Updated: March 30, 2021 8:35:16 am
On Tuesday, India abstained from voting on a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that makes a wide-ranging and damaging commentary on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. This is the eighth resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council since the end of the war against the LTTE in 2009. India’s record of voting on these resolutions shows the ups and downs of New Delhi-Colombo relations, the pressures on coalitions in India, the influence of politics and parties in Tamil Nadu, and the ebb and flow of regional and international geopolitics.
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Resolution 46/L1, 2021
Resolution 46/L1 has decided, among other things, to “strengthen” the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights “to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction”.
It refers to “persistent” lack of accountability for rights abuses committed through the years by “all parties” in Sri Lanka, including the LTTE. Most seriously, it expresses a lack of confidence in the ability of the present government in Colombo to address the shortcomings. It describes “trends emerging over the past year” as an “early warning sign” of the deterioration of the climate in Sri Lanka for individual freedoms and rights, militarisation of civilian government functions, erosion of independence of the judiciary and institutions responsible for protection and promotion of human rights, the marginalisation of Muslims and Tamils, and policies that undermine right to freedom of religion.
Among the 14 countries that abstained were Japan, Indonesia, Bahrain and Nepal. Among the 11 that voted against were China, Cuba, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, and Venezuela. Among the 22 that voted for were UK, France, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay.
Resolution S-11, 2009
The 2009 resolution, moved by Sri Lanka, reflected its optimism following the defeat of the LTTE. It urged the international community to help with financial assistance towards rebuilding, and welcomed the “resolve” of the Sri Lankan government “to begin a broader dialogue… to enhance the process of political settlement and to bring about lasting peace and development… based on consensus among and respect for the rights of all ethnic and religious groups”. The preamble to the resolution contained a commitment by Sri Lanka “to a political solution with implementation of the 13th Amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation”.
India, the architect of the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka, was among the 29 countries that voted in favour of the resolution, while a dozen countries including the European bloc and Canada, which had serious concerns about rights violations during the war, voted against.
As then President Mahinda Rajapaksa tightened his hold over the country — including by removing the two-term bar on holding the presidency — and showed no inclination to begin the reconciliation process despite the limited recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the optimism dissipated.
Resolution 19/2, 2012
Moved by the US, this resolution took note of the LLRC report, expressed concern that it did not address the serious allegations of violations of international law, and urged it to implement the “constructive” recommendations contained in it.
India was among 24 countries that voted in favour of the resolution along with the US and the European bloc. The Manmohan Singh government had unsuccessfully tried to focus Rajapaksa’s attention on the 13th Amendment and devolution of political power to the Tamil-dominated areas. The DMK was part of the UPA coalition and was putting pressure on the Centre to take a decisive stand against Sri Lanka. It came as a big shock to Colombo when New Delhi joined the West in acting against it.
China, Bangladesh, Cuba, Maldives, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar were among 15 countries that voted against. Malaysia was among eight that abstained.
Resolution HRC 22/1, 2013
In 2013, India again joined 25 countries including the European bloc in voting against Sri Lanka. Dilip Sinha, the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN at Geneva, said India was concerned at the lack of progress by Sri Lanka in commitments given in 2009, and urged it to “move forward on public commitments, including on the devolution of political authority through full implementation of the 13th Amendment and building upon it”.
In perhaps its strongest statement ever against Sri Lanka, India said the end of the conflict had provided an opportunity for a lasting political settlement, and called on Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for rights abuses and loss of civilian lives “to the satisfaction of the international community”. The DMK had just before the vote pulled out of the coalition citing India’s failure to help the Tamil community and to protest efforts by India in watering down of the US draft. DMK supremo M Karunanidhi had wanted India to press for inclusion of the word “genocide” in the resolution.
The text of the final resolution dropped the draft reference to a call by the High Commissioner for Human Rights for “an independent and credible international investigation” and to a demand for “unfettered access” to Special Rapporteurs on a series of issues.
Resolution 25/1, 2014
In 2014, around the time that China had made huge economic and political inroads in Sri Lanka, India abstained from resolution 25/1 that called for an independent and credible investigation and asked Sri Lanka to make public the results of its investigations into alleged violations by security forces, and to investigate all alleged attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, and religious minorities.
The resolution came up ahead of the Lok Sabha election. Then Finance Minister P Chidambaram said India should have supported it. But Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh said the resolution was “extremely intrusive”, and abstention would help India “get results on the ground”.
In 2015 , Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted as President and his party lost the parliamentary election as well. That year Sri Lanka, under the government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, decided to join a “consensus resolution” under which it made a series of commitments on addressing post-war issues of accountability, justice and human rights violations. The commitments came under political fire in Sri Lanka from the start, especially on prosecuting military officers, and against the concept of “hybrid” courts that would have international jurists.
Resolutions 34/1 & 40/1
As Sri Lanka missed its deadlines, two more resolutions were moved in the following years to enable it to fulfil its commitments —34/1 in 2017, and 40/1 in 2019. When the government changed again, starting with election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019, an interim government under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in 2020 that it was pulling out of 30/1, and that it would set up its own justice and redressal mechanisms to address all issues.
This year’s resolution was preceded by a scathing report by the Human Rights Commissioner on the Sri Lankan situation. India’s statement last month preceding the vote emphasised that the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and equality, justice, dignity for Tamils were “not either-or choices” for India. It asked Sri Lana to take the necessary steps to meet Tamil aspirations through a process of reconciliation, and full implementation of the 13th Amendment.
Given the elections in Tamil Nadu, where the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils is easy fodder, and given India’s own strategic considerations, India appears to have decided that abstaining was the most rational choice.