The 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) adopted an important resolution on Sri Lanka on March 23 with 22 of its members voting in favor. While Bangladesh, China, and Pakistan voted against the “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” resolution, India abstained. The vote, described by Indian newspaper The Hindu, as an acid test for Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had been termed “politically motivated” by his government.
The resolution, pertaining to Tamil minority rights in the country and the devastating civil war in the island nation, asks “the [Sri Lankan] government to ensure prompt, thorough and impartial investigation, and if warranted, prosecution of all alleged crimes relating to human rights violations and serious violations of international human rights law.”
“We are trying to defeat the false accusations leveled against us, and many friendly countries have joined hands with us in this. We hope that India too, will support us this time,” Indian news agency PTI quoted Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena telling reporters over the weekend.
At the same time, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – a political group involving a range of ethnic Tamil interests in Sri Lanka – had expressed hope that India would vote in favor of the resolution. Speaking with The Hindu’s Sri Lanka correspondent Meera Srinivasan on March 19, TNA spokesperson and Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran had said, “Our hopes are high this time, since India’s statement at the Interactive Dialogue [through India’s Permanent Representative in Geneva on February 25] segment placed the political aspirations of the Tamil people on par with recognizing the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.”
On its part, India, in a pre-vote statement, had noted that while it supports both upholding the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils as well the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, “the work of OHCHR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] should be in conformity with mandate given by the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly.”
India’s position on Sri Lanka is equally shaped by both foreign policy as well as domestic considerations, especially the positions taken by the ethnic Tamil majority in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
On March 21, a group of prominent Tamil politicians in the state – including Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M.K. Stalin – had urged the central government in New Delhi to support the UNHCR resolution.
“While Tamils are anxiously waiting for India’s position, it is painful that the BJP government has allowed the Sri Lankan foreign secretary to decide India’s stand. Nine-crore [90 million] Tamils living across the world will never forgive them if Tamil’s [sic] interests are betrayed,” the Hindustan Times quoted Stalin as saying in a statement.
Tamil Nadu is scheduled to go to polls next month to elect a new state government. By splitting the difference – which is what abstention amounts to in multilateral diplomacy – the Modi government is hoping it will be able to placate both Tamil anger at home as well as possible geopolitical complications.
Despite signs that India-Sri Lanka relations were getting back on track after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 election, recent complications present fresh challenges for New Delhi.