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UNHRC All Set To Vote On Rights Of Sri Lankan Tamil Minorities Next Month In Geneva

Amid the island nation's on-going economic crisis, focus is once more on rights violations in Sri Lanka. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, already beset with problems now has one more on his plate. India too brought up the issue of Tamil rights in a recent meeting in Geneva.   

Representational image of Tamil minority protest in Sri Lanka
Representational image of Tamil minority protest in Sri Lanka AP

Political rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minorities and the island nations human rights record, specifically during the last days of the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) will be coming up for vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva early next month.

The UNHRC is now in session in Geneva. The issue has come up at a particularly vulnerable time, when the country is facing its worst ever economic crisis. President  Ranil Wickremesinghe  is struggling to keep the debt-ridden nation afloat. An IMF loan is on the cards, but Sri Lanka would like all friendly nations to come to its aid at this critical hour.

There is concern among nationalist political leaders like lawmaker  Udaya Gammanpila, leader of a small outfit called the Pivithiru Hela Urumaya (PHU) , that the UNHRC could use Colombo’s dire financial situation as a weapon to get concessions for  Tamils  in the country. The MP urged western nations not to use the  human rights council to change Sri Lanka’s unitary constitution and undermine Sri Lanka’s unitary status at a time the country was facing a grave financial crisis.  The powerful Tamil diaspora have reinvigorated efforts to get the US and European leaders to speak up for the rights of Tamils . They have long  lobbied  the west  to ensure that those responsible for human rights abuse during the last days of the military campaign against the LTTE be punished.

Last week, at the 51st session of the council in Geneva, India too flagged its concerns over the "lack of measurable  progress" in giving Tamils the promised political and administrative rights.  New Delhi has long been calling for full implementation of the 13 amendment. This would guarantee the devolution of power that was promised to the Tamils as early as 1987, by the India-Sri Lanka accord. In return for giving up the demand for an independent homeland that the LTTE demanded, the government promised to devolve power to the provinces, so that there would be some  degree of self-rule, within a united Sri Lanka.

But in the 35-years since the agreement it has not been fully implemented. India had backed the Tamil cause since the days of Indira Gandhi and had also armed and trained the LTTE and allied militant groups. It had  brokered a peace deal with the Sri Lankan government, but the entire agreement had unfolded with the LTTE and the government of late president Ranasinghe Premadasa joining hands to drive out the Indian Peace Keeping Force from the island nation.

However the 13amendment remained  an important issue for the Tamils. Successive Indian governments have been asking Colombo to  deliver on the promise of devolution. In Geneva, India also  made a veiled reference to China, by* mentioning Sri Lanka’s  ``debt-driven’’ economy .

New Delhi’s raising of these issues in Geneva is perhaps to show its annoyance with Colombo over the recent flip-flop on  China’s ``research vessel’’ the Yuan Wang 5,  docking in Hambantota port last month. New Delhi wary of China’s increased naval activity in the Indian Ocean was unhappy that Colombo allowed it docking rights. In fact, when PLA submarines visited Colombo harbour in 2014, India was alarmed. Relations with Mahinda Rajapaksa the then president deteriorated and Colombo tilted heavily towards China. But since then,  New Delhi and Colombo have repaired ties. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has always been a friend of India. However, the president was under major pressure from not just the opposition but also former navy chief at not allowing the Chinese ship to dock under pressure from India. Though initially the government had refused permission it finally settled on allowing the Yuan Wang 5 to dock. India was annoyed.

"At that time there was much confusion on the ground," Milinda Moragoda, Sri Lanka’s new high commissioner to India told reporters on Monday, during an interaction at the Indian Womens Press Corps. "We need to coordinate better , we are always aware of India’s security concerns," he explained.

The fact remains for Sri Lanka it is important to also not antagonise China, the rising Asian power which has large investments in the island.

President Wickremesinghe, speaking at a graduation ceremony of the National  Defence College last week, brought up the issue indirectly. 

“If navies want to come, we have no problem. They helped in the anti-piracy operations. But we don’t want a level of rivalry which will affect the security and the peace of our area. Whatever it be that we will not join any big power or take sides, we will stay out of it,’’ the President said.  He went on to add that Sri Lanka did not want to be part of "big power rivalry’"  leading  to conflict in the Indian Ocean. "That’s one thing we can’t afford.”

President Wickremesinghe  noted that the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean had made Sri Lanka the “punching bag.” He said there were around 17 ports operated by the Chinese in the Indian Ocean and all of them were commercial ports. He stressed that Hambantota Port was also a commercial one.

He went on to reassure India:   “When it comes to the security of Sri Lanka, we are of the view that in looking after the security of Sri Lanka, we must also ensure that nothing adverse happens to the security of India. That we have been committed to, and we will go ahead with it. There will be no movement out of it.’’ 

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