On March 21, 2013, at the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) a United States-sponsored resolution on Human Rights (HR) violation in Sri Lanka was adopted with 25 countries, including India, voting in favour of the resolution in the 47-nation body. While 13 countries voted against, eight member-states abstained from voting on the resolution. The resolution urged the government of Sri Lanka to implement the government’s National Action Plan (NAP), including the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) addressing outstanding issues related to reconciliation, and to meet its obligations for accountability. Earlier, on March 22, 2012, UNHRC had adopted a resolution urging Sri Lanka to investigate alleged abuses during the final phase of war with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with 24 votes in favour, 15 against and eight abstentions.
The international campaign against Sri Lanka, backed by European interlocutors who had strongly sought to protect the LTTE as it approached inevitable defeat, ignores the realities of over 33 years of the most vicious terrorism in Sri Lanka, the extreme atrocities of the LTTE, the intensive use of civilians as human shields by the LTTE during the terminal stages of the conflict, and, indeed, the significant self-imposed restraints accepted by the Sri Lankan forces to minimize civilian losses. It ignores, moreover, that, in less than four years since the LTTE terror was brought to an end in May 2009, Sri Lanka has restored normalcy, rehabilitated displaced citizens and, indeed, even the overwhelming majority of surrendered and captured LTTE cadres, and initiated developmental projects in former rebel-held areas that would compare favourably with the record of any post-conflict society in recent history. Significantly, with the shutting down of the Menik Farm camp in Vavuniya district on September 25, 2012, a total of 1,186 people from 361 families— the last of a group of the estimated 290,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) resulting from the final phase of the conflict— were restored to their original places of residence in the Mullaithivu district.
Much of the ‘data’ on which the international ‘human rights’ campaign against Sri Lanka is based, moreover, is deeply suspect. After the end of war, different international bodies and individuals gave varying estimates of the number of civilian fatalities. The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), on December 13, 2009, gave an estimate of 20,000 to 40,000; Frances Harrison of the BBC, in July, 2012, put the figure at an incredible 147,000; and the UN Internal Review Panel, on November 10, 2012, published an estimate of 70,000 civilians killed, jacking up the UN’s earlier ‘credible estimates’ of 40,000 with little new evidence. These divergent estimates have been credibly challenged by an authoritative study based on a wide range of parameters, including witness testimonies, satellite and associated imagery, contemporary reports on the conflict in diplomatic dispatches revealed by Wikileaks, media reports and reports of various HR organizations operating in the field during the conflict, and a range of other documentary sources. Nevertheless, the more exaggerated estimates continue to be projected in the international HR discourse as a propaganda stick to beat the Sri Lanka government with, in a misconceived strategy to exert pressure on Colombo to deliver on a ‘political solution’ of the ‘ethnic problem’ in the country.
International action on this count has been further compounded by protests in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, where political parties have sought to make domestic electoral capital out of the ‘Tamil issue’ in Sri Lanka. Indeed, India voted in favour of the US sponsored resolutions principally because of domestic political compulsions. When India displayed a degree of ambivalence on the March 22, 2012, resolution, regional political parties in Tamil Nadu agitated vociferously, forcing the Union government to swing in favour of the US sponsored resolution. Unsurprisingly, this time around, when the political pressure escalated to the point of provoking the Tamil Nadu regional party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), to pull out of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on March 19, 2013, after the government failed to acquiesce to its demand of introducing amendments in the resolution accusing Colombo of "genocide" during the war against the LTTE, the government again voted in favour of a ‘softer’ US-backed resolution. In a failed effort to placate the DMK, on March 8, 2013, as part of a larger debate in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a statement of gratuitous interference, declared, "There are problems in Sri Lanka; we have been worried about the fate of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. India is worried about the fate of Tamils in Sri Lanka and wants them to live with dignity and self respect. It has been our effort to work with the leadership in Sri Lanka and to ensure that Tamil people there do get a chance to live a life of dignity and self respect as equal citizens of the country." India’s efforts to balance its position between domestic political compulsions and its relations with Sri Lanka have remained deeply unconvincing.
That the international and Indian strategy to exert pressure for reform on Colombo is deeply flawed is, today, recognized even by elements that were central to the LTTE’s campaigns. Thus, Valautham Dayanidhi aka Daya Master, the former spokesperson for the LTTE noted, in an interview published on March 24, 2013, that “Tamil Nadu politicians are now creating problems between the Tamils and the Sinhalese… all Tamil Nadu parties are doing now is fomenting trouble between us and the Sinhalese.” He further appealed to the international community to “restrict itself to developmental work… and leave our political future to us and our elected governments… For heaven’s sake— there were 30 years of war. It ended barely three years ago. Development is in full swing. More needs to be done but give the government some time.”
Significantly, the Director of Operations of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), John Ging, validated Colombo’s claims on August 3, 2012, observing, “The scale of what Sri Lanka has accomplished over the past three years, the pace of resettlement and the development of infrastructure, is remarkable and very clearly visible." Similarly, on March 5, 2013, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in reply to a question on Sri Lanka during a Press briefing, conceded, “I recognised the important steps taken by the government of Sri Lanka since the end of the conflict.”
Further, the UNHRC, on March 15, 2013, adopted the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism of the Council under which it reviews human rights on a regular basis, on Sri Lanka. The UPR noted a wide range of positive steps taken by the Sri Lankan government, but also sought to underline certain perceived deficiencies, specifically, in the implementation of the LLRC recommendations; to ‘combat impunity’ relating to the past conflict; to prevent torture and ill-treatment in prisons and detentions centres; to respect independence of the judiciary; and to protect the rights of women and children and of HR defenders and journalists.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights, the Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe, in a statement to the Council on Sri Lanka's Progress in the Promotion of Human Rights argued, “Sri Lanka had accepted 113 out of 204 recommendations received, and had also made 19 voluntary commitments. Sri Lanka is currently evaluating the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) which was conceived of as part of Sri Lanka's participation in the UPR process before the UNHRC in 2008.”
On March 18, 2013, the US presented a toned down version of its resolution co-sponsored by 32 countries at the 22nd session of the UNHRC in Geneva. The draft welcomed and acknowledged the progress made by the government of Sri Lanka in rebuilding infrastructure, demining, resettling the majority of internally displaced persons, but noted that considerable work needed to be done in the areas of justice, reconciliation and resumption of livelihoods. While recognizing the NAP to implement the recommendations of the government's LLRC, the resolution insists that the NAP does not ‘adequately address’ all of the findings and constructive recommendations of the LLRC.
Unsurprisingly, given India’s opportunistic efforts to sit on the fence, repercussions have been felt on bilateral relations between the two countries. On March 18, 2013, with pressure on New Delhi mounting from the Tamil Nadu political parties to act against Sri Lanka, India called off "The Annual Defence Dialogue” with Sri Lanka, scheduled to commence from March 23, 2013. Anti-Sri Lanka protests were orchestrated across Tamil Nadu, with non-political organisations and industries joining a students’ agitation, forcing the Tamil Nadu government on March 20, 2013, to shut down 525 engineering colleges and 438 arts and science colleges in the State, indefinitely. Further, on March 22, 2013, Tamil Nadu Members of Parliaments (MPs) turned violent in the Rajya Sabha, as agitating MPs of DMK and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) broke the chairperson's mike during noisy demonstrations over the Sri Lankan Tamils.
It is unlikely that these various protests, statements and resolutions will have any impact in Sri Lanka, beyond polarizing relations between Sinhala and Tamil even further, and hardening attitudes against an ‘unreliable’ India.
Predictably, Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris addressing the foreign ministers of the member countries of UNHRC on March 19, 2013, declared, "Just as the government of Sri Lanka did not recognize the last UNHRC resolution, it rejects the new resolution." Likewise, rejecting the resolution, the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights, minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, on March 22, 2013 observed that the resolution was clearly unacceptable due to its inherent flaws and pointed out that the preamble to the text was “intrusive, bears misinterpretations and focuses disproportionately on the negative and eliminates or is dismissive of the positive.” Earlier, on March 18, 2013, Prof. Peiris had noted that India had made an ‘immense contribution’ to the development of the war-affected Northern Province and it was in India's interest, as much as Sri Lanka's, to support efforts to achieve stability and not to polarize Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, criticizing the undue pressure exerted after the resolution, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on March 22, 2013, observed, “The government was aware that it had to face the consequences, when the humanitarian operation began… It is because of this external irritant that the country is facing pressure from various foreign forces. This foreign intimidation is what the imperialists and the Diasporas want.”
Similarly, reflecting Colombo’s hardening attitude, Minister for Youth Affairs Dallas Alahapperuma while addressing a media briefing held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute in Colombo on March 22, 2013, stated, “The UNHRC has become an institution that implements a new 'colonial policy' of ruling by creating divisions in the international community. It has used Sri Lanka as the first test subject to experiment with the new policy of division. The UN resolution, calling for Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by the Security Forces (SFs) during the war against the LTTE, attempts to divide the country.”
Over the past years, India has rapidly lost ground and faith in Sri Lanka as a result of its ambivalence and a policy driven by domestic compulsions, rather than strategy interests and a historical investment in its relations with one of the few friends it has in the neighbourhood. India’s approach to Sri Lanka clearly cannot hinge on domestic politics in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka views resolutions against it in the UNHRC as not binding and as driven by lobbies with agendas against the country, especially when sponsored by a country accused of rights violations across the globe— the US. Instead of using discriminatory HR interventions as a prod, there is a strong case for India to restore goodwill with Colombo, to encourage a politics that is more democratic and participatory, and to establish a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. If India continues with its present diplomacy of opportunism and deceit, based principally on domestic political compulsions and its interest in relations with the US, it will wholly undermine a diminishing influence in Sri Lanka to the inevitable detriment of both New Delhi and Colombo.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP. S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal