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Sri Lankan war crimes

March 23, 2012

The UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution urging Sri Lanka to conduct a probe into alleged war crimes in the civil war with Tamil Tiger separatists. India voted in favor of the resolution; China did not.

Image: AP

India's decision was largely a result of massive pressure from political parties in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a key member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition, had been threatening for weeks to quit the government if it did not support the resolution.

Kanimozhi, a DMK MP and the daughter of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Karunanidhi, could not hide her delight. "This is a victory for democracy, not just for the political parties in Tamil Nadu but for every peace-loving and law-abiding nation. India has done the right thing," she told Deutsche Welle.

"This is a major victory," agreed Anbumani, a civil rights activist from Tamil Nadu. "A victory that finally justice will prevail for the innocents killed in the brutal war."

Chief of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Muthuvel Karunanidhi
DMK head Muthuvel Karunanidhi put pressure on the governmentImage: AP

Observers say India's vote in Geneva is likely to have implications for its relations with Colombo, all the more so because it represents a shift in Indian foreign policy.

This shift comes as a surprise as India and Sri Lanka have a long history of cultural and political ties and a strong bilateral agreement. Throughout the final stages of Sri Lanka's civil war, India implicitly supported President Mahinda Rajapaksa's resolve to wipe out Tamil Tiger separatists and since then it had consistently backed Sri Lanka's position that it can handle its own internal affairs.

Countering China

However, apart from the domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu parties, observers believe there are other strategic reasons for New Delhi's decision to break with its tradition of not backing country-specific resolutions in the UN and risking a possible deterioration of bilateral ties with its island nation neighbor.

For Srikant Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India is making a point to China, which has increasingly become Sri Lanka's partner of choice for big projects.

He cites the reconstruction of the port city of Hambantota, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami and happens to be the home constituency of President Rajapakse, as an example.

"China is financing the cost of the $1.24 billion project. Similar arrangements have been struck for an international airport being built nearby. Is China not increasing its footprint there?" he asks.

The Hambantota port
The Hambantota port is being rehauled with Chinese funds and workersImage: AP

"And let us also not forget China's help during the war," Kondapalli points out. "It armed the Sri Lankan army with small arms, armored personal carriers and guns. All this is shadow-boxing in a third arena."

Time and space

Others feel that India is being encouraged by Washington to become a bigger player in South Asia, especially if it wants a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. For that it would require US support.

"India is South Asia's largest country and it could play a key role in urging Sri Lanka to implement the resolution given that it isn't legally binding. India is the big brother in the region after all," says Ramesh Menon, a political analyst.

Washington was quick to express its appreciation of the Indian move. The US envoy to the UN council, Eileen Donahue, said in Geneva that India's backing was "very helpful because they are such a close neighbor (to Sri Lanka)."

India did not take the floor during the debate but the foreign ministry issued a statement after the vote saying that Colombo had "to be provided time and space to achieve the objectives of reconciliation and peace."

P Sahadevan, a Sri Lankan expert told Deutsche Welle, thought the fact that Sri Lanka had not been given a deadline was not a very encouraging sign. "Does it actually pave the way for reconciliation?” he asked. "There is no time frame listed and given the Sri Lankan government's record, nobody knows. Apart from the name and shame Sri Lanka tag, I really don't see much movement forward."

Meanwhile, there has been anger in Sri Lanka about the the resolution adopted on Thursday by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Daily News said that the countries which had backed it were making "a desperate attempt to disempower and undermine Sri Lanka and they are trying every trick in the bag to further this dark design." The privately-run, pro-government Island newspaper criticized India, which it described as Sri Lanka's traditional ally, for voting in favor of the resolution.

Members of the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva
A 100-member Sri Lankan delegation lobbied against the resolution for weeksImage: Claudia Witte

"India has been a loser in Geneva, though it helped the US win," the Island said. "India failed to carry Asia, or at least South Asia with it. In other words, Sri Lanka has won against India in Asia."

China, Pakistan and Bangladesh all voted against the motion. In total, there were 24 votes in favor, 15 against and eight abstentions.

The Sri Lankan civil war was one of the longest running armed conflicts in Asia, continuing until May 2009 when the army finally defeated the Tamil Tigers.

The United Nations estimates some 100,000 people died between 1972 and 2009. Rights groups say up to 40,000 died in the final months of the military campaign. The resolution urges Sri Lanka to probe allegations of summary executions, kidnappings and other abuses. However, it stops short of calling for an international investigation.

Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Grahame Lucas