By J Jeganaathan
It has been six months since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution against Sri Lanka for its human rights abuses and violation of international law during the final phase of the war in 2009. The human rights sword of Damocles will soon be hung over Sri Lanka’s head once the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group begins its fourteenth session in Geneva to review the country’s progress. The working group consists of a group of 47 countries headed by a ‘troika’. By default, India is part of the troika, along with Benin and Spain, which will review Sri Lanka’s human rights situation on 1 November.
Political weather across the Palk Strait is getting rough as usual. India, as a member of the troika, will have to tread carefully in this meeting. Though the meeting is represented only by officials from the member countries, Foreign Ministers from both India and Sri Lanka will have a tough time addressing their domestic audience including pressure groups. In this context, this article raises two questions significant to the current development: Has Sri Lanka fulfilled its commitments towards implementing the recommendations of the self-prepared Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report? Where will India stand this time – for, against or neutral?
For Sri Lanka, it is another battle against the international community’s crusade for human rights. A large group of experts and diplomats have already been despatched to present their progress report before the working group. Political parties in Sri Lanka stand united in support of the government and even pitched for the abolition of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution which authorises the devolution of powers to provinces – considered as the political solution for ethnic Tamils.
The UNHRC Resolution passed in March, 2012 against Sri Lanka made two earnest appeals to the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to implement the constructive recommendations proposed by the LLRC including:
- “the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all and enact rule of law reforms”; and,
- “requests to the Government of Sri Lanka to present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the Commission’s report, and also to address alleged violations of international law”.
On ground, it seems the GoSL has taken no steps to implement any of these recommendations. The defence secretary has even refuted the likelihood of demilitarisation of northern Sri Lanka. The ruling coalition parties have recently urged the President to moot a resolution in the Parliament to scrap the 13th amendment. Media freedom is highly restricted and suppressed. Death threats to editors, police raids on websites, abduction and intimidations still exist. Instead of making concrete efforts to rebuild and reconcile with estranged Tamils, the government has been building a victory memorial in war-ravaged northern Sri Lanka. Traces of Tamil history and culture have been vandalised. Overall, this gives an impression that reconciliatory work is not in progress at all.
India the ‘Third Umpire’
By virtue of being a regional power and principled actor, India chose to play a ‘third umpire’ role in this test series between Sri Lanka and the international community. India seems displeased over the post-war developments in Sri Lanka especially the GoSL’s apathetic move towards a political solution prescribed in the 13th amendment. It also received diatribe from Sri Lankan political parties for thrusting the amendment through the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987. For India, the domestic pressure emanating from the Tamil Nadu polity needs to be countered deftly. On the edge, it may have to consider its image in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhalese as a benign neighbour, to safeguard its geopolitical interest.
It appears India has decided to play a role based on principles rather than pragmatism in persuading Sri Lanka to abide by its commitments. A pragmatic approach in terms of political or economic leverage at the bilateral level would only upset India’s geostrategic interest in the region. So, the best option for India is to use this multilateral normative forum to pressurize Sri Lanka to implement the key recommendations of the LLRC report, including the 13th amendment.
In the review meeting, India will be the third umpire deciding whether Sri Lanka’s performance in terms of improving the human rights situation makes the cut or not. To reach an objective conclusion on this matter, India must act with discretion and needs to look at the issue through a humanitarian prism bearing in mind the critical necessity of the right to livelihood and freedom of movement.
Research Fellow, IRes, IPCS
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