India has a national position against resolutions targeting a single country in multilateral bodies. But, with regard to Sri Lanka, India’s record has been varied, as domestic political factors often dictated its voting decision.

Devirupa Mitra

New Delhi: Indicating that New Delhi has kept all options open, India has signalled to Sri Lanka that its support for the country at the United Nations Human Rights Council should not be taken for granted.

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council is holding its 46th regular session, which will decide the fate of a critical resolution against Sri Lanka. The first draft (also confusingly termed the ‘zero draft’) was circulated earlier this week. The vote will take place in the last couple of days of the session, ending on March 22.

The draft resolution, submitted by the Core Group comprising the United Kingdom, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia, responds to a scathing report released by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on January 27. 

This report was formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday, February 24, followed by member states offering their views over two days. 

At the meeting, Sri Lankan foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena had called on the member states to reject the draft resolution.  

Indian permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey, significantly noted that the UN report had raised “important concerns” and aspirations of Tamils contributions to Sri Lanka’s unity and integrity. 

“The assessment of the High Commissioner regarding developments nearly 12 years from the end of the conflict raises important concerns,” said Pandey at the virtual meeting.

The UN report warns that lack of accountability of Sri Lanka’s previous violations has not only increased the risk of repetition of those crimes but also highlighted “worrying trends over the past year, such as deepening impunity, increasing militarisation of governmental functions, ethno-nationalist rhetoric, and intimidation of civil society”.

India also noted that the Sri Lankan government “has articulated its position on these issues as well”. “In evaluation of both of these, we should be guided by a commitment to find a lasting and effective solution for this issue,” added Pandey.

He then noted that India’s position rested on two pillars. The first was support for Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity. Commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils’ aspirations for “equality, justice, peace and dignity” was the second pillar, said the Indian diplomat. 

India declared that these were “not either-or choices”.

“We believe that respecting the rights of the Tamil community, including through meaningful devolution, contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we advocate that delivering on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community is in the best interests of Sri Lanka,” said Pandey.

A file photo of ethnic Tamil demonstrators protesting against the Sri Lanka government in Sydney, February 4, 2009. Reuters/Daniel Munoz

Calling on Sri Lanka to address Tamil aspirations, India said that Colombo should take “necessary steps” through the “process of reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka”.

After the UK-led core group circulated the draft resolution, the first informal consultations with other countries will be held in Geneva on March 1.

It is learnt that India has not yet taken a call on its vote in the resolution, as it awaits the resolution’s final shape. India’s statement on Thursday, however, was an indication that “all options were open”.

A clear signal was conveyed through the statement that it was not providing full support to Colombo, said sources.

Speaking to The Wire, the spokesperson of the UK-based group of Sri Lanka Tamils diaspora, Global Tamil Forum, said that he was “very happy” with India’s statement.

He even compared it with India’s explanation of the vote when New Delhi voted against Sri Lanka in a critical resolution approved by Human Rights Council in 2013. 

“Although the context of this statement made by the current HC Indra Mani Panday yesterday was different from what the then HC Dilip Sinha did in 2013 when India voted in favour, the basic contents remain pretty similar. The importance is that this is possibly the strongest statement by Indian at an interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka, since the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka,” said GTF spokesperson Suren Surendiran.

He also added that it was significant that India had underlined that resolving the aspiration of Tamils of Sri Lanka for equality, justice, peace and dignity” was fundamental to finding a permanent solution. “Note, it includes Justice!” he said.

Similarly, K. Guruparan, attorney-at-law and formerly Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Jaffna, felt that India’s statement “referring to meeting Tamil aspirations and Sri Lanka’s sovereignty as mutually reinforcing is interesting”.

“One wonders whether India also meant the contrary, that not meeting Tamil aspirations will weaken Sri Lanka’s sovereignty,” he asked.

The draft resolution recognises a “persistent lack of accountability through domestic mechanisms” and urged the UN human rights commission to devise strategies to support “relevant judicial proceedings in Member States with competent jurisdiction”.

India has a national position against resolutions targeting a single country in multilateral bodies. But, with regard to Sri Lanka, India’s record has been varied, as domestic political factors often dictated its voting decision.

In the last 12 years, there have been seven resolutions on Sri Lanka at the UN human rights council.

India’s vote at resolutions on Sri Lanka at UNHRC

After the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka had submitted a resolution (S-11/1) at a special session in May 2009. It was passed by 29 votes in favour, with the western bloc voting against it. India had voted in favour.

Three years later, the United States brought a substantial resolution (19/2) against Sri Lanka, which was approved. For the first time, India joined 23 other states voting in favour of the resolution. 

Next year in March 2013, India again voted in favour of another resolution (22/1) on Sri Lanka, drafted by the United States. Just ahead of the vote, Tamil Nadu’s main opposition party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), had withdrawn from the Centre’s ruling alliance on the grounds that India was not doing enough to alleviate the alleged human rights violations of Sri Lankan Tamils.

In March 2014, the Human Rights Council, through resolution 25/1, authorised an investigation of war crimes committed in Sri Lanka between February 2002 and 2011. India abstained during the vote on grounds that the resolution ignored steps taken by Sri Lanka at reconciliation.

After the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s defeat in 2015, Sri Lanka joined resolution 30/1 drafted by the Core Group that called for a domestic accountability mechanism, with the prospect of international judges. The Council adopted the resolution without a vote. 

The next two resolutions in 2017 (34/1) and 2019 (40/1) were also approved by consensus.

However, there will undoubtedly be a vote on a resolution on Sri Lanka before the end of the current HRC session. This will be the first such resolution after the Rajapaksa brothers came back to power in November 2019.

During the discussion on February 24 and 25, the divide between the member states were on expected lines – China, Pakistan defending Sri Lanka, while the UK and the EU were calling on Colombo to show more accountability. However, there was no statement on behalf of the bloc of Islamic countries.

Unlike in previous years, India’s remarks did not list any steps that Sri Lanka had taken on the reconciliation process. 

GTF”s Surendiran was optimistic that India might not just abstain at the voting. “I would read the last paragraph as an indication that India could potentially vote in favour of the resolution”.

Sri Lanka has made it clear that it wants a vote from India rejecting the resolution. Sri Lankan foreign secretary Jayanth Colombage told The Hindu that he hoped for “proactive” and “constructive” commitment, rather than abstention, which is “neither here, nor there.”

Guruparan felt that the Indian statement was indicative of its “frustration” with the Sri Lankan government. “The frustration is fuelled by the cancelling of the agreement signed during the former regime handing the development of the Eastern Container Terminal of the Colombo Port to India and other developments which reflect a realignment of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy priorities favouring China,” he said.

The Jaffna-based lawyer also felt that India’s vote would be decided with an eye on elections in Tamil Nadu. India’s Election Commission announced on Friday, February 26, that the southern state of Tamil Nadu will have a single-phase polling on April 6.

“AIADMK has already started reminding voters that UPA (i.e. Congress and DMK) had failed to stop the Sri Lankan government from committing atrocities during the last phase of the war in 2009. While the Sri Lankan Tamil issue has never been a deciding factor in Tamil Nadu elections, the AIADMK and BJP will be desperate to use anything that comes their way,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised the issue of Sri Lanka during his last visit to the southern state on February 14, 2021.