By Tom Wright –
India has voted Thursday in favor of a U.S.-backed resolution to pressure Sri Lanka to look into human rights abuses carried out by government forces during its 26-year civil war – a move that could spell a newfound activist policy by New Delhi in its neighborhood.
For months, India has been saying it would not back the resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council for fear of alienating Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday said India was going to vote for the motion, in a move that sparked anger in Sri Lanka.
Partly, India’s hand has been forced. Mr. Singh relies on Indian Tamil parties for a majority in Parliament. Tamil politicians, angered by what they say is the continued poor treatment of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, threatened to walk out of the governing coalition if India failed to back the U.S. motion.
But India could also be looking to take a more assertive role in the South Asian region, one which the U.S. has been urging it to play. India is the world’s largest democracy and by far the superpower in South Asia. Yet it more often than not has hewn closely to a policy of non-alignment, which in practice means rejecting interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
China, Russia and other countries opposed the U.S. motion Thursday on these grounds. India’s decision to support the resolution, if it does indeed show a desire to take a stand in its neighborhood, will be welcomed by Washington.
A U.S. official this week said India could play an important role on Sri Lanka in the months ahead. That’s because the U.N. resolution is not legally-binding and the U.S. is betting on New Delhi to play a front-and-center role in getting Colombo to take action.
The U.S. doesn’t want to go down the road of targeted sanctions against individual Sri Lankan officials or to take this matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Instead, it would like India to play a role in pushing Sri Lanka to allow an independent probe into human rights allegations.
These include claims that government troops shelled civilian targets at the war’s climax in 2009, killing thousands of people, and that Tamil Tiger separatists used civilians as human shields.
The Sri Lankan government’s own commission that investigated the abuses, which published its report in December, largely exonerated government troops, while blaming the Tamil Tigers for most of the atrocities. It did however publish some recommendations applauded by the U.S., such as urging the government to quickly demilitarize Tamil areas. But the government has so far taken no action on the recommendations, the U.S. says.
The U.N. resolution calls on Sri Lanka to allow a credible investigation into the abuses and also to implement the recommendations of its own commission.