From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya Breaking the silence on India’s stand on the US resolution to be brought against Sri Lanka at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council, India’s ruling Congress party on Thursday reacted stating that India will not interfere in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs. For weeks now the opposition has [...]


US resolution and the Indian fallout


From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Breaking the silence on India’s stand on the US resolution to be brought against Sri Lanka at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council, India’s ruling Congress party on Thursday reacted stating that India will not interfere in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs. For weeks now the opposition has been pressing Congress to declare its stand on the upcoming resolution. Both External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had refused to commit themselves, saying the position India adopted would depend on the final wording of the resolution, and that it would take into account the sentiments of the MPs.

The draft has now been circulated in Geneva, and Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi is reported as saying”The stand is simple, we do not interfere in domestic affairs of a country, especially our neighbour, a valuable ally like Sri Lanka..”The Bangalore datelined reports quote Singhvi at a news conference at which he reacted to the planned US resolution. Asserting that India unambiguously condemned human rights violations Singhvi said the Indian government’s stand is a “calibrated middle-of-the-road stand,” according to the Hindu.

The swiftness of this response seems to send out the signal that India will not support the US resolution in its present form. Relying as it does on India as central to its policy in South Asia, the US will need to take the regional power’s view seriously.

The US draft as published in the media comes across as being harsher in its tone of censure than its predecessor in the Human Rights Council last year. It is very much in step with the Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay’s Report. It lists the shortcomings of Sri Lanka’s post war reconciliation effort, supports her demand for an international investigation of alleged human rights violations and calls for further reports from her, on Sri Lanka, at the 24th and 25th sessions of the Council.

The document has come under fire from Indian media, with the Times of India describing its provisions as ‘intrusive.’ The ToI said it”could complicate New Delhi’s efforts to honour the sentiments of Tamil MPs while protecting ties with Colombo.”India is performing a difficult balancing act, on the one hand seeking to appease the Tamil Nadu parties that are loudly demanding that India support the resolution, and on the other, trying to keep the relationship with Colombo on an even keel.

The circulation of the draft at the HRC made it more difficult for India to balance ” the imperative to mollify the anti-Sri Lanka opinion with the need to stick to principled stand to prevent outside powers from interfering in the sovereign affairs of nations” the ToI said. Regarding the US’s endorsement of Pillay’s call for an “independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”ToI expressed concerns that “This would open up external intrusion into Lanka’s internal affairs.”

Sentiments have been running high among the Tamil Nadu political parties, with demonstrations being held in the parliament complex and walk-outs staged in the Lok Sabha, demanding that India support the US resolution. The mood is reminiscent of that which prevailed last year in the run up to the previous US-led resolution. On that occasion the Indian central government faced a grave situation as it was threatened with desertions by important coalition partners — not only the DMK but also the Trinamool Congress. Faced with the possibility of imminent collapse, the government succumbed to ‘coalition pressures,’and the rest is history.

It may be noted that the central government’s handling of the situation this year reflects greater confidence and clarity. Statements by Khurshid have struck a sober note despite the pressure from opposition parties and the DMK. “What we do should be effective. It should not be lukewarm. What we do must be fair. How we do it and what to do must be left to the government,” he is reported as saying. Kurshid’s message seems to be that this time around it is the central government that will call the shots.
Delhi has also reportedly asked Colombo to ‘engage with the US’ and arrive at a ‘consensual’ draft, which is ‘acceptable to everybody.’ But it is difficult to imagine how this could be done. Would such an exercise be like agreeing to tighten the noose, while only asking that the rope be made in such-and-such a manner?

It’s apparent from comments by Indian leaders that when they express concern over external forces bringing pressure on Sri Lanka, the source of the anxiety, looming in the background, is China. Responding to questions in parliament Khurshid is reported to have said that the government needed to be careful as whatever it would do “should not be thrown back at us in the future as everybody is not our friend.”

NDTV’s Barka Dutt asserted while hosting a panel discussion on the Sri Lanka resolution that “We make these decisions based on national interest.” Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, one of the panelists, said “we have to ensure that Sri Lanka is not isolated because there are so many other countries willing to help Sri Lanka, and they are inimical to us …” He was interrupted by Dutt who asked “Your reference is to China?” to which Swamy replied “Yes, China, Pakistan …”

No doubt the US too is worried about China’s increasingly noticeable footprint in Sri Lanka. Which leads to the question of how the US’s present hardline approach is going to help it achieve its objectives in South Asia. This is all the more puzzling in the context of the recent appointment of Senator John Kerry as the US’s new Secretary of State in the second Obama administration. A landmark 2009 report on Sri Lanka by the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee headed by Kerry, also known as the Kerry-Lugar report, argued that US interests in the region were better served by a more understanding attitude towards Sri Lanka. The report was discussed in this column on 13.12.09 (“US takes a closer look at Sri Lanka” – Sunday Times 13.12.09)

The Boston Tamil diaspora strongly denounced the document and were reportedly pressing their senator Kerry and others in the administration to push for a war crimes investigation.More recently, the approach adopted in the Kerry-Lugar report was advocated by Eni Faleomavaega, Ranking Member of the Sub Committee on Asia and the Pacific who, addressing a hearing on 26 February called for the US resolution to be withdrawn.

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