should not support politically motivated country-specific resolutions. We were able to vote for the American resolution because we were convinced that it was not a politically motivated document.

The US had supported the Sri Lankan war on terror till the very end of the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and it was sympathetic to the efforts of the Sri Lankan government to rebuild the war-torn nation. It was only when the US noticed that President Mahinda Rajapakse was breaking all the rules relating to his responsibility to his own Tamil minority that the US thought of a human rights resolution to bring Sri Lanka to the right path. The language of the resolution was also quite moderate and generally acceptable. The Americans must have consulted Sri Lanka itself beforehand.

India voted for the resolution last year also because of the palpable sense in Delhi that President Rajapakse was no more attentive to Delhi’s demands for a fair deal for the Tamils. For him, India was no more the friendly voice of reason and caution, but a jealous neighbour, who resents Sri Lanka’s growing ties with China and Pakistan. India would not have gone to the UN for fear of exposing its loss of influence as a regional power, but since the Americans had taken the initiative, India went along, partly because of the urgings of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The natural instinct of India was to make the resolution modest not to offend President Rajapakse beyond a point. The gamble worked last year and the Indian position was well understood in world capitals.

When the Americans began canvassing for its draft this year, they knew that India was a possible supporter, as the situation had not changed since last year. If anything, Sri Lanka had become more rigid in rejecting international interest in its internal affairs and in disregarding the Tamil issue itself by asserting that there were no minorities in the country. The Indian delegation, bearing in mind the criticism of its vote last year, may well have sought changes in the draft to make the resolution less sharp. They had expected pressure from DMK to vote for the resolution, but presumed that the text itself might not be an issue, as long as it highlighted the violation of human rights in Sri Lanka.

By the time the agitation began in Tamil Nadu for a strong resolution, possibly sparked off by human rights groups, which were following the trend of the debate in Geneva, the resolution had taken its final shape and about 30 co-sponsors, including some outside the Human Rights Council had signed on it. When India turned around completely and wanted strengthening of the draft, the US and the co-sponsors were not in a position to accommodate the Indian requirements. Though they appreciated the reasons for the Indian volte-face, the delicate balance that they had obtained could not be disturbed. India was not even a co-sponsor.

Instructed at the highest level to strengthen the draft, the Indian Permanent Representative submitted several amendments to the text to the Americans, knowing fully well that they would not be accepted at such a late stage. Of course, there was no question of referring to the situation in Sri Lanka as genocide. Nor was it desirable to seek an investigation by an external agency, bearing in mind our own position regarding allegations of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. As expected, the US explained its inability to accept the amendments. It is possible that they may even have indicated that if India were to move the amendments from the floor, the co-sponsors would vote against them. That was a disaster that India wanted to avoid.

The explanation of the vote, given by India, was measured and moderate. It took care of our interests and traditional positions, but making clear that India would have preferred a more aggressive stand by the Human Rights Council on the situation in Sri Lanka. For those who understood the gravity of the political situation in India, the Indian position was legitimate, but the procedures and conventions at the UN did not permit them to be helpful to India. If the Indian suggestions had come earlier, there could have been a stronger resolution, even if it could not have gone to the extent of characterizing the situation as genocide.

The voting on the resolution had no surprises. Those who sponsored the resolution and supported it were the “usual suspects”, motivated by the human rights crusade led by human rights organisations. Asian countries which had no concern for the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, did not support the resolution out of solidarity with the Sri Lankan government. Except for Pakistan and China, the Asians had no desire to isolate India. Some of them expressed concern over the turn of events in Sri Lanka.

Questions have been asked about the credibility of the United States to move a resolution against Sri Lanka, when the US itself is guilty of human rights violations elsewhere. In fact, the usual practice is for one of the smaller European countries to take the lead. Indian critics, who considered the US sponsorship anathema, should realise that in the larger world, the US sponsorship added gravitas to the action by the Human Rights Council, rather than detract from it.

Ironically, the episode has more implications for India, rather than for Sri Lanka. It may well have speeded up the general elections in India and reduced our effectiveness as a regional power. This is much more than what the Human Rights Council and the UN itself had ever intended to do.

The best that can happen as a result of the Tamil Nadu resolution is that President Rajapakse becomes aware of the strength of feelings in India and moves towards a political resolution of the Tamil issue.

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, Thiruvananthapuram, and Member, National Security Advisory Board, Member, India-UK Roundtable, and Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

For more columns by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here.

TP Sreenivasan