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UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka: India’s Options

Dr Gulbin Sultana is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 19, 2012

    Amid pressure from Tamil Nadu politicians to support the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka, on March 14, 2012 Foreign Minister S M Krishna issued a statement on India’s stand on the resolution. Commenting on India’s position on the resolution, Mr. Krishna noted that the “issue of human rights allegations against Sri Lanka is yet to come up for formal discussion at the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. A view on this issue will be taken as and when the time is finalised for consideration of the draft resolution on Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council.”1 He also stated that before taking its position on the sensitive issue, India wants to consider the implications carefully – whether its action will actually assist the process of reconciliation and enhance the current dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and Tamil parties, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Whatever be the final decision of the Indian government, it must avoid remaining a silent spectator on this issue.

    Since the Eelam War ended, the Government of India has been emphasising upon engagement with “all parties in an effort to achieve a forward looking outcome that is based on reconciliation and accountability rather than deepening confrontation and mistrust between the concerned parties.”2 Consequently, its focus has been on the welfare and wellbeing of the Tamil people. In June 2009 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a grant of Rs. 500 crore for relief, rehabilitation and resettlement work in Sri Lanka. A wide range of projects covering assistance for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the areas of housing, de-mining, education, connectivity, livelihood restoration, economic revival, etc. are in various stages of execution. As a result of India’s constructive engagement with the GOSL and India’s considerable assistance programme, some degree of normalcy is beginning to return to the Tamil areas in northern Sri Lanka. However, India has so far utterly failed to convince the GOSL of the need to initiate a genuine process of reconciliation to address the political grievances of the Tamil community in the island. Of course, India has been regularly assured by the GOSL of its commitment towards the pursuit of a political process, leading to the implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. But, no serious effort has yet been made by the GOSL in this regard. India has been engaging with Sri Lanka in the spirit of partnership, but, in return, it has only received empty assurances and intemperate criticism from the Sri Lankan media for interfering in the internal affairs of the country.

    Clearly, the GOSL has been adopting a wait-and-watch tactic on the political solution to the Tamil ethnic issue. Given the power bestowed upon him by the 18th amendment to the constitution and his party’s brute majority in parliament, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, if he so wishes, can move forward towards a historical solution. Unfortunately, he does not seem to be interested in addressing the grievances of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Postponing the dialogue with the TNA (which is considered by the GOSL as a remnant of the LTTE), tactical retreat on the 13th amendment, and the government’s propensity to sympathise with Sinhala nationalist parties’ opposition to any kind of devolution3 in Sri Lanka, suggest that a political solution will be hard to come by. In such circumstances, the future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka appears bleak. Therefore, India’s stated objective to ascertain a better future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect may remain only a fond dream, unless New Delhi finds a way to nudge the Rajapaksa government towards a genuine process of reconciliation.

    There is a view in India that an assertive stand by the Government may have implications for friendly relations with Sri Lanka. While it may be true that any direct or indirect pressure from India is likely to be resented by the GOSL, remaining a mute spectator is not an option either. Because, despite Sri Lankan concerns about Indian interference, India has a genuine interest in the conclusion of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. The ethnic problem in Sri Lanka has a spill-over effect in India, and it is not simply a domestic problem for Sri Lanka alone. As long as the ethnic issue remains unresolved, it is likely to be an irritant between the Centre and Tamil Nadu. The presence of 70,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu and the sympathy that Indian Tamils feel towards their brethren in Sri Lanka will keep alive the issue in Tamil Nadu politics.

    There is also a view in India that an assertive policy on the issue will encourage Sri Lanka to use China as a balancer. However, the fact remains that even if India does not exert pressure upon the GOSL on the issue, Colombo is not going to desist from its attempts to use China as a balancer vis-à-vis India. At the same time, Sri Lanka also cannot afford to antagonise India or paint itself into a corner by disregarding the need to initiate a process of dialogue for working out a political solution. Today, the Sri Lankan Government is well aware of the fact that in the areas of trade, foreign direct investment and tourism, India occupies a dominant position in its economy. 70 per cent of the container trans-shipment business that the port of Colombo deals with comes from India. To achieve his aspiration of developing Sri Lanka as a naval, aviation, commercial, energy and knowledge hub, Rajapaksa will have to deal with India. Thus, given the importance of India for Sri Lanka4, there is every chance that Indian pressure, if applied in a well-calibrated manner, may produce the desired results.

    India generally has a tradition of not voting on a country specific resolution. Moreover, since countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, African States and the Organisation of Islamic Countries have already expressed their opposition to the resolution, in all probability the resolution is going to be defeated in the UNHRC, even if India votes in favour. Therefore, voting for the resolution may not be the optimum option for India. Instead, what India must do is use the opportunity to leverage its position on the resolution and extract a commitment from Sri Lanka to initiate a serious process of dialogue aimed at evolving a political solution within a definite time period.

    • 1. See the full text of the statement by External Affairs Minister in Rajya Sabha on “the Situation in Sri Lanka”, March 14, 2012, at
    • 2. ibid.
    • 3. Sri Lanka's Sinhala National and Buddhist Organisations have commenced collecting one million signatures for a petition demanding the abolition of 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Collective of National and Buddhist Organisations demands to abolish all power devolution measures and to bring the state back to its totally unitary nature. The signing of petitions commenced on February 28, 2012 at the sacred Bo Tree of Colombo Pettah with the participation of the leading activists of the National and Buddhist Organisations led by Gunadasa Amarasekera. The organisers of the campaign named 'This is the Last Chance' will hand over the petition with one million signatures to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. See, “Sri Lanka's nationalist organizations call for abolition of power devolution”, Colombopage, February 29, 2012 at
    • 4. Responding to the opposition motion on Indo-Sri Lanka Relations, Prof.G.L.Peiris, Minister of External Affairs gave detail account on why India is important for Sri Lanka in Sri Lankan Parliament on July 8, 2011. See the extracts of his speech available at