By J.S. Tissainayagam –
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — The United States sponsored and carried a resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on March 22. However, what surprised observers was not US action but that India had voted in favor of a resolution against its South Asian neighbor.
The resolution, calling on Colombo to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by its own troops and Tamil rebels in the final months of fighting in 2009, is admittedly weak. It is nowhere near an international investigation that the UN and many in the international community argued for.
The resolution’s lack of vitality is partly due to an amendment moved by India on the original US draft. It was to ensure that any UN oversight on investigation into war crimes would take place only with Colombo’s concurrence.
Following the vote, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. Singh said, “Your Excellency would be aware that we spared no effort and were successful in introducing an element of balance in the language of the resolution.” This fuelled the theory that domestic political reality had spurred New Delhi to first dilute the resolution and then vote for it.
The domestic political reality was the wave of indignation sweeping India’s Tamil Nadu state, where Tamils reacted angrily to mounting evidence of atrocities committed on their ethnic brethren in Sri Lanka by that country’s military. This led to the two most important political parties in Tamil Nadu – one which was a constituent of Singh’s ruling coalition – threatening drastic action unless India voted in favor of the Geneva resolution.
While it is true public opinion in Tamil Nadu pressured New Delhi to vote for the UNHRC resolution, it is only one reason. Other national interests were also at play emanating from international, regional and bilateral concerns.
Internationally, India’s reluctance to support democracy movements and struggles for human rights in different parts of the world has caused misgiving, especially as it seeks a permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council. This has been referred to by commentators from India’s liberal establishment to US President Barack Obama during his visit to India in November 2010.
Of regional consequences to India are Sri Lanka’s moves to let China inveigle its way into the Gulf of Mannar, the narrow strip of sea separating India and Sri Lanka, in the guise of drilling oil. Earlier, although Sri Lanka appeared to take pains to treat both India and China – Asian giants competing for influence in the Indian Ocean – equally, recent reports say Colombo’s relations with Beijing run deeper. India is reportedly perturbed, not for lost commercial opportunities but because the Chinese presence in the Gulf of Mannar is a security threat.