You are here

A Wake up Call for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • April 09, 2012

    India’s vote in favour of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) resolution against Sri Lanka titled “Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka” is a well calculated move to provide the required push for resolving the Tamil issue. The general perception is that the Indian decision was prompted by Tamil Nadu politics and the pressure exerted by the DMK especially in the aftermath of the airing of the Channel 4 videos. However, the DMK’s demand may not be the only factor behind the Indian decision. What else explains the Indian vote in favour of the UNHRC resolution?

    The Rajapakse government had earlier assured the international community and India in particular that it would forge a national consensus to resolve the longstanding Tamil question but that it needed time for this. Taking this assurance at face value, India had agreed that the Sri Lankan government must indeed be given more time to find an amicable resolution to the problem within the framework of Sri Lanka’s constitution. Moreover, there were other pressing issues that required the immediate attention of the Sri Lankan government, including the rehabilitation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), the screening of LTTE cadres and sympathisers, clearing of mines, etc.

    The change in India’s stance was probably influenced by the Sri Lankan government’s unwillingness to fulfill its commitment to India and the international community. Rajapaksa’s dilly dallying over the issue of evolving a genuine political solution, and his rejection of the 13th Amendment—which he had earlier promised to build upon, in his much vaunted ‘Mahinda Chintana’—as an imposition from the outside, must have further irritated New Delhi. Shortly after the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Colombo in February 2012, Rajapaksa, in fact, spoke about the need to evolve a ‘home grown’ solution instead.

    The rise of the ultra-radical Sinhalese constituency in Sri Lanka has not helped matters in this regard. Rajapakse has been nurturing this constituency through his frequent references to the defeat of terrorism and by branding anybody expressing sympathies for Tamil rights either within Sri Lanka or elsewhere as terrorist sympathisers who are masquerading as rights protagonists whose only ambition is to divide the country. Contrary to his assurances of building a national consensus in favour of a political solution acceptable to the Tamils, he has been doing everything possible to strengthen the hands of Sinhala ultra-nationalists, who do not approve of any concession of any kind to the Tamils. In the process he has emerged as a ‘dutugemunu’, the Sinhala king, who defeated the Tamil king Elara nearly 2,500 years ago. Victory in the so-called war against terrorism has itself emerged as the solution for the Tamil issue and there is no need to consider Tamil rights. Today, any articulation in favour of Tamil rights in Sri Lanka is being labeled as an act of treason. The recent UNHRC resolution is being portrayed as the world community’s opposition to the elimination of terrorism. Civil society activists are being targeted by the state and kidnapped by what is popularly referred to as ‘white vans’ in Colombo.

    Since the victory in the ‘war’, Rajapaksa has only resorted to delaying tactics as far as seeking a long-term political solution to the Tamil issue is concerned. His decision to refer the issue of political settlement to the Parliament Select Committee amply proves this. While this may appear as a genuine step in any democracy, in reality Rajapakse is the undisputed leader in Sri Lanka today and his party has enough strength in the legislature to ratify any decision that his government may choose to take on the ethnic issue. There is thus clearly a lack of sincerity on the part of the Sri Lankan government in pursuing the issue.

    Given the fragmentation of the UNP, the main opposition party, which is being plagued by intra-party rivalry, there is no opposition to the government’s policy in Sri Lanka today—except for the TNA, which has been engaged in meaningless talks with the government on the issues of disappearance and resettlement. The government has tried to portray the issue of investigation into the war crimes during the last phase of the war as a conspiracy of the Tamil diaspora and the NGO lobbies. The Tamil diaspora has in fact emerged as the new enemy of the Sri Lankan state. The legitimate Tamil political aspiration is now being made synonymous with the illegitimate ambitions of the LTTE. Since the end of the war, the issue of violation of human rights raised by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been routinely dismissed by the Sri Lankan government which instead accuses the TNA as being sympathisers of the LTTE and sponsored by the Tamil diaspora. It was only because of immense international pressure—that too after the indiscriminate killing of surrendered LTTE cadres and unarmed civilians came to light—that the Sri Lankan government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to look into the larger political issue of peace building, albeit with a limited mandate. Subsequently, its mandate was expanded again only after the release of the UN Secretary General appointed UN commission report of April 2011, which accused the Sri Lankan government of gross human rights violations.

    Rajapakse’s attitude towards India seems to be marked by unreasoned fear and suspicion, which explains his recent bid to distance himself from the 13th amendment and his refusal to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), despite recommendations by economists and business groups at home that it is in Sri Lanka’s interest to enter into such an arrangement. He is also perceived to be playing the China card to neutralise India and its ability to exert pressure upon Sri Lanka to address the Tamil issue.

    In this context, New Delhi has perhaps come to realise that despite its unequivocal support for the Sri Lankan government throughout the period of the war, Colombo has been turning a deaf ear to any suggestions for evolving a political solution to the ethnic issue. Along with this, Sri Lanka’s refusal to implement the recommendations of the LLRC with sincerity has, in a way, convinced New Delhi of the Rajapakse government’s disinclination to recognise, leave alone redress, the genuine grievances of the Tamils, in Sri Lanka. India was consequently left with no other option but to vote in favour of the UNHRC resolution. Even then, it took care to move amendments in order to ensure that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty was respected. To quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India was successful “in introducing an element of balance in the language of the resolution”.

    Sri Lanka must understand that India has a genuine interest in peace in the island country, because its own stability and security ultimately depends upon such a state of affairs. India’s voting at the UNHRC may be interpreted as a first step in the right direction to send a clear message to the Rajapakse government that it cannot continue to postpone a political resolution of the ethnic issue in the name of ‘homegrown’ solutions and that it has to begin taking measures to address Tamil concerns.