The time has come for India to be bolder and more confident on human rights at the international level. Its growing stature in international affairs demands this leadership position.
The current session of the UN Human Rights Council presents India with an excellent opportunity to move towards a foreign policy that truly befits the world’s largest democracy. It should seize the opportunity and vote in favour of accountability in Sri Lanka.
In 2009, when the UNHRC called an emergency session in response to the human catastrophe in Sri Lanka, India helped shelter the country from condemnation and international investigations. But three years later — when Sri Lanka has done little to address alleged violations of humanitarian law during the last days of its confrontation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — Sri Lanka is expected to come up again at the Council .
It is expected that a resolution will be proposed in coming weeks that will express disappointment that Sri Lanka has not adequately addressed serious allegations of violations of international law, nor done much to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations. It will call on Sri Lanka to create an action plan and then report back to the Council on steps taken to address such allegations. In other words, Sri Lanka has to do much better to embed peace on the island and the world will watch its efforts.
Unfortunately, the proposed resolution does not go far enough. It will not immediately call for direly needed international investigations — a bitter disappointment. In this context, the proposed resolution must not preclude future UNHRC efforts that demand justice, accountability and international investigations in Sri Lanka. The resolution should be voted on only as a first step in the right direction, and not as a final step to water down scrutiny or as a tactic to delay urgently needed justice in Sri Lanka.
From India’s point of view, the resolution is saying nothing that India has not ostensibly been asking of Sri Lanka both publicly and privately — real accountability and soon. A stable, well-governed neighbour is in India’s interest as a regional power. Stability requires that alienated populations experience justice for the past and in the future. Denials, diplomatic spin and cosmetic efforts that paper over past misdeeds cannot achieve this. Today, only a negative peace exists in Sri Lanka.
India has two other considerations in Sri Lanka — the need to retain its influence in the country as China forges ahead with economic aid and investment, and the need to be sensitive to the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils , who have strong ethnic and kinship links with India’s own 70 million plus population in Tamil Nadu. Support for accountability in Sri Lanka may serve both interests equally well. In the long run, especially as the world’s largest democracy, it is India’s ability to take the moral high ground that will prove to be advantageous against China’s economic influence in Sri Lanka. In the short run, accountability in Sri Lanka will bring justice closer to its disaffected populations.
The present action comes not a moment too soon. In 2011, the UN Secretary-General’s expert panel found serious and credible allegations that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by both parties in the final war between the LTTE and the government. Over 40,000 men, women and children have allegedly been killed. The panel called for an international investigation, but the Sri Lankan government reacted angrily and told the international community to wait for its own domestic mechanism, the oft-criticised and deeply flawed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), to finish deliberations before rushing to judgment.
The LLRC’s report was tabled before the Sri Lankan parliament 18 months after its establishment . While it made certain positive recommendations, it all but ignored the issue of accountability. India’s response may have been couched in diplomacy, but the message was clear: the Sri Lankan government had to go further and establish an independent and credible mechanism to investigate human rights abuses in timely manner.
Still, despite the pressure, a truly independent domestic mechanism to investigate war time abuses is unlikely to be established any time soon . Such a mechanism would probably cut too close to home for the comfort of some of the highest-ranking members of the government and army. Just last month, the Sri Lankan government announced the establishment of a military board of inquiry with its members appointed by the former commander in the Vanni — the same commander and the same Vanni where evidence allegedly exists of egregious human rights abuses by security forces under that very commander’s watch. It is these kinds of sleights of hand that will need to be addressed by all, including India, if the proposed resolution is adopted and Sri Lanka is to report back during the June session of the Council.
That Sri Lanka wants to keep accountability and international opprobrium at bay is clear from its foreign minister’s recent whistle-stop tour of Africa and Latin America, during which he tried to persuade the world not to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. As the big fish in the region, India also has the potential to sway votes, as it did in 2009. This time, its stature would be greatly enhanced if it could sway them in favour of accountability.
The writer is director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative