Sri Lanka should be our closest neighbour by all yardsticks including cultural and emotional. Both the majority, the Sinhala Buddhists, and the Tamil Hindus have umbilical ties with India. That being the case, why does the foreign policy establishment in New Delhi, including the highest political levels, experience extreme discomfort every time the Sri Lankan 'issue' figures in a multilateral setting, particularly the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva? The issue in the present case involves minority rights and the mass atrocities reportedly committed in the last 100 days of the military campaign against the LTTE in May 2009.
Demands for focusing the international spotlight on specific country situations invariably emanate from the globally active and always intrusive human rights industry. Members of the Council often find themselves in the unenviable situation of having to choose between the requirements of bilateral relations and belief in Westphalian state sovereignty, on the one hand, and the desire to use external stimuli to encourage compliance and observance of human rights norms, on the other.
The problem in Sri Lanka is complicated by the fact that the allegations relate to mass atrocities, particularly war crimes during the final phase of operations against the LTTE. The West and opinion in Tamil Nadu believe that Sri Lanka is following a policy of majoritarianism.
Pressure through the multilateral system is invariably ratcheted up incrementally. Resolutions which the US brought to the UNHRC in March 2012 and 2013 were minimalist. They invited Sri Lanka to act on the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Sri Lanka chose instead to prevaricate.
Votes in multilateral fora are not votes in favour or against countries. They are predicated more on the content of resolutions, their precedent-setting nature and, in the final analysis, on whether such resolutions facilitate rather than hinder the cause of human rights. Naming and shaming as an end in itself serves little purpose.
The resolution voted on March 27, 2014, goes much further than the earlier resolutions and calls for "a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the period covered by the LLRC".
Twenty-three countries voted in favour of the resolution: Argentina, Austria, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cote D'ivoire, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Montenegro, Peru, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Britain and the US. Clearly, this includes all the human rights 'demandeurs' and a few that do not exercise their judgement with any degree of independence. Twelve countries — Algeria, China, Congo, Cuba, Kenya, the Maldives, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Vietnam — voted against. This group includes the egregious violators and others with a not so good reputation. India, along with 11 others — Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gabon, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Namibia, the Philippines and South Africa — abstained. We are in mixed company.
India had the choice of either maintaining its position of voting in favour, as in 2012 and 2013, or changing its position to one of abstention through a cogent explanation of vote (EOV).
India's decision to 'abstain' appeared to have been predicated on the following:
The resolution ignores the progress already made by Sri Lanka and puts in jeopardy the cooperation currently underway between the Government of Sri Lanka, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Council's Special Procedures. India views the resolution as inconsistent and impractical in asking both the Government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR to simultaneously conduct investigations.
An intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions altogether is counterproductive. Any significant departure from the core principle of constructive international dialogue and cooperation has the potential to undermine efforts for promoting universal respect for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Any external investigative mechanism with an open-ended mandate to monitor national processes for protection of human rights in a country is not reflective of the constructive approach of dialogue and cooperation envisaged by UN General Assembly resolution 60/251, which created the UNHRC in 2006 as well as the UNGA resolution 65/281, which reviewed the HRC in 2011.
There have been some suggestions that the change in vote was influenced, to some extent, by Sri Lanka hinting at non-cooperation on the release of Indian fishermen and seeking to enlarge the scope of investigation beyond the LLRC period. It is unlikely that a country like Sri Lanka can exercise such retaliatory leverage. Should this be the case, it would be opening itself to pressures in other areas. The EOV provides a more realistic explanation. The resolution appears to have tipped the scales too much in favour of the intrusive approach, something on which the mandarins in South Block have always been uneasy.
Political parties in Tamil Nadu will be upset. With very little bargaining leverage in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, their protests will be ignored. Cabinet ministers of the Congress from Tamil Nadu will make proforma noises for the record.
Ten years of the UPA's efforts to intercede on behalf of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority through a policy of engagement with Sri Lanka have by and large been ignored by Colombo, which has done exactly what it wanted to. New Delhi meanwhile has done what it is best at — waffle.
The unenviable task of using a margin of persuasion and engaging Colombo to institutionally ensure Tamil minority rights will be an important foreign policy challenge for the next government.
Hardeep S Puri is a retired diplomat. He recently joined the BJP
The views expressed by the author are personal