Human Rights organizations and Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora have valid reasons to be jubilant about the outcome of the 19th Session of Human Rights Council held in Geneva on March 22, 2012.
There was intense lobbying by the Sri Lankan Government to defeat the US sponsored resolution to promote reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.
On the other hand, activists in the Tamil diaspora ceaselessly campaigned, supported by human rights groups, to hold the Sri Lankan Government accountable for the gross human rights violations and the killing of nearly 40,000 innocent civilians during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War.
There was one common bond uniting those who were for and against Sri Lanka. Both sides were keen to get India’s support to their point of view. And in the end, it was the human rights groups which had reasons to be satisfied with the outcome. They were quite happy that New Delhi voted for the resolution, which marked a welcome change in India’s Sri Lanka policy.
The highly respected, soft spoken Christian priest, Fr. SJ Emmanuel, President of the Global Tamil Forum, hailed the UN resolution as the “first step in seeking justice” for thousands of innocent Tamil civilians who “died in vain” during the war. He added that the Tamils were particularly “thankful” to the Government and people of India for supporting the cause of justice.
The change in India’s Sri Lanka policy is a reflection of fresh thinking in the South Block. Needless to say, New Delhi was not happy with the Sri Lankan Government because it had failed to fulfill its promises relating to the implementation of the 13th Amendment.
What is more, Colombo had not come forward with any constructive proposals to solve the ethnic problem. The Tissa Vitharana and the expert committee reports are gathering dust. The talks with the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have reached an impasse.
India’s stance in Geneva and the UN Resolution are clear signals that the international community will not be misguided by Colombo’s empty gestures. The change was also facilitated by sustained pressure exerted by political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Indian National Congress, that New Delhi should vote for the US sponsored resolution.
The reaction of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G L Peiris that the voting was determined not by “merits” of the issue, but by “strategic alliances and domestic issues” is clear misreading of Indian realities. Though Prof. Peiris did not mention any specific country, it was apparent that his reference was to India.
In a large country like India bilateral relations with neighbouring countries will have their benign/adverse fall out on contiguous Indian states. During the era of one party dominance, the Government of India could afford to ignore the wishes of the states and pursue a foreign policy, which it considered to be good in national interest.
Two illustrations can be cited to prove this point with reference to Tamil Nadu-New Delhi equation. The conclusion of the Sirimvao-Shastri Pact, 1964 and the maritime boundary agreements of 1974 and 1976 did not take into consideration the views of important political streams in Tamil Nadu. However, with coalition governments coming to power in the Centre and the regional parties playing a national role, a two way process started.
The regional parties could influence India’s neighbouhood policy, equally relevant New Delhi could influence the thinking of regional parties on foreign policy issues. What is more important, the Indian Foreign Office has become more sensitive to the aspirations of regional players.
Ranjan Mathai, the Foreign Secretary, articulated this point of view when he said, few months ago, that in a federal state like India the centre’s policy should also reflect the views of the federal units; there is no contradiction between the two.
In what ways did India’s current stance differ from earlier policies? It must be pointed out that in 2009 when the issue of human rights violations was brought before the Human Rights Council, India solidly backed, along with Russia and China, the government of Sri Lanka and defeated the resolution.
Not only that, a resolution, with India’s support, was passed by majority congratulating Sri Lanka for defeating LTTE, a ruthless terrorist organization. Equally relevant India was opposed to any country -specific resolution. After weighing various pros and cons, including the intransigent attitude of Colombo, New Delhi this time decided to support a country-specific resolution. In that process, New Delhi parted company with other Asian countries, like Maldives, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and Indonesia. Some of these countries have skeletons in their cupboard and they know that in future the tables can be turned against them.
To illustrate, take the case of Indonesia. After the downfall of Sukarno in 1965, the Sri Lankan armed forces massacred thousands of innocent people. In East Timor the Indonesian army committed several atrocities. Naturally one cannot expect Indonesia to vote for a resolution which points an accusing finger at the Sri Lankan government. After all, the birds of the same feather flock together.
Few additional points deserve mention. The resolution does not make any mention about the Darusman Committee, which was appointed by the UN Secretary General, to enquire into human rights violations in Sri Lanka. It would have been appropriate if a mention was specifically made to efforts made by the UN to find out the truth.
The Darusman Report has made reference to several human rights violations, like the killing of civilians in no-war zones, savage attacks on hospitals, orphanages, temples and churches, the sufferings of the IDPs and suspected Tiger guerrillas and the attempts made by the Government to stop the working of international relief organizations. What is more, the Darusman Report had emphatically maintained that what happened during the final stages of the war was in sharp contrast to Colombo’s assertions. Colombo’s defence had been that it was carrying out a “humanitarian rescue operation” with “zero civilian casualties”.
An important component of the UN Resolution is that it has welcomed the constructive recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LLRC was appointed by the Sri Lankan Government to make recommendations as to how to bring about ethnic reconciliation, in the light of the protracted ethnic conflict. Its terms of reference did not include an enquiry into human rights violations. Even then the report has highlighted significant ills that plague Sri Lanka today.
In particular, the Report has pointed out that there are widespread allegations of “extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances”; the necessity to “demilitarize” the Northern Province; evolve mechanisms to resolve land disputes; reach an immediate solution on the question of devolving power to the provinces; and the necessity to enforce rule of law and freedom of expression. Even though six months have elapsed since the submission of the LLRC report, the Government of Sri Lanka has not shown any interest to implement its recommendations.
What is more, if one goes by the past record, the Government had appointed several committees to enquire into human rights violations, some of these commissions did not submit any report; in the case of few others the reports were shelved without publication, but in all cases the Government had turned a “Nelson’s eye” on the recommendations. The UN Resolution has rightly acknowledged the “positive contributions” of the LLRC and has called upon the Sri Lankan Government to implement them expeditiously.
India’s Sri Lanka policy, as Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh has pointed out, stems from two inter-related principles; first, the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and second, the Tamils should be provided with an opportunity to enjoy justice and human dignity. Therefore, the Indian diplomats bent backwards and exercised considerable pressure to ensure that the resolution did not infringe upon Sri Lankan sovereignty.
The UN should also not be seen as playing an intrusive role. As a result the original resolution was amended. The revised resolution requested Sri Lanka to chalk out a “comprehensive action plan” dealing with steps the Government had taken and proposes to take to implement the LLRC report. What is more, the role of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been whittled down.
The UN High Commissioner has to function “in consultation with and with the concurrence” of the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations and also to address alleged violations of international law. What will be the consequence, if the Government of Sri Lanka refuses to accept the recommendations of the UN High Commissioner? A political stalemate will follow. How will this stalemate be resolved? The resolution is silent on the subject.
It must be pointed out that on the question of protection and promotion of human rights New Delhi has taken a hesitant, but welcome, step. But if we go by the past record of the Government of India, it becomes clear that New Delhi had always championed the cause of human rights. Whether against the practice of apartheid by the white South African Government or whether against the atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistani army against the civilians in East Pakistan, India had mobilized international support in defence of the affected people.
In the case of Fiji, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi mobilized international opinion which paved the way for the expulsion of Rambuka Government from the Commonwealth. Even in the case of Sri Lanka, in the post-1983 period, India was in the vanguard in highlighting the human rights violations. The Indian Embassies were in touch with international human rights organizations and apprised them of ground realities.
The Government of India permitted the Tamil Information Centre to open branches in Chennai and Madurai and it launched a vigorous campaign in favour of Sri Lankan Tamils. Unfortunately after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE, the pendulum swung to the other extreme.
New Delhi withdrew into a shell and adopted a hands off policy towards Sri Lanka. During the Fourth Eelam War, not only New Delhi assisted the Sri Lankan war machine in several ways, it did not also recognize the reality that the war against the Tigers had degenerated into a war against Tamil civilians. The welcome step taken in Geneva should be the precursor of a more vibrant and dynamic foreign policy on the question of human rights.
India cannot afford to follow a foreign policy of cynicism and opportunism as China does. In its eagerness to strengthen state-to-state relations China has extended blind support to dictatorial governments, whether in Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan or Sri Lanka.
From an Indian perspective, Sri Lanka, as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi pointed out in the aftermath of the 1983 communal holocaust, is “not just another country”, what happens there will have its immediate fallout in India. Equally relevant, India cannot afford to have an alienated Tamil minority in its close neighbourhood. Taking these factors into consideration New Delhi should step up pressure on Mahinda Rajapaksa to evolve a new political system, where multiple identities can co-exist harmoniously, where a Tamil can be a Tamil, while being a Sri Lankan.
Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently associated with two think tanks in Chennai, the Center for Asia Studies and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He was a member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India for one term