New Delhi: India abstained from voting on the resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) critical of Sri Lanka and aims to establish a central international database to enable future persecutions of war crimes.
The resolution, submitted by the core group of the UK, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia as main sponsors, was approved by 22 in favour, 11 against and 14 abstentions during the UNHRC’s 46th regular session.
This is the second time India has abstained from voting on a resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC since 2014. India has voted twice in favour of resolutions that have been critical of Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013. It has also voted in favour of a resolution sponsored by Sri Lanka at the special session in 2009.
The voting, according to most observers, was on expected lines. China, Pakistan and Russia voted against the resolution on the grounds that the resolution was highly politicised and undermined Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
In the neighbourhood, Bangladesh voted against the resolution, while Nepal abstained. According to sources, Dhaka’s vote may have been swayed by the visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last week.
Among the nay-sayers, Uzbekistan was the only surprise. However, Sri Lankan media had reported that in a break from protocol, Sri Lankan foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage drove to the Russian embassy last week to urge Moscow to “lobby a former USSR constituent”.
The votes cast by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members were broadly divided, which indicated that they were not voting as a unified bloc. There was interest in OIC member states’ voting pattern due to the measures proposed by members of the Sri Lankan government on the burial of covid-19 victims and ban on face veil.
During the informal consultations on the draft resolution in Geneva, India remained silent and did not offer any amendments. India also did not intervene when the final draft resolution was strengthened, compared to the initial zero draft, during the negotiation stage.
Before the vote on consideration of the resolution, India’s statement said, “India supports the call by the international community for the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, including through the early holding of elections for Provincial Councils and to ensure that all Provincial Councils are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. At the same time, we believe that the work of OHCHR should be in conformity with mandate given by the relevant”.
India claimed that its approach to the question of human rights in Sri Lanka was guided by “two fundamental considerations”. “One is our support to the Tamils of Sri Lanka for equality, justice, dignity and peace. The other is in ensuring the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. We have always believed that these two goals are mutually supportive and Sri Lanka’s progress is best assured by simultaneously addressing both objectives,” stated Indian permanent mission’s First Secretary, Pawankumar Badhe.
The UNHRC resolution noted the “persistent lack of accountability of domestic mechanisms” and calls to supporting trials in foreign countries. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will set up the central database to collect and preserve evidence of human rights violations that can be used in future accountability processes.
The total cost for implementing the resolution, which calls for strengthening the capacity of the office of the High Commissioner, is around $2.8 million.
The draft resolution was in response to a scathing report released by the OHCHR on January 27.
The UN report had warned that lack of accountability of Sri Lanka’s previous violations had not only increased the risk of replicating those crimes. It also highlighted “worrying trends over the past year, such as deepening impunity, increasing militarisation of governmental functions, ethno-nationalist rhetoric, and intimidation of civil society”.
At the interactive discussion on February 25, Sri Lankan foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena had called for member states to reject the resolution.
India’s statement at the discussion was perceived as a rebuke to Sri Lanka. “We believe that respecting the rights of the Tamil community, including through meaningful devolution, contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we advocate that delivering on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community is in the best interests of Sri Lanka,” said India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey.
Sources had said that India’s message had been conveyed through that statement. “They understood the signal in Colombo,” they said.
With the Rajapaksa brothers’ return to power, India has been wary that Colombo was again leaning towards China. The anxiety over Sri Lanka’s posture had increased due to the roadblocks faced by Indian sponsored projects.
Last month, Sri Lanka unilaterally decided to develop the Colombo port’s East Container terminal through a state firm, despite having signed a trilateral pact with India and Japan last year. India had called for Sri Lanka to adhere to its commitment made in an international document.
The Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had called up Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 13 to ask for India’s support for the Sri Lankan position in the UN body.
New Delhi had also been alarmed when Sri Lankan ministers had called for the scrapping of the 13th amendment, which devolves power to provincial councils as per the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord.
During a bilateral summit with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in New Delhi in September 2020, his host had called for full implementation of the constitutional amendment. This was also raised when external affairs minister S. Jaishankar visited Colombo in January this year.
With Tamil Nadu heading for assembly elections, political parties, especially the opposition DMK, had been calling for India to vote in favour of the resolution.
Sri Lanka response
The immediate reaction in Colombo to the passage of the resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council was to project it as a diplomatic victory.
“This is a very happy moment for us, resolution did not get the majority: 25 countries out of 47 didn’t support the resolution”, Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardane told reporters.
On his Twitter account, Gunawardane extended a “very warm Thank You for solid support” to the eleven countries that voted against the resolution. For those who abstained, the foreign minister tweeted that Sri Lanka “appreciates their support”.
Sri Lanka🇱🇰 appreciates the support shown at Geneva by Bahrain🇧🇭 India🇮🇳 Japan🇯🇵 Nepal🇳🇵 Indonesia🇮🇩 Libya🇱🇾 Sudan🇸🇩 Namibia🇳🇦 Gabon🇬🇦 Togo🇹🇬 Mauritania🇲🇷 Senegal🇸🇳 Cameroon🇨🇲 Burkina Faso🇧🇫
— Dinesh Gunawardena 🇱🇰 (@DCRGunawardena) March 23, 2021
The Global Tamil Forum, which had hoped that India would vote in favour of the resolution, claimed that New Delhi’s posture was a reprimand for Sri Lanka.
“By making a public statement before the vote and by abstaining, India has clearly shown its displeasure in the lack of progress on addressing the alleged violations of human rights and international laws and the non-implementation of Sri Lanka’s numerous public commitments of the past in addressing the grievances of the Tamil people, since this Rajapaksa government came to power,” said Suren Surendiran, spokesperson for GTF, a UK-based group representing Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.
He asserted that India urging the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its commitment to devolve power according to the constitution “is very significant”. “As Tamils, we are very grateful to the Government of India for supporting an escalation of the Tamil demand for equality, justice (accountability), dignity and peace at a multilateral international forum like the UNHRC”.
Surendiran also appreciated the message from Tamil Nadu political parties, especially DMK President M.K. Stalin, to the Indian government to not support Sri Lanka by voting against the resolution.
Speaking to The Wire, K. Guruparan, attorney-at-law and formerly Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Jaffna, asserted that India’s abstention was an attempt to project a friendly face to both Sri Lankan Tamils and the Government of Sri Lanka.
“It’s clear that India is not bothered about accountability but only about ‘reconciliation’ and a ‘political solution’ and if I were to be brutally honest, only about the 13th amendment and that also because it is connected to the Indo-Lanka Accord which places India in a primus inter pares position vis a vis Sri Lanka’s defence and foreign policy,” he said.
Regarding the reception of India’s vote among Sri Lankan Tamils, Guruparan said that while the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will continue to remain loyal to India, “the ordinary Tamil person on the ground knows India’s duplicity”.
“That India wanted to see the LTTE gone at any cost, that they supported the Government of Sri Lanka’s final war is not something that the Tamil people have forgotten. We know that this is a major geopolitical power game in which we are reduced to pawns,” stated Guruparan.
He also criticised India for “consistently failing to take leadership in the region by taking this ‘cat on the wall’ positions – whether it’s in relation to Sri Lanka or Myanmar”.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a senior lecturer from Jaffna University, believed that the Sri Lankan Tamil political parties had “raised expectations beyond reality” in the run-up to the voting of the resolution in Geneva. India’s abstention will be a “huge comedown”.
He also was disapproving of the emphasis placed by Sri Lankan Tamil parties on finding a solution that could be imposed through external actors.
“Ultimately, the solution will not come from outside. It (actions at Geneva) might create some democratic space… but the solution has to be decided within Sri Lanka, despite an authoritarian government,” Kadirgarmar told The Wire.
He noted that the Sri Lankan government had been worried about the resolution, which did demonstrate its isolation on the international stage. “Given the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, it is of serious concern”.
Kadirgamar warned that with the worsening of the economic crisis, there could be a “fairly serious political fallout of fascist type elements gaining grounds”.
He worried that there was no clarity on what will happen now that the resolution has been passed, with the various stakeholders showing no inclination to spell out a roadmap for genuine reconciliation and accountability.
Earlier this month, Sri Lankan President had urged elections to the provincial councils to be held expeditiously. “There had been earlier calls to either scrap or drastically weaken the provincial government system… It will be interesting to observe if the Sri Lankan government does give in to the pressure and holds the elections,” said Kadirgamar.
Note: The article was updated after publication (01:12 AM, March 24) with reactions to the voting on the UNHRC resolution from the Sri Lankan government, Sri Lankan diaspora spokesperson and analysts.