The Tamil question has been brought centre-stage with the elected council of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province passing a resolution accusing successive governments in Colombo of carrying out genocide against the minority community over six decades. Moved by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran in the Provincial Council, the resolution demands that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights investigate “historical” and “recent” instances of genocide and submit its report at the session of the Human Rights Council next month. It also asks the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. Thirdly, it asks courts in countries with universal jurisdiction over the alleged events and perpetrators, “including but not limited to the United States”, to prosecute the crimes. The resolution roundly rejects any domestic investigations. The timing of this strongly worded resolution is no mystery. In the five weeks since President Maithripala Sirisena has been in office after his stunning election victory, he has been preoccupied with the task of fulfilling his 100-day charter of promises, which ambitiously includes the abolition of the executive presidency. Pulling together a diverse coalition with conflicting agendas is his primary challenge. For these reasons, there has been significant diplomatic chatter that the international community must permit the new government some time before it takes up the twin tasks of investigation of alleged war crimes and human rights abuses against Tamils and demilitarisation of the North. The HRC session in Geneva is seen as crucial in this context. Clearly, the Tamil National Alliance, which is the main political grouping representing the Tamils and rules the Northern Province, wants to ensure that these issues stay on the global agenda, and at the same time test the will of the new Sri Lankan government at a crucial point.
While the resolution may serve that purpose, its maximalist tenor does complicate the political ground for the Sirisena government even before it has properly articulated a plan for addressing Tamil demands for a just peace, harden as it will Sinhala opinion. The political and legal contestation over the use of the word genocide will prove divisive too. Soon after the election, the new government gave an assurance of a credible domestic investigation into war crimes allegations. New Delhi is rightly concerned about the impact this could have on its diplomatic efforts aimed at persuading Colombo to act on full devolution of political powers to the Tamil minority, a matter that is certain to be on the agenda when President Sirisena visits next week for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Colombo must be counselled against any knee-jerk response on the resolution, and encouraged to come out with a full-fledged plan for reconciliation with the Tamil minority.