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The storm in a Geneva teacup: World divided over conflicted Sri Lanka

Rajan Philips
The Sri Lankan issue cannot be more than a storm in a teacup in Geneva. Everywhere in the UN, the topical notoriety belongs to the murderous Syrian regime and the untenable vetoes of Russia and China. But Geneva and UNHRC are hot topics in Sri Lanka and are getting hotter in Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu has not shown so much discontent against Delhi in a long time, perhaps not after the anti-Hindi agitations in the 1960s. There could be harsher reactions in Tamil Nadu if India were to vote against the US sponsored resolution- “Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka”, than there might be in Colombo if the resolution were to pass in Geneva.

At the moment, India is the leading fence sitter in Geneva along with ten others. Aside from the eleven fence sitters, the support for and opposition to the resolution among the 47 UNHRC voting members, appears to be evenly split at 18 apiece. However, the US is reportedly confident that it has the support of 22 countries, just two short of a majority.

“India will sit there as long as she finds it comfortable” was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s witty response to critics who took his government to task for sitting on the fence when India decided not to recognize either the Viet Minh government or the Viet Nam government at the start of the Indo China conflict. That was in 1949, a different era and a different question, but the contrast with the present is striking given the patent lack of wit or wisdom, not to mention principle, in India’s current policy on Sri Lanka.

It would be unfair to characterize India’s position as running with the hare and hunting with the hound, although it is difficult to dispel the notion that India may have encouraged the US-sponsored resolution while knowing that it will vote against the resolution. The logic in this is to subject Sri Lanka to western pressure while India stays on the inside track to work on the Sri Lankan government and achieve incremental results. Put another way, India would leave the grandstanding to the West and limit itself to quiet diplomacy with Colombo.

New Delhi may not have bargained for the current level of hostile reaction in Tamil Nadu to India voting against the resolution. The main reason for this is the obvious failure of quiet diplomacy to have had any effect on the Sri Lankan government. This is also the reason for the resolution on Sri Lanka at the current UNHRC session. The Sri Lankan government has used India as a regional buffer against the West, a position that India covets, while effectively neutralizing India and blunting its quiet diplomacy by flirting with China, whom India has not found a way to deal with positively and without paranoia.

Triumphalism and denials

Put in another way, Sri Lanka has played India against the West and played China against India. There is nothing wrong with this approach provided the Sri Lankan government has been sincere in putting its own house in order after the calamity of the war. Sadly, however, the government began its postwar rebuilding on a number of mistaken notes: triumphalism – both in regard to its internal victory and as a showoff to the world as to how to beat terrorism, denial of any civilian suffering or casualties during the war, denial that there is an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, and denial of a need for a political solution after the war. The government’s actions and inactions have been predicated on triumphalism and denials.

Their highpoint came in the 2009 UNHRC resolution congratulating Sri Lanka for defeating terrorism and calling for international financial assistance for postwar reconstruction. Since that time the Sri Lankan government has not been able to sustain that position of high ground. It could have, if it had sincerely followed India’s prodding and worked on a political solution. A political settlement may have compounded questions of war crimes and human rights violations, a possibility that the LLRC Report has also alluded to.

The brewing storm in Geneva could have been wholly avoided if the Sri Lankan government has accomplished or has at least started to do even a quarter of the commitments the Sri Lankan ministers are now making in Geneva. It is also pertinent to ask the question whether the government would have made these commitments if there was no resolution before the current UNHRC session. Western grandstanding may seem to have produced some results as opposed to India’s quiet diplomacy that has resulted in nothing worthwhile.

Before tabling the resolution, the American government had made every effort to engage the Sri Lankan government to come to an agreement in regard to the goals now incorporated in the resolution. But the Sri Lankan government while not rejecting the American overtures has decided to circumvent them by opposing the resolution.

No country likes to be targeted at the UN and many countries are not comfortable with supporting country specific resolutions. When such resolutions are sponsored by Western countries, member countries usually divide along western and non-western lines. The alignments for and against the resolution reflect this division. The supporters of the resolution are mostly US and European members with the exception of Russia, and Latin American countries with the exception of Cuba. Opposing the resolution will be Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries.

The fact of the matter is even those who will vote against the resolution are not unaware of the situation in Sri Lanka. The perfect example would be India for even if India were to vote against the resolution, it cannot be interpreted as India’s endorsement of the government of Sri Lanka. India has sided with Sri Lanka on all previous occasions but this time it has to deal with a discontented Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan government has risen to the occasion in its own way by unleashing its supporters in street protests against the resolution ostensibly as a show of domestic support but also to crowd-out peoples’ protests against the government over rising prices and sponsored crimes. But the bigger farce in the whole Geneva teacup storm is that it has now become a numbers game, a matter for punters to bet on which way the vote will go or how each member country will cast its vote.

The sponsors and supporters of the resolution do not want to lose while the official Sri Lankan position is to defeat the resolution by whatever means. On the morning after the vote, no matter which way it goes, the government of Sri Lanka will have to figure out a way to keep all the promises it has been forced to make in Geneva. The resolution protesters would start leaving the streets and other protesters will take over the public space.

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