New Delhi: India on Thursday voted in favour of a US-sponsored resolution censuring Sri Lanka on its human rights record, disregarding the risk of embittering ties with the island nation in a move that was criticized by analysts, but was seemingly unavoidable for a government seeking to ensure its survival by placating a party that demanded such a stand.
There were 25 votes in favour of the US-sponsored resolution at the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), 13 against it and eight abstentions, PTI reported.
In what appeared to be a tit-for-tat move, Sri Lanka almost immediately announced it would repossess part of a strategic oil storage depot from Indian Oil Corp. Ltd (IOC) in the island nation’s north-eastern port town of Trincomalee, AFP reported from Colombo.
Sri Lanka’s information minister Keheliya Rambukwella denied the two developments were linked, saying there were provisions to repossess tanks that were not used by the local unit of IOC, Lanka IOC Plc. Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, however, rejected the report as “incorrect”.
Critics have accused Sri Lankan government forces of human rights violations during the three-decade-long Tamil separatist conflict that ended in May 2009 with the killing of rebel Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. The Tamil Tigers were fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority carved out of the north and east of the Sinhalese-majority island nation.
Ahead of the UNHRC vote, India expressed concern over the “inadequate progress” made by Sri Lanka in improving its human rights record and called for an “independent and credible investigation into allegations of human rights violations and loss of civilian lives”, especially in the last stages of the civil war.
Dilip Sinha, India’s ambassador to UNHRC in Geneva, said, “We urge Sri Lanka to take forward measures to ensure accountability. We expect these measures to be to the satisfaction of the international community.”
The vote followed the withdrawal by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government on Tuesday on the grounds that India wasn’t being tough enough on Sri Lanka for the alleged human rights abuses. The issue of Sri Lankan Tamils is an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu, where the DMK is the main opposition party.
Explaining India’s position, Sinha said the country encouraged Sri Lanka “to expedite the process of a broad-based, inclusive and meaningful reconciliation and political settlement that ensures that all communities live in dignity with equal rights and equal protection of the laws... As a neighbour with thousands of years of relations with Sri Lanka, we cannot remain untouched by developments in that country and will continue to remain engaged in this matter”.
India is of the view that the report presented by Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in December 2011 “provides a window of opportunity to forge a consensual way forward towards a lasting political settlement through genuine national reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all its citizens”, Sinha said.
A person close to the developments said India had suggested to the US, the sponsor of the resolution, seven amendments incorporating stronger language in the text of the resolution. But the US did not agree to them fearing an erosion of support for the resolution.
Criticizing India’s strategy, former Indian high commissioner to Australia and Myanmar, G. Parthasarthy, pointed out that Sri Lanka was a country recovering from decades of civil war.
“They should be allowed to proceed (with reconciliation and reforms) at a pace they are comfortable with,” he said.
“The Indian government failed to communicate to the people of Tamil Nadu what it was doing,” Parthasarthy said, referring to various steps taken by India to rehabilitate the people—mainly Tamils—displaced by war, including the construction of some 50,000 houses. “These were proceeding well, something recognized by the UN, too.”
Leela Ponappa, a former deputy national security adviser, agreed that India’s vote “marked a departure” from its previous “consistent policy of dealing bilaterally with its neighbours” that would in turn impact ties.
The 13 countries voting against the resolution on Sri Lanka included India’s rival Pakistan, which called for “helping and not criticizing” the island nation.
India’s strategic and economic rival China, which has been seen making inroads into Sri Lanka, was not among the UNHRC members, sitting out for a year after having completed two consecutive three-year terms in the council.
China, which has been involved in major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including the construction of the $1.5 billion (around Rs.8,145 crore today) Hambantota port in Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home constituency, voted against a similar UNHRC resolution censuring Sri Lanka last year.
Moves by Colombo to hike excise and import duties on small cars—mainly imported from India—were seen as a retaliatory gesture by an annoyed Sri Lanka at the time. India’s trade with Sri Lanka in 2011-12 amounted to a little more than $4 billion. Its investments in Sri Lanka amount to $800 million. Indian businesses present in Sri Lanka include IOC, the Tata group, Bharti Airtel Ltd, Piramal Glass Ltd, Life Insurance Corporation of India, Ashok Leyland Ltd, Larsen and Toubro Ltd and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.
Earlier in the day in Colombo, hundreds of Sri Lankan pro-government activists protested against the UNHRC vote, holding up traffic close to President Rajapaksa’s official residence and chanted slogans denouncing US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Federation of National Organisations, led by a key ruling party ally, marched to the area carrying placards denouncing the US for moving the censure resolution in Geneva and India for backing it.