Why India should not support UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka

It was famously said of former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao that he could speak 12 languages – and stay silent in all of them. Manmohan Singh may not be a polyglot in the Narasimha Rao mould, but when it comes to keeping his mouth zipped, he has demonstrated a capacity that matches, and in many ways outdoes, Narasimha Rao’s own abilities.

Which is why it was fairly uncharacteristic for Manmohan Singh to have declared in Parliament on Monday that India is “inclined to vote” in favour of US-backed resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council targeting Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes in the last days of its war against the LTTE and for its failure to initiate meaningful political reconciliation with the island’s ethnic Tamils.

The human rights discourse is a morality play. Reuters

But Manmohan Singh’s articulation of what’s on the government’s mind wasn’t enough to please Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who dismissed his statement as “non-committal" and "futile" since he had made no reference to “human rights violations” by the Sri Lankan government.

There is something to be said for “strategic ambiguity” as a policy: by not revealing one’s hand too early, one can extract better leverage for one’s efforts, which can help secure one’s interests a lot better than moral grandstanding can. Or as the wily bureaucrats of Yes, Minister would say: Not having a policy is also a policy.

Much of the debate surrounding the UNHRC vote on 23 March is, of course, a morality play. The Sri Lankan government has been cussed about rejecting well-meant counsel from India and others to investigate allegations of war crimes as a way of securing political reconciliation. It sees the US-sponsored resolution as an imperialist interference in the affairs of a small island-nation, which has suffered the ravages of a 30-year civil war, and refuses to even acknowledge the severe loss of civilian lives when that war ended in 2009.

Sri Lankan commentators  point out that America’s human rights advocacy is problematic and characterised by double standards, given its own recent record of war-time actions – and its own dubious defence of human rights offenders in the past.

Political parties across the spectrum in Tamil Nadu, and human rights activists, however, see a vote against Sri Lanka as an important signal to send to the government to “tame its arrogance” and hold it accountable. The presence of 70,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India does provide India a stake in the process of political reconciliation that it wants to see.

Under pressure from Tamil parties, the Manmohan Singh government, which had earlier expressed itself in favour of more active engagement with the Sri Lankan government to secure the interests of the Sri Lanka Tamils, is veering towards voting in favour of the US-backed resolution.

But in their eagerness to “send a strong message” to the Sri Lankan government, advocates of such a vote have been blinded to larger political considerations that underlie all debates on human rights, and their implications for India’s own interests.

For one thing, the vote will almost certainly not be passed, given that China and Russia stand against it. To that extent, the resolution will do nothing to change the situation on the ground in Sri Lanka, except to inflict loss of face, which could prove counterproductive to the larger interest of securing political reconciliation.

Therefore, from an Indian perspective, the debate over the vote is only a “morality mirror” for us to judge ourselves by where we stand. There is, of course, compelling merit in the argument that human rights are universal, and no civilised society can fail to stand up for them. But beyond that idealist grandstanding, realpolitik considerations paint a vastly different picture of the international human rights regime, which is characterised by duplicity and selective invocation of “universal” principles.

India itself was the victim of similar moral grandstanding and mischief in the mid-1990s, when Pakistan and other Islamic states moved a UN resolution against India charging it with “human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir”. India beat back that effort thanks to strenuous efforts from the Indian political and foreign policy establishment, but so long as mischief makers and bleeding-heart liberals abound, such risks persist.

There is, of course, a case for India to improve its human rights record in troubled border States, but resolutions such as these take an unnaunced view of the context in which such human rights violations, shameful as they are, happen. In the end, such resolutions don’t do anything to advance the cause of human rights advocacy.

In Sri Lanka’s case too, the fear that the country will slip out of India’s orbit into China’s sphere of influence is probably overstated. Yet, a vote such as this, on a resolution that stands little chance of being passed, will only accelerate that process.

India’s diplomacy in its neighbourhood may not always have measured up to the highest standards of morality. But, as was demonstrated in Myanmar, a non-hectoring policy that is founded on pragmatism and balances India’s strategic interests with the need to do the right thing wins out in the long run.