With India’s abstention vote, it would seem that South Block is wresting back control of its decision-making authority from that domestic sphere that has ridden roughshod over several foreign policy decisions

Sometimes, the loudest sound can emanate from the sidelines. At the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, India’s abstention vote — in a United States sponsored resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka for an international probe into alleged rights violations in the last leg of the civil war — was perhaps its boldest expression of external policy in recent years, signalling several shifts in decision-making in South Block.

Behind the shifts in stance

To begin with, the Indian decision corrects the aberrations of the past few years. India has an old policy of not voting on country-specific resolutions, much less on one against a neighbour. The fact that India voted in 2012 and 2013 against Sri Lanka was not just a departure from this practice; it was a departure based on political considerations. The United Progressive Alliance’s (then) ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and other parties in Tamil Nadu had claimed that if India didn’t vote for the resolutions, the State would erupt in violent protests. Since India’s decision on Thursday was to abstain from the vote, there’s been no such spontaneous reaction from the streets, laying that claim bare. It also means that any violence that breaks out now will be the result of political instigation. It is unfortunate that the government didn’t try to test that claim in earlier years, instead bowing to the threat from its former allies in Tamil Nadu.

The next shift has been India’s acknowledgement of progress in the Sri Lankan reconciliation process, with India’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Ambassador Dilip Sinha calling the elections in the Northern (Tamil) Provinces held in 2013 a “significant step forward.” Elections in the Northern Provinces were something Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had laid stress upon in numerous meetings with the Sri Lankan leadership, and it was important to acknowledge the outcome of that pressure. To have voted against Sri Lanka despite the elections having being held would have rendered these efforts meaningless; to have acknowledged the progress is a valid assertion of India’s regional influence.

The third shift, the decision to abstain on a resolution after having voted with the United States and the European Union in the past two years, was because of the language of the resolution itself. The setting up of an “international inquiry mechanism” to inquire into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka during the final offensive against the LTTE is a departure from the texts of the past. For India, that holds the question of sovereignty so dear, to have supported such an “intrusive” resolution would have set another precedent. Moreover, the resolution seems to follow a dual principal: exhorting Sri Lanka to adopt the findings of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) — (it was appointed by Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa in May 2010, to look into allegations of human rights violations by Sri Lankan forces) — while at the same time ordering another inquiry into the same allegations.

The text of the UNHRC resolution (A/HRC/25/L.1/Rev.1) even goes so far as to recount the recommendations of the LLRC report, that minces no words about its findings when it says: “Recalling the constructive recommendations contained in the Commission’s report including the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all persons and enact rule of law reforms. — From the final resolution of the UNHRC#25.”

If the LLRC is in fact “constructive” and noteworthy, according to the sponsors of the resolution, where is the need for another investigation? Instead, the resolution could have proposed punitive measures against the Sri Lanka government until it adopts and acts on the LLRC’s recommendations. In any case, strong measures like having an international inquiry are normally reserved for countries that refuse access to U.N. delegations. While U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had many complaints about her week-long visit to Sri Lanka in August last year, she was accorded, by her own admission, access to “any place she wished to see” on what was the longest official visit by the HR High Commissioner to any country.

More about political signals

While all these points should have been reason enough for India to make the shift in voting on the resolution, the unfortunate truth is that it was political consideration rather than principle and precedent that decided it. As noted earlier, the UPA government and the Congress party didn’t have to worry about alliance partners in Tamil Nadu withdrawing support this time. That worst case scenario had already been played out in 2013, when the DMK withdrew support to the government, not because of India’s vote, but because India had not enforced more stringent measures against Sri Lanka in the resolution. India also sought comfort in numbers, bolstered by the new entry of two powerful countries, Russia and China, in the composition of the UNHRC who would clearly have voted with Sri Lanka and against the West. Had India voted with the western bloc this time, it would have been an Asian exception: while countries like Japan and Indonesia abstained, others like Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan voted against the resolution.

Perhaps, the most notable shift has come from within South Block itself, where recommendations of the External Affairs Ministry have been sidelined over the past few years. The unhappiness among diplomatic officials was evident last year over Dr. Singh’s decision not to travel to Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) summit. In an interview, Union Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid had told CNN-IBN, “It would be very disappointing if the Prime Minister doesn’t go to Colombo,” later admitting that the decision was forced by “domestic politics”. Now, with India’s abstention vote, it would seem that South Block is wresting back control of its decision-making authority from that domestic sphere that has ridden roughshod over several foreign policy decisions including stopping the Teesta agreement with Bangladesh, dealing with China, or restarting talks at a technical level with Pakistan.

Gauging the move

Criticism of India’s abstention vote includes this — that it would have better suited India’s stature as a regional leader of 1.3 billion people to have voted a firm ‘yes or no’ instead. Amnesty International’s official statement says India had chosen to “sideline itself.” Even so, the significance of India’s vote has been lost on no one. President Rajapaksa’s decision to free all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody as a sort of “goodwill return gesture” is testament to how important the shift is being seen in Colombo. The importance can also be gauged from the fact that international human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued statements specifically critical of India’s position. One organisation tweeted that India’s abstention denoted this — “a few steps forward and now several backward” for its record on human rights. Others will see it as India’s foreign policy having come full circle; an important reset just before the election brings the next government to power.

(Suhasini Haidar is Foreign Affairs Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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