jump to navigation

Implications of India’s decision on Sri Lanka UNHCR Resolution April 5, 2012

Posted by nishankmotwani in : Future Directions International, Guest authors, India, Sri Lanka , trackback

Shanaka Jayasekara

First published in Future Directions International on 4 April 2012


The Indian decision to vote in support of the March 2012 US-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka seems a departure from its stated doctrine for an Indian sphere of influence.


Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stated, in the so-called “Indira Doctrine”, that ‘India will neither intervene in the domestic affairs of any state in the region unless requested to do so, nor tolerate such intervention by an outsider power.’ By supporting the US resolution, India, in some sense, has outsourced its regional stake to an external power.

But, is this a complete change in Indian foreign policy at the behest of Tamil Nadu, or part of a new Indian approach to broaden the stakeholders in the region? India has, in recent times, opted to stand in the shadow of multilateral processes to deal with regional issues. In Nepal, the Indians preferred to watch the UN’s UNMIN special mission manage the peace process. In the Maldives, India outsourced responsibility, with the Commonwealth Secretariat taking the lead.

India’s new policy of engaging with multilateral processes on regional issues is consistent with Indian strategic interest. India aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and prefers to embrace multilateral processes that demonstrate its capacity to act as a responsible member of the international community. India also sees benefits in drawing the United States and Western allies into a containment alliance against China and Pakistan. There is a growing convergence of strategic interest between India and the United States. In Afghanistan, the Indians have played a more reliable and credible role than Pakistan. On the issue of nuclear weapons, the US decision to support Indian membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) by default recognises India as a legitimate nuclear weapons state. Bringing in Western powers as broader South Asian stakeholders therefore serves the Indian interest.

In Sri Lanka, a sense of complacency had developed, with the belief that Indian support was unconditional. India maintained a non-interventionist policy during the war, which proved to be the game-changer for the Sri Lankan military victory. In the post-war period, Sri Lanka adopted an indecisive approach to political power sharing. The complacency in Sri Lanka was not a case of deception, but rather a strong view within the government that infrastructure development in the North will build peace and reconciliation. The development in the North has been unprecedented, keeping in mind the recession in Europe, the Euro crisis and a tsunami in Japan that significantly limited traditional donors in supporting the reconstruction effort.

Furthermore, the return of over 300,000 internally displaced persons in a short time is a notable achievement. The release of over 10,000 former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) combatants to the care of their families is a success story and a magnanimous gesture which has gone unnoticed. There is no doubt that Sri Lanka has delivered on reconstruction in the North, the return of IDPs and the reintegration of former combatants. When it comes to disarming dissident Tamil groups and a power-sharing mechanism, however, there has been limited progress.

But India cannot hold the moral high ground on post-war peace building. In the aftermath of Operation Blue Star in Amritsar that annihilated the Sikh separatist movement, killing thousands, the Indian Government signed the July 1985 Rajiv-Longowal Accord, which agreed to transfer the city of Chandigarh to Punjab. Over 25 years later, the city of Chandigarh remains a joint capital of both Haryana and Punjab states.

The US-sponsored resolution was timed to coincide with the Indian Budget. The United States knew that Indian support was vital and the budget provided the opportunity to break the Indian bureaucracy on this issue. The government of Manmohan Singh is a coalition; parties from Tamil Nadu have a strong presence in it. The Tamil Nadu parties threatened to leave the government if India did not support the US resolution in Geneva. It was no easy decision for India to vote against its neighbour at the UN, especially when the resolution was tabled on the eve of the Budget.

To fully understand the underlying reasons for the US initiative, one needs to refer to President Obama’s speech to the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010. President Obama stated that ‘we see leaders abolishing terms limits’. It was inferred at the time that the reference was highlighting the introduction of the 18thAmendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which took place a few days before President Obama’s speech. When the Executive branch of government attempts to stay in office beyond two terms (except in a Westminster-style system), a form of entrenched authority sets in. In Africa, several executive presidents have served consecutive terms for over 20 years. There is a concerted effort by the international community to reverse this trend, as seen in Ivory Coast, Senegal and even in Yemen and Burma.

The long-term agenda is to set in place a formal process with international trappings that can be escalated if and when required. In the next twelve months, Sri Lanka has to present an action plan for the implementation of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and to address alleged violations of international law. The latter will remain a contentious issue that will come under perpetual criticism. When the action plan is to be appraised in 2013, President Mahinda Rajapakse will be almost three years into his second term that began in November 2010. Membership of the UNHRC can run for two terms of three years each, which takes the US term up to 2018. President Rajapakse will have to contest re-election for his third term by 2016. A third term Rajapakse presidency may find a hostile and unforgiving international environment.


1. Vikas - April 5, 2012

“In the aftermath of Operation Blue Star in Amritsar that annihilated the Sikh separatist movement, killing thousands, the Indian Government signed the July 1985 Rajiv-Longowal Accord, which agreed to transfer the city of Chandigarh to Punjab. Over 25 years later, the city of Chandigarh remains a joint capital of both Haryana and Punjab states.”

Punjab was supposed to transfer some territories to Haryana and Chandigarh was to be transferred to Punjab. Neither of the state assemblies have done their bit. The day Punjab agrees to transfer land to Haryana it can take its neighbour to court for not vacting Chandigarh. But then one also has to ask the people of Chandigarh whether they want to join Punjab – and there are many Punjabi Sikhs in Chandigarh who prefer Union territory status because that gives them better public services. In addition, there are a number of legal and constitutional issues involved in transfer of territories within India that I cannot discuss for want of space. But let us ask if the issue of Chandigarh is an ethnic issue. I guess it is not. The reason being that partition of larger provinces have left behind a number of unresolved territorial issues across the country, most of which have been in the Supreme Court for decades.

So, the comparison of Sri Lanka’s lack of progress on LLRC with Chandigarh problem is misleading. If comparison is essential then I would suggest the limited progress on the report of inquiry into 1984 riots, etc. But at the end of the day a country ought to treat its citizen’s well irrespective of what its neighbours are doing.