By Shastri Ramachandaran
There are times on the world stage when statesman and diplomats stoop to conquer. And, there are times when Indian diplomats take the moral high ground only to emerge as losers. India voting in favour of the US-sponsored resolution on war crimes in Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in Geneva on March 22 falls in the latter category.
The consequences of India breaking ranks with the rest of Asia and voting against one of its closest neighbours and friends is certain to haunt New Delhi in the years to come. The unprecedented vote censuring Sri Lanka has gained India nothing, except the resentment of the people in the island republic.
On the face of it, the resolution was about human rights violations in Sri Lanka; it was about censuring the Sri Lankan state for the crimes committed in the course of the war it waged against Tamil separatist forces led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The resolution, purportedly, is about bringing to account a government guilty of war crimes.
Yet, for India, the resolution was not about human rights. It was about everything except human rights. It was a test of India’s ability to keep friends and influence its allies; it was a test of diplomatic savvy, of neighbourhood policy and of strategy. Above all, the resolution was a test of whether India’s foreign policy could rise above parochial domestic politics.
Sadly, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has flunked every one of these tests. And, the worst part of the resolution being carried in the UNHRC is that it sailed through narrowly – by one vote.
As Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G L Peiris pointed out after the voting, 15 countries voted with Sri Lanka against the resolution and eight countries abstained. That means 23 out of the 47 members in the UNHRC did not support the resolution, while 24 did. In other words, had India voted against it along with China and Russia, among others, the US-sponsored resolution may have fallen through.
The narrow margin will now only increase rancour and bitterness in Sri Lanka, which is bound to be wooed with renewed fervour by China. Driving Colombo closer to Beijing is the biggest strategic setback for New Delhi as a result of this vote. All Asian countries, except India, stood firmly behind Sri Lanka. As a result, any hope of Indian supremacy in the unfolding ‘Asian Century’ would be a chimera.
India’s relationship with neighbours, especially the trust that marks ties with Bangladesh and Maldives, for example, would be another casualty of this vote.
New Delhi did not win any brownie points for diplomacy, too. Either New Delhi should have come out in favour of the resolution when it was first mooted. Or, it should have stuck to the position of not favouring country-specific resolutions. It did neither. It hummed and hawed, and forgot that India had welcomed and expressed its approval of the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), when they first came out.
Politically, this exposes the Union Government as being under the thumb of regional parties, which dictate foreign policy issues to suit their own narrow agenda. If the DMK and AIADMK called the shots in this case, during Manmohan Singh’s 2011 visit to Bangladesh – the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 12 years – Trinamool Congress boss Mamata Banerjee scuttled the Teesta river waters agreement he proposed to sign in Dhaka. Banerjee as Bengal Chief Minister can at least claim she was defending the resources of her state. There is no such justification the Tamil parties can offer for their arm-twisting of the Prime Minister.
If the issue indeed was human rights, the India should be speaking up on a lot of violations in a number of countries including in the region and in Asia. The fact that New Delhi has chosen not do so, but succumbed to the diktats of the Kazhagams in the case of Sri Lanka alone exposes India’s espousal of human rights to be opportunistic, craven and bereft of any credibility.
The consequences of India’s voting against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR will have to be faced by successive governments at the Centre. The next time human rights violations In Kashmir figure in any international forum, New Delhi cannot complain if Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives vote against India. Besides, India may have lost, rather than gained, support in its quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
Lastly, India doesn’t look big or brave posturing against Colombo after being beaten into submission by a regional party like the DMK, which lost the Tamil Nadu elections.
Shastri Ramachandaran is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, had worked as Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing. This article first appeared in Life 365 on April 25, 2012.