Foreign Affairs

Bilateral Ties



India’s vote in favour of the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)  seems to be heading towards the creation of severe cracks in bilateral ties between New Delhi and Colombo. Though the reports suggest that it was India who actually tweaked the language of the resolution to make it less “intrusive,” Colombo however seems to be hurt by the step taken by its “traditionally close” neighbour.

With open heckling of the UN resolution, Sri Lanka has already warned that it does not entertain any kind of “alien quick fixes” in probing the alleged human rights violations during the final stages of war against the separatist group, the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Elam (LTTE).

The resolution passed by the 47-member UNHRC—with 24 votes for, 15 against and 8 abstentions—has called Sri Lanka to probe war crimes and implement the recommendations of a domestic inquiry via the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and UN help for reconciliation efforts with the minority Tamils. Rights groups believe that almost 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of fighting against the LTTE, which ended in May 2009.

Human right violations during such civil wars undoubtedly demand serious investigation, justice for the victims, action against the perpetrators and pragmatic reconciliatory efforts. However, issues related to the limits of involvement of third parties in these “domestic” processes have always been a matter of controversy. The recent Lankan issue goes even beyond this controversy, triggering serious questions regarding New Delhi’s strategy, the future of its ties with Sri Lanka, and its possible impact in the region.

But why did New Delhi opt to stand against Colombo this time around when it had supported the island nation some three years ago over a similar resolution?

In the recent Lankan case, India went against its long followed tradition of not voting in  country-specific resolutions at the UN. Even just a few days ahead of the crucial voting, India was swinging in ambivalence. The brouhaha created by the Tamil parliamentarians eventually pressurised the ailing government to vote for the US-sponsored resolution, else the major ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) could have withdrawn its support to the centre, leading to the downfall of the United Progressive Alliance government. Once again, the regional forces flexed their muscles to influence India’s foreign policy. But the larger picture does not only indicate the domestic political compulsion of India, but also Rajapakse government’s failure to deliver on the promise of bringing the Tamil minority into the political mainstream. The opponents of the resolution however argued that three years is a very short period to deliver on such promises and that Colombo has to be given more time.

Could this particular incident be interpreted as a shift in India’s policy of rising above close bilateral ties to support the issue of human rights?

It’s no more a veiled truth that India is desperately pursuing its aspirations to become a global player. New Delhi seems to have realised that its credentials in the protection of human rights is a key factor in promoting its global image. And this understanding has, to some extent, encouraged India to opt against Colombo, despite its huge strategic and economic interests in the island nation. But India’s  controversial human rights credentials in Kashmir, Nagaland and Manipur among others, its recent stance in Libya and Syria, or its heavy engagement with the junta government in Myanmar, have provided critics with myriad loopholes to question New Delhi’s intention of “standing against human rights violations, and rising above its strategic interests on the concerned subject”.

Against this backdrop, New Delhi is destined to lose its leverage in Colombo, sooner rather than later. Hinting at the human rights issue in Kashmir, Colombo has already warned India of repercussions in upcoming days. The Mint daily of India, in its editorial, observes that as a country that has faced similar attacks at the same venue (UN) in the past decades, India should have empathised with Sri Lanka. It went on to say that the clock has turned back to the stage when Colombo used to suspect India of encouraging Tamil separatist groups in the early phase of Lanka’s insurgency.

New Delhi has already intensified its diplomatic efforts to convince Colombo, but a crisis of confidence looks inevitable. This gap could allow India’s apparent rival, China, to play a more active role in Sri Lanka, which has been a matter of grave concern for New Delhi. The leading Indian daily The Hindu however interprets the fear of China as a misplaced one. “What is welcome in India’s latest stand is that it has outgrown its misplaced fear of the growing regional presence of China,” the daily opines. But in an apparent indication of apprehension with the growing clout of China, New Delhi has tried to hold the grip in Colombo, highlighting India’s contribution in watering-down the language of the resolution, which now mentions the requirement of Colombo’s concurrence before the UN assumes any technical role.

Nepal connection

The recent Lankan issue also has a few important things to offer for Nepal. It reflects the growing influence of regional parties in India’s foreign policy, which can be anticipated when it comes to Nepal related issue also. It is high time for Nepal to engage in informal diplomatic efforts with regional parties, especially those in bordering states, in parallel to the formal diplomatic engagements with New Delhi.

Moreover, the reasons of fighting may have been different, but it has been just a few years since Nepal and Sri Lanka both have come out of a bloody civil war, on the path of peace, reconciliation and stability. Probing the extra-judicial killings and human rights violations during the fighting has been a matter of utmost concern in both countries. The Lankan example has sent a clear message: the international community will not keep quiet if “sufficient” efforts are not made domestically to address the grievances of human rights violations and even a powerful, traditionally close neighbour, may not stand with you.  A domestically-driven process is the only stable solution for Nepal as well, along with goodwill from the international community.

This piece originally appeared in April 2 issue of The Kathmandu Post.Here is the link:

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