Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Voting against Sri Lanka

PP Shukla

Fighting an insurgency is dirty business. We in India know that. In the west, this is understood with the cold-blooded acceptance that is typical of them. And they have never hesitated to draw blood when their interests required it. It is only when their plans are thwarted by the other side successfully applying force that we hear the cry of human rights and war crimes. These are obvious points, and we have been – still are in some areas - at the receiving of the double standards. It would be reasonable to expect that the Government would appreciate this reality and frame its policies accordingly. Evidently not, as the recent vote on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council shows.

On the draft Resolution naming Sri Lanka, we began with the eminently sensible assertion that we have never supported country-specific resolutions on human rights. The logic is that we have ourselves been the target of such attempts in the past, and have drawn the right lesson – never support the condemnation of any country by name. In large measure, this is because we all know that such resolutions are really political in nature, and the human rights issue is just a thin veneer to make the adoption of such resolutions more palatable in multilateral settings. It is, for example, highly unlikely that we shall see any resolution naming Bahrain for human rights violations – or Pakistan, where Hindus and other minorities literally live in terror.
In addition, Sri Lanka is an area of vital interest to us, and one of the better bilateral relationships among our South Asian neighbours. Not just that, the LTTE – as distinct from the Tamil population of Sri Lanka – has given us nothing but grief since the days of the IPKF. In short, there were many reasons for GOI to adhere the time-tested policy of not supporting country-specific resolutions.

But the Prime Minister reversed that stand under pressure from the Dravida parties, even though it is difficult to understand what kind of pressure these two parties were able to bring; one is weak and needs the Congress, rather than the other way around; the other is not a supporter at all and is not likely to be one any time soon.

The Resolution itself is straightforward enough. Its demands are, however, such that we would not countenance any such demand being placed on us. It requests the Government of Sri Lanka, inter alia, “to present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations made in the [Lessons Learned and Reconciliation] Commission’s report, and also to address alleged violations of international law”. Not many Governments in the world would like to be at the receiving end of such a demand, no matter that it is couched in polite language.

The proceedings themselves are also revealing: China and Cuba spoke in defence of the Sri Lankan position. The Americans, supported by the EU countries, expressed support for the Draft Resolution. Sri Lanka thanked China and Cuba for their support. Many countries gave explanations of vote, including the above countries, as well as Russia. India did not speak in the debate, or provide an explanation of vote. Russia, China, Bangladesh, Maldives all voted against the Resolution. Malaysia was among the eight countries that abstained. India voted in favour, and was also the only Asian country that did so.

There is a Tamil problem in Sri Lanka. And India alone has the knowledge, the standing, and the commitment to both the Sri Lankans and the Tamils to play a fair and effective role in righting this situation. But not for the first time, we are flunking our role and our destiny. This is a pity, for we have covered the hard yards over the last three decades. The framework for a solution has been worked out, largely under Indian prodding. It only needs to be implemented in good faith now. India is in a position to contribute to this process too, and ensure a positive outcome. We have made some efforts, but obviously not serious enough to make the critical difference. Events such as the vote will only complicate our task; fortunately, the Prime Minister is reported to have written to the Sri Lankan President after the vote, so it is to be hoped that that will smooth things over. It would also be wise for Sri Lanka also not to make a long-term grievance of this matter, and agree to put it behind us.

However, the Tamil problem should not be allowed to become an LTTE problem. This was the mistake we made in the 1980’s, when the LTTE physically eliminated all rival groups, and we acquiesced in this. The bitter experience of the later years, including the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, should serve as a reminder against allowing the LTTE – and its western supporters, lay and ecclesiastical – to become the sole voice of Tamil aspirations again. Their agenda is not in our interest. Eelam is not in our interest in today’s circumstances.

Further, we have serious challenges emerging afresh in the neighbourhood. China is making steady progress in Sri Lanka. Some of it is a result of our incompetence, some of it is the Sri Lankan attitude of trying to outsmart us – a common affliction in South Asia. But we have vital stakes in the country, and cannot fashion our responses out of pique, or because of pressure from within and without. Pakistan is similarly fishing in the troubled waters. If standing up to domestic and external pressure was needed, it was here, not over Iran.
And that is the second point worth making. Just as we should have resisted all kinds of pressures over the Sri Lanka vote, we need to be more pragmatic, and less perverse, over Iran. There are important interests in Iran, no doubt, but there is less substance to them than our current policy would seem to suggest. Oil imports are undoubtedly important, but that about sums it all up. All the rest, particularly the route to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia, is a very remote possibility. This is because Iran is itself not quite clear where it stands – with the Taliban and Pakistan, or against this alliance. It is an active participant in all the regional summits hosted by Pakistan. This is because it is driven basically by a visceral opposition to America, even though it is far from clear that this represents the popular view of America within Iran. It is also worth remembering that the regime itself is unpopular and devoid of legitimacy.

Equally important, it is far from clear that India has the will to pursue any serious interest or stake in this region. There are legitimate grounds to doubt whether we have the stamina for any long-term commitment even to Afghanistan. The test of all this is to be found in the willingness - or otherwise – of GOI to stand up to Pakistan’s bare-knuckles policies in Afghanistan. For instance, Pakistan will not allow Indian goods to transit to Afghanistan; and yet, we have unilaterally given Pakistani goods MFN treatment, when they have not done so for Indian goods, as they are required to do under the WTO rules. We are also now planning, if press reports are to be believed, to allow for easier Pakistani investments – investments from Pakistan! – in India even though they have not yet finalised their position on MFN status for India.

Moreover, the investigations by the Delhi Police into the bombing of the Israeli diplomat’s car make it clear that there was Iranian involvement. This is a serious breach of all diplomatic norms and even by the standards of the special agencies, this is an unfriendly act. Iran must be called to account for this. We have approached the country for help in bringing the accused to justice; their willingness to cooperate will be the litmus test of their true intent vis-à-vis India.

As against this, we have real, immediate, and substantive interests in the west and Israel and the west, as has been set out in an earlier piece in this space. For far too long, we have neglected our national interests while pursuing mistaken policies. High time to set things right.

Author is Joint Director in Vivekananda International Foundation

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