Never in India’s history have relations with any neighbouring country been so dramatically influenced by the politics of a single state as our relations with Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, public opinion in Tamil Nadu has not been adequately sensitised about the diplomatic complexities of developments in our neighbourhood, or of precisely what New Delhi is doing to address the needs and welfare of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan civil war ended when separatist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed in 2009. It is universally accepted that both sides were guilty of human rights abuses during the last stages of the war — a fact acknowledged by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
India’s policy, thereafter, has been to work towards the Sri Lankans themselves implementing the LLRC recommendations. More importantly, apart from India, no government in the world has done anything substantive for the relief, rehabilitation and welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Since 2010, India has doled out assistance estimated at $1.3 billion (Rs 8,000 crore) — its largest ever development assistance project — for the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils. The projects include the construction of 50,000 homes and the supply of materials for around 43,000 war-damaged residences. There have also been major projects for the development of rail transport, port infrastructure in Kankesanthurai, a 500 MW thermal power station in Sampur and the upgrading of the Palaly airport.
The development of human resources has been facilitated through the improvement of schools and vocational training centres, the construction of hospitals and involvement in employment-generation projects in agriculture, fisheries, small industries and handicrafts. Politically, India has ensured that there is a chief minister, Justice C.V. Vigneswaran, in the Northern Province, elected under the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.
These major development projects could not have been undertaken without the cooperation of the Sri Lankan government. It has, therefore, been crucial for New Delhi to balance its interests in getting the excesses of ethnic conflict addressed with the imperative of securing the cooperation of the Sri Lankan government, in order to execute welfare projects for Sri Lankan Tamils. Still, New Delhi has previously backed UN resolutions that called for the investigation of human rights violations, despite Sri Lankan displeasure, primarily because the resolutions did not violate Sri Lankan sovereignty. It was also felt that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government could be persuaded to implement these resolutions.
The UN Human Rights Council resolution passed this year, unlike in the past, included the constitution of an open-ended international investigation on a sovereign member state. This goes well beyond the current understanding and basic operative principles of the UNHRC. Moreover, unlike resolutions of the UN Security Council, those of the UNHRC are not enforceable by international sanctions. Only 23 of the council’s 47 members supported the latest resolution on Sri Lanka. Apart from South Korea, every other member of India’s Asian and Indian Ocean neighbourhood either abstained or voted against. These included China, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, the Maldives, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Despite their reputed global influence, the US and its allies could pick up support only from a few Latin American and African countries, many of whose leaders and diplomats know little or nothing of Sri Lanka.
India acted wisely by abstaining from voting on this year’s resolution. Based on the support that it received from two permanent members of the Security Council (China and Russia) and the overwhelming majority of Asian and the Indian Ocean littoral states, Sri Lanka will ignore the more intrusive aspects of recommendations of the UNHRC, espoused by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, whose own country, South Africa, abstained. Support for this resolution would have left India with very little leverage to secure the Sri Lankan government’s unstinted cooperation for its programme of relief and rehabilitation. Worse, we would have laid the ground for growing Chinese and Pakistani presence and influence in the island, at a time when we can ill afford it.
It is interesting that, despite the political rhetoric in Tamil Nadu, not a single political party or leading business organisation in the state has mobilised resources for the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils. There also appears to be a disinclination to accept the reality that those who are most vociferous in demanding action against Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters are not that country’s security forces, but the Tamil fishermen in Jaffna and elsewhere in Northern Sri Lanka. All this, amid debate on our “federal structure” and the role of individual states in micromanaging the conduct of foreign policy. The statesmen who framed our Constitution described our country as a “Union of States”, not the “United States of India”, as MDMK chief Vaiko would have it.
The writer, a retired diplomat, was PMO spokesperson during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership firstname.lastname@example.org