Sri Lanka’s response to the UNHRC vote suggests that to Colombo, what India thinks matters more than what many other powerful nations do

With 23 countries backing a relatively strong resolution against Sri Lanka at the recent U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva, one would have thought the country would feel effectively cornered. However, a day after the resolution was adopted, Sri Lanka only seemed too pleased, thanks to its neighbour.

Amid all the buzz around the strategically-timed elections to Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority Southern and Western Provinces, senior politicians including President Mahinda Rajapaksa were rather prompt in expressing their happiness over India’s decision to abstain from voting.

Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris termed India’s departure from its voting pattern over the last two years as “a significant development.” Mr. Rajapaksa went a step further, ordering the immediate release of all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody then as a goodwill gesture.

In an interaction with journalists days before the Geneva session, Mr. Rajapaksa said: “I don’t know what India will do, they voted against us last two years,” quickly adding, “but we understand them,” as if India had already cast a negative vote.

So when India declared its decision to abstain on March 27, Colombo was clearly elated. India’s decision may not have influenced the larger voting pattern but to Sri Lanka, apparently, its neighbour’s abstention meant a massive victory of sorts, despite the majority vote in Geneva proving negative. Foreign policy analysts — who thought New Delhi had for long been succumbing to Tamil Nadu’s pressure — hailed it as “excellent diplomacy,” though Tamil diaspora organisations and sections of northern Tamils said they were deeply disappointed with India.

A ‘reset’ for diplomacy

The fact that the Ministry of External Affairs was fully in charge at Geneva is significant. It was the same Ministry which, despite its best efforts, could not get Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka last November. As former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka observed, the abstention has pressed the reset button, activating positive Indo-Lanka diplomacy. Sri Lanka’s response to the vote in general and to India’s decision suggests that to Colombo, what India thinks matters more than what many other powerful nations do. That said, given the renewed possibilities of closer engagement with Sri Lanka, it is now completely up to New Delhi to convert this diplomatic goal to a diplomatic gain.

Speaking in Geneva, Dilip Sinha, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in Geneva, hailed the September elections to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, at the same time calling for effective and timely implementation of all the constructive recommendations contained in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, including those pertaining to missing persons, detainees, reduction of high security zones, return of private lands by the military and withdrawal of security forces from the civilian domain in the Northern Province.

With a renewed possibility of closer engagement with Sri Lanka, it will be interesting to see if New Delhi can put political pressure in these said areas where progress has been grossly inadequate.

The Hindu in December 2013 reported that 18 schools in Jaffna were struggling for space with the Sri Lankan Army having taken over their original buildings, some even a century old, as part of its questionable high security zones. Fishing villages in these zones have been usurped, delivering a blow to livelihoods.

The process of resettlement, the Indian mission implementing a massive housing project in the former war zone would very well know, still has several gaps. In Sampur, located in Trincomalee — where NTPC partners a joint venture to set up a thermal power plant — 800 families lost their homes to land taken over by the Sri Lankan government “for the plant.” In reality, the 500-acre area earmarked for the plant displaced only seven families that the Indian government is helping relocate, while permanent housing to the rest who lost their homes remains a question mark.

Militarisation of the north, something that Dr. Singh also underlined in his meeting with Mr. Rajapaksa in March, remains a major concern. The Army, earlier confined to security and surveillance, is now involved in purely civil pursuits such as agriculture and development. In fact, surveillance in the north increased rapidly around the Geneva session — as did intimidation, reportedly — though the Sri Lankan Army justified it saying it feared a possible regrouping of the LTTE.

Further, the ghost of the brutal war makes an appearance every now and then. New video footage pertaining to alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan forces has emerged recently, though the Army has rubbished each of those as being “doctored.” Relatives of 16,000 missing people have petitioned a Presidential Commission looking into complaints of disappearances, desperately seeking some closure to the agony over their missing loved ones.

India’s abstention could gain value if New Delhi manages to use the goodwill gains that accrued to it in Geneva to put political pressure on Colombo to address at least some of these problems.

India in Geneva called upon Sri Lankan government to make purposeful efforts to fulfil its commitments, including its promise to fully implement the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and build upon it. New Delhi has a lot to do in pushing for substantive political devolution.

Issue of devolution

Post Geneva, India has said it will continue to closely engage with Sri Lanka on the question of devolution. Nearly five years after the country’s brutal war ended, people living in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking north and east crave for political rights and complete freedom. Devolution, after all, is not just about holding an election to the Northern Province but also allowing the Council to function with administrative powers and enabling the people of the province to lead normal lives as citizens.

Also, when a new Indian government takes charge soon, the ongoing conflict over fishing between the two countries will come into sharp focus. Considering the major role Tamil Nadu is expected to play in national politics in a post-poll scenario, India will have to necessarily evolve a strategy to handle the pressure from the southern State and at the same time get it to deter its fishermen from poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

Depending on how New Delhi fares on all these counts, its seemingly strategic abstention in Geneva could potentially turn into an actual gain.

meera.srinivasan@thehindu.co.in

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