Originally Published 2014-03-28 04:03:07 Published on Mar 28, 2014
India's abstention from voting at the UNHRC session in Geneva means that India has now re-positioned itself to re-engage the Sri Lankan stake-holders in a constructive way, as articulated by Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid long before the vote.
Sri Lanka: What after India's UNHRC-3
In the past two years, the Indian vote against Sri Lanka may have done the trick for the passage of the US-led western resolution at the UNHRC - more than in numerical terms, that is. This time round, the Indian 'abstention' may have done even more. In a way, it has tilted the scales in real terms. With India abstaining, those not in favour of the Anglo-American resolution totalled 24 against 23 for the motion.

In super-power terms, the Anglo-American 'victory' is no victory and the Sri Lankan 'defeat' is no defeat. In real terms, too, the support for the US resolution in the 47-member UNHRC has come down to 24 from last year's 25, which again was a significant improvement from the 23 votes in 2012. Sri Lanka too needs to note that the opposition to the US move has also been sinking, from 15 in 2012 to 13 last year, to 12 at present. The aggregate is to the number of abstentions. The figure has gone up by half, from eight in the previous two years, to 12 now. In 2012, Gabon 'absented' itself from the voting process, but this time, it 'abstained'.

It's not about victory and defeat, however. It is about post-Geneva retrieval of the lost ground in Sri Lanka, where 'accountability' issues have to give place to 'political reconciliation', which the former had left hanging two-plus years ago. The logic of the Indian neighbour, that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) should be talking to the Sri Lankan Government for New Delhi to exert the required pressure on the latter, was outlined by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid at London during the run-up to the Geneva vote. The abstention now means that India has re-positioned itself to re-engage the Sri Lankan stake-holders in a constructive way.

Officials, both in Geneva and New Delhi, have explained the logic behind the Indian decision. As they have pointed out, by proposing an 'international investigation' of the UNHRC kind into 'accountability issues', the 'intrusive' resolution sought to infringe upon the 'sovereignty' of the Sri Lankan State. Worse still, it sought to set at naught the work already done by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the Sri Lankan Government's promised follow-up of the same through the 'National Action Plan'. Inadequacies, if any, cannot justify 'international investigation' of any kind. Inputs, specifics and clear, bilaterally or multilaterally without resorting to coercive measures of the UNHRC kind, could instead have done the trick.

Taking India for granted

India's problems with this year's resolution may not have stopped with 'sovereignty' issues per se. It was about 'sovereignty', yes, as it's the scale that India had applied, elsewhere, too. Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India's HR concerns viz the international community may have been incidental, if at all. In specific terms, India had voted for the two earlier US resolutions only after they had cited the LLRC report as the bench-mark and purpose. The original US draft in 2012, as may be recalled, did not refer to the report of the LLRC, a creature of the Sri Lankan State - and hence did not impede/impinge on 'sovereignty' issues.

Only after the LLRC became the sole reference-point, did India reportedly vote for the US resolution in 2012. It remained so in 2013, and India had no cause - or, justification - for a re-think of this year's kind. In a way, it was the Anglo-American resolution going back on the past commitments to the world -- though made possibly with India in mind -- on the LLRC-linked 'sovereignty' front that New Delhi may have thought it fit and justified to go back on its own commitments from the past. Clearly, the change in the tone and tenor of the US draft also meant that the western movers behind the resolution had begun taking India for granted - and possibly did not deserve the kind of political consideration that New Delhi may have found fit to extend in the past.

This 'taking India for granted' may have begun with the 2012 resolution, when the 'US friend' was seen as unilaterally intervening, though only in political and diplomatic terms, in India' s 'traditional sphere of influence'. Simultaneously egged on by an surprising and unprecedented political pressure from Tamil Nadu in 2012, New Delhi could do little about it. An otherwise acceptable US draft did the rest.

Going beyond bowing to pressures from Tamil Nadu per se in 2012, New Delhi may not have also wanted to precipitate an internal chasm in the name of an external issue for the time. Relations between nations, particularly neighbours bound by geography, culture and history, and in that order, go beyond the realms of domestic politics, moods and methods. Yet, at times they are dictated by domestic compulsions. The Sri Lankan side was both aware and appreciative of India's circumstances. To this pan-Tamil political pressure, both from inside the Government at the Centre and otherwise, was added the unexpected 'student power' this time last year, nearly 50 long years after the anti-Hindi agitation of the Sixties.

American unilateralism

On the side, the US was similarly taking unilateral political positions in and on Maldives, and elsewhere in the immediate neighbourhood of India. In the case of Maldives, for instance, it was also negotiating what New Delhi possibly perceived as a military-related deal in SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). The US dismissed it as a routine affair unrelated to security issues and concerns of the 'Indian friend' cum ally. The fact that the US was reportedly negotiating SOFA with Maldives, almost behind the back of India, too might not have gone well with New Delhi.

This would have been more so, considering that the incumbent Maldivian Government of then President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik was at best a 'lame-duck' affair, after his controversial, if not wholly questionable ascendancy to power following the momentous resignation of President Mohammed Nasheed. With a weakling in office thus requiring heavy doses of external help of the non-Indian variety, thanks to the 'GMR row' that the whole world knew, New Delhi could not have been expected to take kindly to the American overtures to and from Maldives at the time. So much so, the perceptions of altruist American intentions on the Sri Lankan 'accountability' issue would always have been peppered with possible Indian apprehensions about the 'real' intentions and motives of the US in the immediate southern neighbourhood.

Unintended fulcrum

UNHRC's pro-West chair in Navaneetham Pillay ends her mandated two-term upper-limit in August this year. In a way, the second sitting in September would be chaired by a new head in her place. It is not unlikely that the US and the rest of the West may have the final say in the choice. It is still not unlikely, if one reflected on the current UNHRC vote, and made projections based on the same, a compromise candidate might emerge - and some balance, sense and sensibility might prevail. Such a course could help ease the pressure of the past two years on Sri Lanka. Learning from the past experience, which might not be worth re-living, the Government in Colombo might consider it wise to revive the political process that it had left hanging past the quarter-way mark in 2011 when the UNHRC threat began appearing in the horizon.

In its turn, India belongs to the 'Group of 2014' at the UNHRC and its second three-year term ends this year. It should relieve New Delhi of the burden of 'political pressures' emanating from southern Tamil Nadu, to address issues of mutual concern with Sri Lanka, of which the 'ethnic issue' has remained the unintended and unwelcome fulcrum for long. Post-poll, whichever party comes to power, and whoever becomes the prime minister, a new government in New Delhi can usher in new thought processes to enhance bilateral relations and cooperation, starting with the 'ethnic issue'.

It may be easy now for India to approach Sri Lanka, after the UNHRC vote this time round. It may be difficult for India to make the TNA accept the realities. Post-UNHRC, the TNA has been careful not to hurt Indian sentiments. "India may have valid reasons of its own to abstain," TNA leader R Sampanthan said after the vote. Whatever other TNA leaders may, or may not, say in the days to come, Sampanthan's should be considered the official reaction of the TNA to the Indian abstention. However, that by itself does not make things easy for India viz TNA. It will be even more difficult for the TNA to convince the second-line - and more so, over the head of the omnipresent Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, which keeps looking over the TNA's shoulders all the time.

As India seems to have concluded, and also implied in its response at Geneva, 'accountability' mechanisms of the kind being thought of by the West can only divide Sri Lanka further, not unite it. And the TNA is on record that they are all for a political solution within a 'united Sri Lanka'. Saying is one thing and doing is another. It is true of the Sri Lankan Government, too, when it comes to the issues and solutions flagged by the LLRC Report and otherwise, too.

Colombo also seems to have understood that 'development' and 'democratisation' that the UNHRC resolutions too have consistently appreciated over the past three years is no substitute for 'devolution'. But in a domestic atmosphere vitiated also by the UNHRC process, particularly after the external stimulus in the 'Tamil Nadu factor' was found wanting, the Government is going to find it difficult to convince itself and elements within that it's still no harm trying. After all, the US draft has kept 'de-militarisation' out of the ambit despite loud protests from the SLT Diaspora and the peace-time 'HR industry' in Sri Lanka. Colombo needs to acknowledge that it's no licence for over-securitisation, either.

'Strategic asset', not just strategic waterway

In the weeks and months to come, India will have its hands full - first explaining itself to constituents nearer home, and then to elements elsewhere, starting with the TNA. As was the case during the past years of UNHRC, the TNA seemed to be a reluctant partner initially to was essentially looked like an SLT Diaspora project, initiated with, if not, for the West. That over, a new Government in New Delhi would have to take a hands-on approach to problem-solving in its own interest apart from protecting the interests of the Tamils in Sri Lanka within that country, and the interests of Sri Lanka in the regional and global level.

After all, at a time when a 'neo Cold War' is threatening to haunt the world, post Ukraine-Crimea, India cannot have its flank unsettled and eternally unstable, if not wholly unfriendly - whether or not the 'String of Pearls' makes sense. In the contemporary context, over-zealous extra-regional players have over-imagined the Indian Ocean as a 'strategic asset', going beyond the traditional reality of it being a strategic waterway. India as the rightful guardian angel of the Ocean in these parts cannot look the other way, and let others dance their well-choreographed dances, and expect India too to dance to their tunes, all the time!

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

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