Sri Lanka: Waffling India Faces Tough Decision
Image Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka: Waffling India Faces Tough Decision


A recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights carried the strongest criticism yet of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights record. The report, Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka points out that the Sri Lankan government has “failed to ensure independent and credible investigations into past violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.” The report has explicitly called for the establishment of an “independent, international inquiry mechanism, which would contribute to establishing the truth where domestic inquiry mechanisms have failed.” The complaints about the independence of judges and lawyers, decline in freedom of expression, and widespread discrimination against women refer to the growing authoritarianism of the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Critically, the UN High Commissioner charges that little or no progress has been made on matters related to justice and accountability, “a core concern of the Human Rights Council.”

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is set to vote before the end of March on another resolution aimed at Sri Lanka in Geneva. The vote is creating enormous angst and political bickering in India. New Delhi has been trying to win Sri Lanka back, prying it away from the warm embrace of India’s geostrategic rival China. Any vote in the UHRC against Sri Lanka will only further alienate Colombo and move it ever closer to Beijing. At the same time, however, India has come under enormous pressure from the United States and from Tamil political parties in its own state of Tamil Nadu (India) to vote in favor of the resolution. Assorted NGOs, including Amnesty International, are lobbying New Delhi to side with the UNHRC and the U.S. Twice before, in 2012 and 2013, India succumbed to this pressure and voted against Sri Lanka, but only after significantly watering down the content of the resolutions, which had very little practical import. Both resolutions were staunchly opposed by the Sri Lankan government, which has refused to implement much of what they sought, especially in areas related to justice, reconciliation, and accountability.

Controversy over India’s rightful role in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict has continued to roil domestic Indian politics. In March 2013 prior to India’s vote against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, India’s ruling Congress Party’s alliance partner – the DMK from Tamil Nadu – broke off the alliance. Later, in November, Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh withdrew from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) Summit held in Colombo, following intense political pressure from the Tamil political parties.

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India is again faced with the very delicate question of how it is going to vote in the UNHRC. The latest reports are mixed, but suggest that India has yet to make a final decision. Given that from April 2014 to May 2014 India will hold national elections to elect the next national government, the UNHRC vote is pregnant with implications for domestic and international politics.

If India does indeed support the resolution and votes it will effectively alienate the Sri Lankan government and lose whatever influence New Delhi has over its southern neighbor. However, if New Delhi goes the other way or abstains it will surely anger the Tamil parties in Tamil Nadu that have been aggressively pushing for the vote. Likewise, it would have implications for India’s equally delicate relationship with the United States, which has soured following the ugly episode involving the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

The larger question facing India is the nature of its policy towards Sri Lanka. Should India maintain friendly relations as if all is normal, or should it temper its relations with Sri Lanka in order to pressure it to comply with UNHRC resolutions? The vocal contingent of India’s southern politicians and non-governmental organizations have vociferously called for India to assert its moral high ground and push for an international investigation into the human rights atrocities committed during the final push by the Sri Lankan military to wipe out the LTTE. Meanwhile, the emerging political force Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other strategic realists have blasted Singh for his perpetual waffling not just on Sri Lanka, but on every other major international issue involving India’s neighbors.

Former Indian Commerce Minister and a current member of the BJP, Dr. Subramaiam Swamy among others argue forcefully that Singh botched a very good opportunity to build better relations with Sri Lanka by not attending the COHGM Summit. Swamy also contends that Singh has allowed Tamil extremists to hold Indian foreign policy hostage. Swamy and several other leading Indian political and academic personalities such as Mani Shankar Iyer, T.R.S. Subramaiam, Leela Poonapa and Madhav Das Nalapat believe that the “center,” namely New Delhi, must assert itself in making foreign policy, and not allow India’s constituent domestic units to determine the direction of the country’s foreign policy. New Delhi must drive the foreign policy with only national interests at heart – an articulation based on realism.  This translates obviously into a policy that ignores the atrocities and other human rights violations and actively engages with Sri Lanka so that it does not increasingly turn towards China and shun India. It also means that India should have full and normal relations with Sri Lanka in all multilateral and bilateral issues and not make human rights or India’s traditional “moral high ground” the centerpiece of New Delhi’s foreign policy.

From a realist perspective, the LTTE not only presented an enormous problem for Sri Lanka; it was also a problem for India. The LTTE brought violence, gun-running, smuggling and refugees to India’s shore and destabilized Tamil Nadu politics by breeding Tamil separatism and secession in India. LTTE suicide bombers were responsible for the assassination of the former Indian Primer Rajiv Gandhi. According to this view, the LTTE’s defeat should be celebrated and India should seize this opportunity to move ahead with economic and political assistance to Sri Lanka. According to some, this positive engagement has already yielded progress with the election of C.V. Wigneswaran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as the first Tamil Chief Minister of Northern Province of Sri Lanka – a former redoubt of the LTTE – in elections held in September of last year. That development was even acknowledged by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in the opening paragraph of its report.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid recently explained that India has evolved a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. India in particular has opposed country-specific resolutions, and has done so since its independence. New Delhi would prefer not to have to deal with this matter in a crucial election year, when it has to choose between a neighbor that is slipping into China’s sphere of influence and a world power with which it is seeking to develop stronger defense and strategic relations.

Srini Sitaraman is an Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Clark University and an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.

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