The reasons for India’s decision to abstain during the vote on the US resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council have been articulated by Indian officials and diplomats on different occasions and in different forums, both in India and in Sri Lanka, since the resolution was adopted last month. A day after [...]


Does India’s abstention at UNHRC open up the middle ground?


The reasons for India’s decision to abstain during the vote on the US resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council have been articulated by Indian officials and diplomats on different occasions and in different forums, both in India and in Sri Lanka, since the resolution was adopted last month.
A day after the initial ‘explanation of the vote’ in the Council by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Dilip Sinha where he described the resolution as ‘intrusive,’ Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh told Tamil media in New Delhi that the decision would strengthen India’s hand in achieving its objectives vis-à-vis the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It was Singh again who responded to critical remarks by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. “We have to be able to get results on the ground and we have to show to Tamils in Sri Lanka that we are able to help them” the ‘Hindu’ quoted her saying.

External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told the ‘Indian Express’ that India voted differently on this resolution than on previous ones on Sri Lanka, because it imposes an international investigative mechanism, and that its intrusive approach undermined national sovereignty. In Colombo, Indian High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha took time explaining to foreign media that India’s position had been consistent; India encouraged Sri Lanka to ‘take forward the process of broader dialogue’ with devolution of powers through ‘full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond.’ In their interactions with media both the High Commissioner and the Foreign Secretary made it a point to detail the scope of India’s US$1.3 billion development assistance programme in Sri Lanka, to demonstrate that the welfare of Tamils was a high priority. Both made positive references to president Rajapaksa’s goodwill gesture of releasing the arrested Indian fishermen soon after the vote.

Abstention has given an opening
Perhaps the most explicit statement on India’s thinking came from Foreign Secretary Singh in an interview with CNN-IBN on Wednesday, where she explained Indian policy imperatives at some length.  In response to a question as to whether India’s neighbourhood policy needed a ‘re-set,’ she said “With Sri Lanka we have a very close relationship and we have worked closely with them in protecting our mutual interests. They know very well what we expect in terms of protecting the interests of the Tamils, and what we would like to do working with them.” The abstention, she said “has given us an opening in terms of being able to work even more closely with the government of Sri Lanka on certain issues.”

Responding to the question as to “why the abstention this year?” Singh’s observations showed that India’s act of abstention was not just the result of a strategic calculation in its bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka, but was also a strong statement of principle in relation to the role of the UN rights body itself.
“It has always been our case that it is a national prerogative to implement its human rights decisions” Singh said. “It is not for outside agencies and specifically not for UN agencies to come in, in an intrusive role with an investigative mandate. UNHRC was set up to deliberate on these issues. UNHRC was set up to help with capacity building and to offer technical assistance to nations in implementing their own decisions in strengthening their own human rights mechanisms. What the UNHRC was trying to do by means of this resolution in this particular instance was way beyond its normal mandate.”

Time is running out
The remarks would seem to show that India actually was very much against the resolution. India’s choice of the ‘middle path’ of abstention may then be explained against the background of Lok Sabha elections that have just begun, and the need to accommodate Tamil Nadu sentiment, balanced against the need to make a point in the Council with regard to its true position on Sri Lanka and the role of the UNHRC.

It is of interest to note that although Tamil Nadu political parties were critical of India’s decision, and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi has been robbed of his chance to ‘forgive’ Congress Party for its mistakes and hopefully join a UPA in a post-poll coalition, there have been no hysterical demonstrations, street protests or self immolations in Tamil Nadu in reaction to India’s refusal to go along with the anti-Lanka resolution. The Opposition BJP too has apparently not objected. The question as to whether the bipartisan consensus on Sri Lanka that prevailed between the UPA government and the BJP will endure, remains to be seen when the elections are over.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka while most rejoiced at the news of India’s abstention, the National Freedom Front (NFF), a hardline nationalist coalition partner of the government, called a news conference to express deep suspicion over India’s motives in abstaining at the UNHRC vote. The NFF’s mistrust is oddly enough shared by the TNA. The Alliance’s parliamentarian Pon Selvarasa said at a public rally in Batticaloa that Tamils can no longer trust India after its abstention on the Sri Lanka vote. Does the fact that two hardline extremes on the political spectrum are both up in arms over the Indian abstention show, that India has ‘got something right’ this time around? In other words, does the Indian abstention point to an opening up of the middle ground?

Asked this question at a forum on ‘Sri Lanka – After Geneva’ organised by the Liberal Party at the Organisation of Professional Associations on Thursday, political analyst Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka said the Indian abstention represented Sri Lanka’s ‘last chance.’ “We should use this opportunity. But time is running out,” he said, noting that Sri Lanka’s strategic position was deteriorating. “I do see the possibility of the North being divested from the state. There is a yawning gap between the regime and the external reality.” A similar chance had been missed earlier, when the 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on US-Sri Lanka relations known as the Kerry-Lugar report came out, the former UN envoy said.

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