India not anti-Lanka, it’s pro-reconciliation

An issue that agitates the country’s Tamil population is a national issue and has to be directly addressed in a democracy like India

India’s decision to support a UN resolution on a war crimes probe in Sri Lanka appears to have dismayed a number of commentators and experts within India. It is being made out that New Delhi acted foolishly and would end up alienating Colombo, which would now fall into Beijing’s lap.
One foreign affairs analyst even called the move “diplomatic hara-kiri”, suggesting that India would now expose itself to similar assaults from its detractors. It is also being insinuated that New Delhi would not have voted as it did had it not been for pressure from Indian Tamil political parties.

The notion that New Delhi did not vote with its heart or that this move will precipitate diplomatic disaster is unacceptable and speculative. An issue that agitates the country’s Tamil population is a national issue and has to be directly addressed in a heterogeneous democracy such as India.
Moreover, just as Colombo has the right to persistently refuse international scrutiny into a tragic and terrible event of its own making, New Delhi too has every right to take a stand. And that is precisely what the Indian Prime Minister did; he also reminded the Sri Lankan government that while supporting the UN motion India had amended it to prevent any kind of direct international interference.
The UN Human Rights Council resolution is more of a rebuke than anything else. It shows international opprobrium against the behaviour of the Sri Lankan government and military during the last days of the fight with the LTTE. The LTTE might have been a monstrous, fascist organisation that needed to be destroyed, but rounding up civilians and shelling them is altogether another matter.
But this is precisely what a 2010 UN report alleged. The report submitted by a panel headed by former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman said there were credible allegations that government troops had deliberately shelled Tamil civilians and hospitals as well as blocked food and medicine to civilians in the war zone in the final months of the war. According to some estimates, as many as 40,000 civilians were killed by Lankan troops in the final stages of fighting which ended in May 2009.
The UN report concluded that “tens of thousands of civilians were killed between January and May 2009. Many died anonymously in the final days. The Sri Lankan government subjected the civilians who managed to escape the conflict zone to further deprivation and suffering. Screening for Tamil Tigers took place without any transparency or external scrutiny. Some of those separated by the screening were summarily executed whilst women were raped. Others simply disappeared. All IDPs (internally displaced persons) were detained in closed, overcrowded camps where they were deprived of their basic rights. The conditions in the camps resulted in many unnecessary deaths.”
This is a terrible indictment and the UNHRC did well to demand that the probe be internationalised. The United States, while introducing the resolution against Sri Lanka, pointed out that Colombo had been given three years to conduct its own probe against the war crimes allegations but had done nothing. Rather, it had asked the military to conduct the probe. That was like asking the accused to investigate a crime. Not surprisingly, the military had given itself a clean chit.
This is the situation the 47-member UNHRC wished to remedy. Only 15 nations, including Russia and China, voted against the resolution, 24 voted for it and eight decided to abstain. After the vote, the US ambassador to the UNHRC, Eileen Donahoe, was quoted as saying, “Our view is that if there isn’t some form of truth and accounting of these kind of mass-scale atrocities and casualties, you can’t have lasting peace.”
Colombo has not taken the rebuke well. An incensed Sri Lankan government led by its hawkish President Mahinda Rajapakse subtly warned India of dire consequences and told the international community to mind its own business. The Sri Lankan official spokesman declared that a precedence has been set and a vote could now be used to bring a similar resolution against India on the Kashmir dispute.
Sinhala anger against the United States and India spilled onto the streets. Street protesters handed out stickers urging Sri Lankans to boycott Coca-Cola, wheat flour, Pepsi and other American goods. A senior Lankan minister even addressed a rally where he thundered that he would break the legs of the three journalists who had deposed against the government at the UNHRC.
The country’s acting foreign minister declared in Parliament that “we will not, under any circumstances, allow others to impose on us their advice or solution.” On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Tamils traumatised by the horrendous slaughter of the last days of the fighting have welcomed the UN move.
The reaction in Sri Lanka against the UN resolution is pure jingoism. The resolution does not impose sanctions against the island nation, nor does it punish it in any way; all it seeks to achieve is a permanent reconciliation between the nation’s two major ethnic groups — the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It suggests that ethnic reconciliation is not possible without investigating and punishing those responsible for the horrific massacres of Tamil civilians that took place in the last days of the fighting.
As for apprehensions regarding a possible Sri Lankan tilt towards China, there is little that New Delhi can do about it. Beijing with its deep pockets and overweening desire to dominate Asia is already hyperactive in the Indian Ocean region; it has built ports, strategic highways and other facilities in a number of nations in order to dominate the region and has made it a practice to dole out generous handouts.
Colombo’s Beijing tilt precedes the UN vote. Like a number of other countries in the neighbourhood, Colombo too dangles the China card. India need not get agitated over such behaviour.
A soft, waffling New Delhi is not the real threat. The nations that have made Faustian alliances with Beijing should know that such deals come at a price. The real danger lies in the future when Beijing will one day seek to encash its support. Should that happen at a time of conflict, the consequences could well be catastrophic.

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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