South Asia

Explained: What Is the UNHRC Resolution About Sri Lanka and How Will India Vote?

The resolution calls for accountability for economic crimes in the country and enhancing the mandate of the UN human rights chief for collecting information on war crimes for prosecution in foreign countries.

New Delhi: The 47-member UN Human Rights Council will be voting on a draft resolution on Sri Lanka on Thursday, which calls for accountability for economic crimes and enhancing the mandate of the UN human rights chief for collecting information on war crimes for prosecution in foreign countries.

Here is a quick run-down on the implications of the draft resolution, sponsored by 37 countries, for Sri Lanka and whether India will support Colombo’s opposition to the text in Geneva.

What does the latest draft resolution say?

The latest draft of the resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, is primarily based on the text passed by the UNHRC last year.

The 2021 resolution gave a mandate to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to establish a central international database to enable the prosecution of war crimes in the future. It also received a budget of $2.8 million to hire investigators to collect evidence.

As per the latest version of the draft made public on Monday, the resolution would “extend and reinforce the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to 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”.

Further, the draft resolution called on the OHCHR to “enhance its monitoring and reporting including on progress in reconciliation and accountability, and on the human rights impact of the economic crisis and corruption”. It called for the UN human rights chief to present oral updates over the next two years, with a comprehensive report at the 57th session of the Council in 2025.

What does it mean for Sri Lanka?

The resolution’s passage would be a rebuke to the Sri Lankan government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, which has been arguing that it requires international solidarity during the economic crisis.

It will be the first time that a UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka calls for accountability for violation of human rights due to corruption and economic crisis. This concept is directly linked to the report of the OHCHR published last month, which tied Sri Lanka’s record on human rights to the current economic crisis.

Also Read: Impunity for Rights Abuses and Corruption Underlying Causes for Lanka’s Collapse: UN Report

“For sustainable improvements to take place, however, it is vital to recognise and address the underlying factors which have contributed to the economic crisis, including embedded impunity for past and present human rights violations, economic crimes and endemic corruption,” said the report, released on September 6.

The widespread and popular protests and rallies across Sri Lanka that began at the start of the year had blamed the Rajapaksa family for alleged corruption and incompetence, which led to the island nation facing the worst economic crisis since independence. President Mahinda Rajapaksa opted to flee and resigned after protestors occupied the President’s House in Colombo in July this year.

Demonstrators gather outside the office of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 13, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi.

The draft resolution refers to the ongoing crisis and corruption over a dozen times in the text, both in the preambular and operative paragraphs. 

According to the Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Times, this is “by far one of the strongest resolutions in terms of the wide variety of issues raised and the implications to Sri Lanka”.

What has been Sri Lanka’s reaction?

The Sri Lankan government rejected the OHCHR report and refused to support the draft resolution. 

Sri Lankan foreign minister Ali Sabry said his government is particularly opposed to operative paragraph number 8, which he claimed is directly in confrontation with Sri Lanka’s constitution. This paragraph calls for extension and reinforcing the capacity of the OHCHR to collect evidence related to war crimes.

In a virtual media briefing, he claimed that the United States and the United Kingdom are influenced by domestic-level lobbying by pressure groups from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. “This is not a fair reflection of the people’s will. This is heavy lobbying. This is geopolitics,” he said, as quoted by EconomyNext.

How will the draft resolution fare at the UNHRC?

There are expected to be more countries voting in favour of the draft resolution compared to last year. In 2021, 22 voted in favour, 11 against, and 14 abstained on Resolution 46/1.

With the United States back in UNHRC, the lobbying power of the western countries has also been amplified.

The foreign minister already laid the grounds for a poor show from Sri Lanka’s supporters. He told reporters that the composition of the UNHRC has changed, and many countries that previously voted in support of Sri Lanka were no longer members of the council.

How will India vote?

In March 2021, India abstained from voting for the UNHRC resolution, despite stating publicly that the UN human rights chief’s assessment of post-civil war Sri Lanka raised “important concerns”.

There is not likely to be any change in India’s position this time too. This is despite India castigating the Sri Lankan government for a “lack of measurable progress” in finding a political solution to the “ethnic issue” involving Sri Lankan Tamils at a discussion on the OHCHR report last month.

Voting in favour of a country-specific UN resolution is not a serious proposition for India due to its long-held position on such diplomatic instruments. It would also be seen as slamming the door on Colombo and pushing it into a deeper embrace of Beijing. 

At the same time, India also cannot entirely toe Sri Lanka’s line and vote against the resolution, due to its domestic calculations and rising frustration that Colombo is not suitably sensitive to New Delhi’s security concerns. It would also go against India’s consistent position that the “legitimate aspirations” of Sri Lankan Tamils are yet to be met.