Both India and Sri Lanka have many lessons to be learn from the UNHRC Resolution on Tamils
India’s vote in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC), censuring Sri Lanka for its alleged war crimes and human rights violations during the war against LTTE has attracted attention both domestically and internationally.
Sri Lanka has been criticising the UNHRC resolution as it goes against the principle of Non-interference in the matters coming under the domestic jurisdiction of the country, a principle supported by China and Russia.
The government of India received much criticism by the Sri Lankan government, which accused that India voted in favour of the resolution not because of its commitment to foreign policy, but because of domestic political compulsions. This argument finds relevance as the DMK (The political party in Tamil Nadu) had cautioned the central government that it would pull out of the cabinet if the government did not favour the American backed resolution. Many believe that in a situation where the Congress is trying to avoid a possible mid-term election, they had no choice but to accede to DMK’s demand.
Less than two weeks after the UNHRC vote, Sri Lankan Minister ‘Patali Champika Ranawaka’ wrote in a Sri Lankan newspaper about how India’s vote will negatively affect the ongoing settlement process with the Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. He went on saying that Tamil Fascism and Western Imperialism are India’s main enemies.
It is evident from the reaction of the Sri Lankan authorities that, India’s vote at the UNHRC was nothing but a surprise to them. The External Affairs Minister of the island nation, ‘G. L Peris’, indirectly commented about how India succumbed to the pressures put forth by the political parties in Tamil Nadu. Considering the chronology of the events, many believe that ‘Peris’s’ comments are to an extent sensible.
The struggle for Tamil rights in the Sri Lankan land starts from 1948, when Britain gave independence to Ceylon. The leadership of the country, in the following years, followed a policy of supporting the Sinhalese language and culture, which constitute the majority in the country. The whole issue aggravated when ‘Solomon Bandaranayake’, country’s first Prime Minister made Sinhala the official language.
The rejection faced by the Tamil minority groups in the country, which constitute about 10-15 percent, clamoured for a separate Tamil state and an organisation to protect their right. In the process, organisations like the ‘Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation’ (TELO) and the ‘People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam’ (PLOT) were formed. Providing leadership to a large number of people in a grave issue was not an easy task. Eventually the efforts of the above mentioned organisations culminated to the formation of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in 1975, which functioned like a parallel government to the extent that, many believed it processed a submarine of its own.
The failure to take a stand on the UNHRC vote issue in the first hand itself is a matter to be blamed. Had the Prime Minister and the External Affairs Ministry taken a stand on the issue (whether to vote in favor, not to support or abstain) before the pressure put forward by political parties, it would have been considered by many as a decision based on India’s strong foreign policy. The UPA government’s silence was broken only when the DMK members demanded a stand on the issue, which was followed by the Prime Minister’s remarks in the floor of the house, giving a hint that the government will consider supporting the resolution, which was rightly followed.
The casualties of LTTE war are known to the world. Close to a million people have lost their lives, including a thousand Indian soldiers. Alleged war crimes have been reported by various international and domestic media and organisations, including a recent video footage released by ‘Channel 4’. The UN report alleges Sri Lanka of firing on the ceasefire zones where civilians were asked to reside. It also speaks of heavy shelling on innocent citizens and depriving the native people of needed medical facilities including the denial of access into the war land to The International Committee of the Red Cross.
Though India followed a policy of Non-Alignment and low intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries during The Cold War Era, it is evident that the situation is no more the same. With the proliferation of non-state actors like the United Nations and its various bodies, countries are committed to take stands on international issues. It is especially imperative for India to play a key role in the this scenario as it is one among the nations which are demanding a permanent membership to the UN Security Council.
In this scenario, it is imminent for India to frame broad policies related to contemporary foreign affairs and show the world its power, rather than appear weak and succumbing to the pressures of domestic politics. India had the relevant documents and information necessary to study and make its stand on the resolution at the UNHRC. Having failed to do so, it has decided to take a step backwards in the international relations arena, where soft power seems to be replacing hard power. In a situation where culture, intellectual capacity and foreign policy decisions constitute the ‘soft power capacity’ of a state, it is time for India to take a lead on this matter.
India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s war with the LTTE can be dated back to 1987 when the Indian government took up a mission in support of Tamil Tigers by air dropping supply’s to Jaffna (city in Northern Sri Lanka), for resisting the Sri Lankan armies efforts. The operation was named ‘Operation Poomalai’ and led to the creation of Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in June 1987. One of the major agreements in the pact, which was signed by the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President ‘J. R. Jayewardene’ was the creation of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) for eliminating the Sri Lankan civil war, that includes disarming the LTTE.
The recent accusations made by the island nation’s media stated that trained terrorists in the garb of fishermen have been arriving in northern Sri Lanka from India. The recent media reports reveal that terrorists trained in Tamil Nadu have been trying to destabilize the reconciliation and resettlement carried out by the Sri Lankan government. The alleged fishermen are supposed to have left the island country during the LTTE war and have returned now after receiving sufficient training from India. This revelation has to be considered in the backdrop of India’s marginally strained relations with Sri Lanka.
The fishermen folks from Tamil Nadu have been facing the problem of crossing the Sri Lankan waters while fishing and many are pronounced ‘guilty’ by the Sri Lankan authorities. Currently five Indian fishermen have been detained under narcotic laws in Sri Lanka. Indian efforts to release them have not been unsuccessful so far. India should not let its neighbour frame policies and take actions against its interests because of the UNHRC vote issue.
India managed to make changes in the final draft by making corrections so that the report became non-intrusive and amounted to political reconciliations in Sri Lanka. These final changes can be considered as India’s effort to appease the Sri Lankan leadership. It is understood that these efforts may not be enough but has to be followed by constructive efforts that would help in strengthening India’s relation with its close neighbour.
Jeff Shawn is a commentator on public affairs.