Originally Published 2014-02-21 08:26:36 Published on Feb 21, 2014
At the UNHRC session next month, India should take the initiative to work out a consensus resolution, where not just the Sri Lanka-related 'accountability' concerns of the West but also the competing counter-concerns of 'friends of Sri Lanka' are also addressed.
Sri Lanka: Competing resolutions can complicate decision for India at UNHRC
" Reports that 'friends of Sri Lanka' at the UNHRC could move a 'friendly resolution' to contest and compete with the harsher one promised by the US, the UK and the rest of the West could complicate matters for India. Considering that India was among the prime-movers of a similar resolution less than a fortnight after the decisive conclusion of 'Eelam War IV' in May 2009, and with China and Pakistan too backing the same to defeat an earlier move of the American kind by the European Union (EU), New Delhi's moods and moves would be closely watched, not only in Chennai and Colombo, but across the world capitals as well.

"The decision to submit a Sri Lanka-friendly resolution at the UNHRC sessions is entirely an independent move by friendly countries with the Government having no hand in it. We are remaining aloof because any interaction with them will give a wrong impression," a Sri Lankan media report quoting Government spokesman, Cabinet Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has said. The Sri Lankan position sounds logical as any overt interest by the nation to counter-argue the West by haviing to 'name' some of them - and also try and 'shame' them in the process, possibly in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq - could be counter-productive at best.

Fence-sitters among the voting-members, who are waiting to see the draft US-UK resolution before making up their mind, could be turned away should Colombo display the same kind of aggression in the international arena as it has been doing nearer home, before the domestic (election) constituency. It is in this context, the 29 March elections to the Southern and Western Provincial Councils may be viewed, depending on when the UNHRC discusses Sri Lanka - and when the vote is scheduled.

Thankfully for Sri Lanka, the country is not a voting-member of the UNHRC ever since the US-sponsored resolutions came to be adopted since March 2012. This time, however, acknowledged friends like Russia, China and Cuba, not necessarily in that order, are back there this March, not only to propose resolutions and/or counter-resolutions, but also openly contesting the West on what it had to say on HR violations, war crimes and accountability issues in the South Asian nation.

It remains to be seen how far those 'friends of Sri Lanka' would be going to contest the (leaked) report of UNHRC Chair Navi Pillay, which is harsh on the Colombo dispensation and whose content could form the basis for the promised US resolution. Pillay was in Sri Lanka last year, ahead of the second, November meet of the UNHRC, and presented an oral report to the Council when it met. It is not unlikely that the 'friends of Sri Lanka' and the nation's response in the Council could cite the time-lapse since to argue against the contents of Navi Pillay's report - and consequently her recommendations.

Moderate resolution

Independent of the sentiments of the Sri Lankan neighbour and the strong advice from the Ministry of External Affairs, possibly starting with Minister Salman Khurshid, New Delhi could have voted for a 'moderate and negotiated' American resolution, this time as in the two previous years. On the one hand, the Navi Pillay report is expected to be harsher than her oral statement in the previous session of the UNHRC.

There may be contestable facts and concepts that New Delhi might not be able to overlook outright, just as it could not overlook the appreciable apathy of the Colombo dispensation on the previous promises made to India at the highest-levels, on the reconciliation processes, post-war. Striking a balance is one thing, choosing between any such two may be another. In doing so, New Delhi could well expose itself to 'friends of India' on the one hand, and 'friends of Sri Lanka' on the other. In most cases, 'friends of India' are spread across time-zones and ideological posturing on the likes of 'accountability issues', viz , Sri Lanka in particular.

Yet, relative to what the US-West may have thought of initially, the final resolution may have to be more moderate and accommodative, compared to the commitments from the prospective proposers to the Sri Lankan Tamils, both in the island-nation and the Diaspora nearer home. Under pressure to win the resolution, as least with as many votes as last time, the US may have to moderate its language, goal and motives, if it has to have a relatively smooth sail in the UNHRC Council this time, too.

Such a course by itself would have helped India to decide on voting with the US resolution, as if it were a continuation of the earlier two and not deviating too much from the original text and concepts. The situation however may now change if there is a 'counter-resolution' from 'friends of Sri Lanka'. Such a resolution could be expected to draw extensively from the 2009 pro-Sri Lanka resolution, which too stood in the name of 'friends of Sri Lanka'.

India was not only among the co-sponsors of the 2009 resolution but it also worked over-time with traditional adversaries like China and Pakistan too to have the EU resolution defeated on the floor, and the counter-resolution passed at Geneva. Today, New Delhi should be embarrassed to take a different, and exactly opposite position, if 'friends of Sri Lanka' were to marshal their facts and arguments from the common resolution from the past, of which it was a part. Worse could be the case if those arguments also seek to contest the content and intent of the two US-sponsored resolutions of 2012-13.

Neither simple nor straight forward

The Indian dilemma is neither simple nor straight forward. Nearer home, the ruling Congress-led ruling coalition is facing a crucial parliamentary poll across the nation, only weeks after the UNHRC session of March. Of equal importance to the party is the 'Tamil Nadu factor', particularly in the south India, accounting for 40 seats, including one from neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry in a total elected House strength of 442.

Elections-2009 in particular, held at the height of the concluding 'Eelam War IV', proved otherwise, proved that the ethnic issue, war and violence were not a decisive poll factor in Tamil Nadu. It has been so, earlier and later, too, barring 1991, in the aftermath of the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination'. Yet, they are all still strong talking-points, particularly during election time in the State.

Needless to point out, the 'Tamil Nadu factor' did play a part, though not exclusively, in the Indian decision to vote with the US resolution in 2012. The political protests in 2012 and the public revulsion and consequent perception over the Channel 4 tele-serial on the killing of Balachandran, the young son of slain LTTE leader Prabhakaran, in 2013, set the mood. The 2013 resolution was in a way only procedural, both in the content of the draft, and the form of India supporting the same.

Yet, doubting Thomases about India's options would not take chances. Large-scale student protests all across Tamil Nadu, with other segments like lawyers pitching in, became visible for the first time in almost 40 years, after the anti-Hindi agitation in the mid-Sixties. There is no indication now that such a course could prevail another time, yet exhibits like the Channel 4 videos from the past could stir up the poll scene in Tamil Nadu, still.

Though relatively muted compared to the two previous years, already there are demands for India backing the US resolution, from the Tamil Nadu polity. Some influential parties like the ruling AIADMK and the Opposition DMK have also revived their last-ditch effort of 2013, for India to either move a harsher resolution of its own against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, or to canvas support for whatever draft that the US mooted. Electoral pressures on the ruling Congress apart, such public posturing and also protests have their effect on the Government of India as an institution.

Taking the initiative

It is in these complex backgrounds that India would be called upon to decide its position on 'competing resolutions' at the UNHRC, if there are any. Under the circumstances, 'friends of Sri Lanka' would wait for the early drafts of the US-West resolution before deciding on their strategy and tactic, which may include a decision to move or not to move a 'counter-resolution'. In doing so, they may also wait for the US tactic of approaching any or all of them, or deciding not to take any of them into confidence.

Yet, any 'competitive showdown' on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC has the potential to revive the forgotten 'Cold War' complexities on the one hand, and the equally forgettable North-South divide in the post-Cold War context. Issues such as Palestine have triggered such sentiments, both in the UN and affiliated organisations like the UNHRC even in the recent past.

Yet, this would be the first of its kind where South Asia will get a direct taste of such a course. India, the largest country in the region and is seen by many as fighting a losing battle to protect its turf and 'sphere of influence' would then be called to take a position that goes beyond the immediate. The job has been made more complex by the advent of the parliamentary polls nearer home.

If nothing else, no Government in New Delhi could now be expected to try and evolve a national consensus on the larger issue that any set of 'competitive resolutions' on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC could entail. Nor could such a Government expect whole-hearted participation and cooperation of the nation's diverse and divided polity to such efforts. With every party and leader counting his electoral chickens before the eggs are hatched, New Delhi cannot expect even all those claiming to be 'national parties' with 'larger national interests' to take a sane and serious decision that looks beyond the obvious - and work towards achieving the same, both nearer home and afar.

Maybe, India should take the initiative towards working out a consensus resolution this time round, where not just the Sri Lanka-related 'accountability' concerns of the West but also the competing counter-concerns of 'friends of Sri Lanka' are also addressed. Yet, they would all shy away from talking to Sri Lanka on such a course at every stage - and talking to rope it in, even more.

Such a course alone would address the problems of fence-sitting nations at the UNHRC and outside (friends of the West like Australia). Should it however progress, the Tamils in Sri Lanka and their Diaspora brethren elsewhere would cry hoarse and 'foul' - and in nations where their votes and voting count.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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