Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 24, 2021
Despite negative vote, Sri Lanka gets time at UNHRC, India ties a breather

As expected, the UNHRC has voted against Sri Lanka on a resolution moved by the Core Group, headed by the UK and which included Germany and Canada. But, it has technically given Colombo time till September 2023 to make amends for past laxity and/or adamancy. Again, as expected, India abstained from voting, despite the prime movers amending their ‘zero draft’ to include the Indian reference to the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, facilitated by New Delhi in 1987, but which has been followed only in the breach.

It should come as a satisfaction for Sri Lanka, as the results showed only 22 of the 47 members voted for the resolution, followed by 14 abstentions, including India and Indonesia, amongst others. Then came the ‘nay’ votes, adding up to 11. If the resolution won, it owed to technical reasons as 14 abstentions reduced the valid votes to 33 (47-14), and 17 became the half-way mark. With 47 votes, it would have been at least four votes short, but then that’s how the cookie crumbles.

Western-bloc nations have voted on expected lines. Latin America did not stand by the traditionally left-leaning Third World nation from South Asia, as Colombo had thought. It owed this to the personality of UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile from 2006-10, who continued in active politics before taking up the current assignment in 2018, Bachelet wields clout in the region. The UNHRC statement, on which the resolution is based, stands in her name.

The Rajapaksa regime’s more recent targeting of the nation’s Muslims on the burial/cremation of COVID-19 victims despite a WHO advisory  that the COVID dead could be buried, and threat of a burqa-ban were both ill-timed. This resulted in the Islamic bloc not voting together. Bahrain and Indonesia abstained. Obviously, Sri Lanka allowing the burial of COVID dead and clarifying that the burqa ban was only a proposal were too little, too late. However, Colombo receiving Pakistan Premier Imran Khan and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa travelling to Bangladesh did ensure that those two Muslim nations voted in favour of Sri Lanka, and against the resolution.

Showing China its place

The voting figure demonstrates that the West—now with ‘non-member’ US lending a shoulder after Joe Biden became American President—has shown the China-Russia-Pakistan combo its place in the international arena. As is known, the UNHRC is not the UN Security Council (UNSC), where, alone, the China-Russia veto vote matters. Yet, Sri Lanka has traditionally counted on a veto-member, whether it was the US during the Cold War years or the China-Russia duo since, depending on the ideological orientation of the party and leadership in power. Though it is too early and at times far-fetched, the resolution-movers still would have the option to go to the UN General Assembly (UNGA), if and when necessary. It would then be a rare occasion.

Going by the wording of the current resolution, in the interim, Sri Lanka has time till September next year, to re-evaluate the domestic approach of the incumbent Government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda, his brother and war-time President (2005-15). On the external front, Colombo also has time to re-evaluate its over-dependence on China—and to a lesser extent, Russia—at the UNHRC, where it has not worked, and not just once.

Given their equations with the West, and India to a lesser extent, the ruling Rajapaksas need to analyse and acknowledge the existing reality and evolve their future strategies accordingly. The Rajapaksas have lost three resolutions in a row, from 2012-14—and with the traditional Indian support too. Against this, the predecessor Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (2014-19) managed to stave off UNHRC opprobrium by co-sponsoring a resolution with the West. However, the Government initiated only cosmetic changes without taking up the substantive clauses—but the West did not question the then rulers about what looked like wanton laxity and delay.

Powerful message

Shorn of the details, and the ‘powerful message’ that it entails, yesterday’s vote (23 March 2021, Geneva time), has also actually given Sri Lanka time till the 51st session of the UNHRC, in September 2023, preceded by a written report at the 49th session in September 2022. That is the kind of time that the Wickremesinghe Government, too, got through the 2018 resolution. The current regime of President Rajapaksa, commencing November 2019, enjoyed at least half the reprieve. By giving Sri Lanka a long rope again, the international body seems to want to play fair by political rivals in the country, who replaced each other at the helm.

Going by the text on which the vote was taken, the “resolution requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including on progress in reconciliation and accountability, and to present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its forty-eighth session, as well as a written update at its forty-ninth session, and a comprehensive report that includes further options for advancing accountability, at its fifty-first session, both to be discussed in the context of an interactive dialogue”.

By the same token, the “resolution also encourages the Office of the High Commissioner and relevant special procedure mandate holders to provide, in consultation with and with the concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka, advice and technical assistance on implementing the above-mentioned steps”. All this does not automatically mean that Colombo may be changing tact and track in the coming months to be able to appeal to the West’s sensitivities.

These sensitivities are driven as much by the ‘China angle’ as by allegations of war crimes and human rights violations. Also, independent of the Tamil Diaspora influence and their vote overseas, there is a huge human rights constituency across the western hemisphere. Sri Lanka, especially the inward-looking Rajapaksas are yet to understand the full import of West Europe’s sentiments on human rights, flowing from their experiences during the Second World War era.

Easy on India now

A touch-and-go vote would have pressured New Delhi to choose between its Sri Lankan neighbour and its post-Cold War western allies. This is so despite the fact that India had outlined its approach at the High-level Dialogue on the ‘zero draft’ or the first draft, presented at the commencement of the session on 22 February. Participating in the High-Segment Dialogue on the original draft, India’s Permanent Representative, Indra Mani Pandey, referred to Rights chief Bachelet’s opening remarks and report that raised “important concerns” and aspirations of Tamils contributions to Sri Lanka’s unity and integrity.

“The assessment of the High Commissioner regarding developments nearly 12 years from the end of the conflict raises important concerns,” Pandey had said, and also introduced the first reference to power-devolution for the Sri Lankan Tamils, through the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. As may be recalled, 13-Aflows from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, but then most of its provisions have remained only on paper, despite successive changes in the political power-structure in Colombo.

Both President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda were in constant touch with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the past several weeks. Yet, India denied any firm commitment after Sri Lanka  Foreign Secretary Jayanth Colombage claimed that India had promised support. PM Modi was under domestic pressure, too, from southern Tamil Nadu, where assembly polls are due on 6 April. Both the Opposition DMK and alliance-partner PMK have publicly urged him to vote against Sri Lanka, at times going beyond what the Core Group wanted.

Otherwise, barring rare occasions as in 2012-13 on Sri Lanka, New Delhi has invariably not taken sides with country-specific resolutions of the kind in the past. Even on Sri Lanka, after the first two votes, India abstained in 2014. From 2015 until now, ‘consensus resolutions’ ensured that there was no vote.

Neighbourhood First

The Sri Lankan hurt now about India’s abstention would take time to be touched and felt. But bilateral ties may have already nosedived prior to this, following the Colombo-torpedoed tri-nation ‘ECT deal’ (Eastern Container Terminal), also involving Japan. In this case, even if India had voted for the resolution, Sri Lanka would not have made it. Incidentally, Japan, too, abstained from voting.

If, however, the West amended the zero draft to include reference to amendment 13-A, it was only to ensure that India, the ‘regional power’, too, signed up on their side. By abstaining still, India has taken an independent stand. Yet, in terms of PM Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, New Delhi stands apart from two of the three voting members from among the total eight SAARC nations. Alongside India, Nepal abstained, while Bangladesh and Pakistan voted against the resolution.

India ceases to be voting member through the next two years, when Sri Lanka will continue to come up before the UNHRC. Yet, with President Biden’s US declaring its desire to re-join the Council after predecessor Donald Trump had walked out in a huff, New Delhi could still have greater leverage, behind-the-scenes, to help Colombo, if the latter is so desirous and also be accommodative on the domestic front.

A quick interpretation of the Biden administration’s early signals to New Delhi might entail the US coming to accept South Asia as the ‘traditional sphere of Indian influence’, as the erstwhile Soviet Union had accepted and acted upon in matters of regional importance and concern. Of course, the US too may have to do more to overcome New Delhi’s unreported reservations. Washington’s September 2020 ‘Framework Agreement for Defence and Security Relationship’ with Maldives being the latest occasion when the US worked behind India’s back, as if the Cold War was  not over.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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