You are here

The Sri Lanka File at the UNHRC: Need for India to Adopt a Balanced and Firm Approach

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • March 12, 2013

    The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is holding its 22nd Regular Session from 25 February to 22 March 2013. Its deliberations will cover the human rights situation in Sri Lanka also. Much progress has not been evident on bringing about ameliorating conditions for the Fourth Eelam War-ravaged Tamil people of northern Sri Lanka since the last UNHRC meeting. While the fact of the matter is that more than 40,000 Tamils died in early 2009 and the Sri Lankan Government (SLG)-constituted Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) had itself referred to instances of shelling of the civilian population, a five-member Sri Lankan Army Court of Inquiry appointed by the Army Commander, Lt. General Jagath Jayasuriya, has in its recent report asserted that the troops did not shell civilians during the closing phase of the Eelam War. This report, prepared in the nature of a fact-finding investigation, is expected to be eventually accepted by the country’s Defence Secretary and the President. If this is the trend that internal enquiries will take, no substantial remedial measures can be expected at the SLG-level on the institutional wrongs during the execution of the Eelam War. Substantive positive follow-up action, in consonance with the recommendations of the LLRC, is therefore unlikely.

    Against this backdrop, the revelations by Channel 4 TV of the UK inter-alia highlighting the poignant photographs of the 12-year-old child of the LTTE Chief apparently slain by Sri Lanka Army personnel and the latest remarks of Navaneethan Pillay, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, in her opening address on 25 February 2013 at the current Session of the UNHRC that still far too many people with command responsibility escape justice for serious crimes and gross human rights violations and that massive violations have occurred in Sri Lanka, only seem to be queering the situation against President Mahinda Rajapakse and his Government. The Government of India will have to face its next dilemma in the UNHRC on which way to vote when the United States and some of its Western allies once again bring up the issue of human rights violations in northern Sri Lankan and the need for remedial measures inter-alia proposing unfettered access for UN Special Rapporteurs to probe the allegations of such violations and examine whether credible investigations are taking place on extra-judicial killings and internal disappearances, acts affecting judicial independence, land issues, etc.

    Political pressure is already building up on the Government of India from virtually the entire range of political parties in Tamil Nadu as well as from parties like the CPI and the BJP to vote against SLG for the second time within a year and in favour of a resolution calling for effective and suitably monitored measures to restore the human rights of the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka, ensure accountability of those who perpetrated the human rights violations and institute safeguards for the socio-economic, cultural and land rights of the Tamils. Without being oblivious to the consequences of voting against the SLG, the Government of India has to formulate a calibrated strategy on how best to effectively convey its concerns to Colombo on the consequences of inadequate action by the Rajapakse regime vis-à-vis the adverse situation prevailing against the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. It is significant that the Indian Prime Minister in his latest intervention in Parliament has pointedly spoken on the need for the appropriate authorities in Sri Lanka to talk to the true Tamil leadership, thereby implying the Tamil National Alliance.

    The political alignments in India, even keeping the 2014 General Elections in the reckoning, are unlikely to change irrespective of which way the UPA Government votes at the UNHRC. However, it would be injudicious for the Government of India to overlook the prevailing sentiments in Tamilnadu and the obdurate manner in which President Rajapakse is dealing with the issue of devolution of power within the Sri Lankan political structure. Promoting true devolution in the interest of northern Sri Lanka’s indigenous Tamils, without affecting the integrity of the island country, is in India’s overall interest. Such an approach by Sri Lanka will obviate a perennial conflict-prone environment in India’s immediate neighbourhood. It should be the endeavour of New Delhi to maintain steady pressure on the SLG but without rupturing the web of cooperative relations between the two countries, which perforce is in Sri Lanka’s interests. India’s vote in favour of the USA-sponsored resolution at the UNHRC Session (enjoining on the SLG to take effective action to correct the human rights situation in that country and effectively implement the LLRC recommendations) in March 2012 had de facto indicated the ineffectiveness of the China factor in India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations. It became evident that despite the China factor, India will continue to have a role to play in relation to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka. The overall situation since March 2012 with respect to Sino-Sri Lankan relations and the extent to which they continue to impinge on India’s core interests, has not altered to New Delhi’s disadvantage, to warrant an apprehensive or low-key approach on the part of the Government of India on the human rights and devolution issues.

    A reasoned stance on the part of the Government of India would be to abstain on the US-sponsored resolution (in the eventuality that the SLG continues to contest the overwhelming opinion among the 47 UNHRC member countries), if the intrusive aspects such as the provision of UN Rapporteurs’ inspections apropos allegations of human rights violations without mandating the concurrence of and consultation with SLG, are retained. It will, however, be in keeping with the normative principles of India’s foreign policy to support a resolution that does not undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty but stipulates a time-bound and monitorable implementation by the SLG as well as UNHRC of remedial measures in accordance with the LLRC recommendations and also enables the instituting of natural rights in the socio-economic and cultural domains for the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka’s northern province. Though, as a consequence, a stiffening of posture on the part of the SLG cannot be ruled out, no softening of the hard-line stance on the part of Colombo appears to be evident now, with President Rajapakse openly harping on the so-called working out of a solution through the Sri Lanka Parliamentary Select Committee approach where the reality is that the Tamils would be in an overwhelming minority and without effective bargaining power.

    Gautam Sen is an ex-Additional CGDA, and has served at the High Commission of India in Colombo between 1988 and 1990.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India