The speculative build-up to India’s vote on United Nations Human Rights Council, or UNHRC, resolution on Sri Lanka was hinged on the possibilities of India facing the challenge of the delicate handling of twin issues: satisfying the domestic Tamil community, more so in the election season, and retaining the diplomatic space as it seeks to reset its South Asia strategy in the wake of current dynamics.
The resolution, seventh since the Sri Lankan government- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, war ended in 2009, called for fixing accountability for war crimes and rights violations by the authorities as well as the implementation of the 13th amendment on power devolution.
Earlier this week, India decided to abstain from the vote at the UNHRC’s 46th session in Geneva, and in many ways, the move to opt out was one of the markedly tactical options available to India while it tries to walk the tightrope on the issue.
Even though the resolution was adopted with the support of 22 countries in the 47-member body, India would heave a sigh of relief that by choosing to abstain, it managed to avoid ruffling the feathers of both the incumbent Sri Lankan government as well as Tamil National Alliance, or TNA, the largest political group representing Tamil interests in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
It’s relevant to remember that both the Sri Lankan government and the TNA, hoping for opposite outcomes, had expressed confidence that India would support their respective positions on the resolution.
While the state-run Daily News had reported Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary Jayanth Colombage’s statement about India’s assurance of voting against the resolution at UNHRC, the TNA spokesperson and Jaffna legislator MA Sumanthiran had also sounded very hopeful about India endorsing the resolution. However, even an abstention was seen in favourable light by both the sides, and that’s where India could claim its position being understood by two different stakeholders. While foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena tweeted gratitude to the abstaining countries including India, the response of the TNA had a tone of understanding as well. Taking note of factors that India might have considered before deciding to abstain, TNA found comfort in India’s pre-vote statement which sought to balance the concerns of both the sides. “We are greatly encouraged by India’s statement ahead of the vote,” The Hindu quoted TNA spokesperson as saying.
In careful wording of its balancing act in the days leading to the UNHRC vote, India had maintained that heeding to interests of the Tamil community and the Sri Lankan government need not be mutually exclusive. “There are no either-or choices,” India’s permanent representative Indra Mani Pandey asserted. The Indian diplomat went on to elaborate that India’s consistent position has rested on two pillars of commitment to Tamil aspirations for “equality, justice, peace and dignity” and support to Sri Lanka’s “unity and territorial integrity”. The Indian delegation also called for the implementation of the 13th amendment, which requires power devolution. Pawan Badhe, first secretary in India’s Permanent Mission, emphasised India’s view that both the objectives are “mutually supportive”.
It was expected that some political parties in Tamil Nadu like DMK and MDMK, with adversarial relations with the ruling party at the centre, wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than India’s vocal support for the resolution. By dubbing the abstention as “betrayal of Eelam Tamils” the DMK chief M K Stalin responded on predictable lines. But, the comforting sign for India is that TNA’s response has been more understanding and hasn’t provided notes of grievance to their political sympathisers in Tamil Nadu.
Another predictable response has come from the Sri Lankan government which has rejected the resolution as “politically motivated” and as an instance of interference with the country’s sovereignty. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government was quick to dismiss the resolution as a non-starter because without the ‘consent and acceptance’ by the country concerned it can’t be implemented. The last three resolutions were co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, and hence, didn’t need to vote while the first three resolutions, in 2009, 2012, and 2013, respectively, were supported by India. In 2014, India abstained from voting. However, while even supporting the resolution in 2012 that called for investigation into human rights record, India, as an editorial comment in The Hindu recalled, “had got the resolution to incorporate the need for Sri Lanka’s concurrence to any assistance that the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights may offer in such a probe”.
In the last few years, the intrusion of China factor into India-Sri Lanka ties has made the diplomatic turf more delicate for New Delhi when it comes to dealing with Colombo. While China had extended its support for the Sri Lankan government position on the resolution well in advance, India couldn’t allow the diplomatic space further drift in its dealing with its island neighbour in the south. Even if an unequivocal “no” from China put in the list of 11 countries that Sri Lanka marked for special mention as “solid support’’, the fact that the foreign minister thanked India for abstaining seems an acknowledgment that India would settle for given its predicament. The immediate diplomatic goal for India is to make sure that a reset of its bilateral ties with neighbours is done as a damage-control of the slippage that let the Chinese foot in the strategic door. In addition to the usual strategic concerns of encirclement and string of pearls, India has noted with caution the special projects in the island country that have contributed to China gaining a degree of strategic sway.
In December 2017, for instance, struggling to pay the debt, the Sri Lankan government handed over Hambantota Port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years to China. It did raise deep concerns in India because, as The New York Times noted then: “The transfer gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.” Even though the claims of it being a prime example of China’s use of debt-diplomacy has been contested , India is profoundly conscious of the new terms of engagement and competitors in its relations with Sri Lanka. While Colombo acknowledges India’s powerful status in the region, the Sri Lankan foreign secretary even calling India “the superpower they are”, it knows that the island country’s diplomatic choices have widened. However, Colombo can’t afford to lose sight of the costs of the increasingly hegemonic designs of Beijing in the region either.
In its attempt to find the tactical equilibrium between the domestic constituency and refusal to yield diplomatic space in the neighbourhood, India’s abstention at UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka always looked more plausible of the options. In the process, New Delhi has also managed to tie two ends of realpolitik in the garb of principled positions. As China seeks widening of its strategic heft in India’s vicinity, India may need more such moves in making itself diplomatically attractive for its neighbours.