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Sri Lanka: UNHRC resolution and after – Update No. 231


Note No. 681                                                Dated 26-Mar-2013

Col R Hariharan

The UNHRC passed the U.S. sponsored resolution (A/HRC/22/L.1/Rev.1) on Sri Lanka at its 22nd session at Geneva on March 21, 2013. The text of the resolution is at Annexure. The resolution was passed by 25 votes to 13. Eight nations abstained. Gabon was absent. 

The result was not unexpected. However, the content and wording of the resolution was stronger than the UNHRC’s 2012 resolution on Sri Lanka. It makes accountability in observing international human rights laws as its primary focus and has called for a “credible and impartial investigation” into such violations. This is important as it reflects the lack of faith in what Sri Lanka has done so far. Equally important is the reference to the continuing fundamental rights violations in the country.

The resolution also recognises the report of the Human Rights Commissioner Ms Navi Pillay and her recommendations to inquire into alleged violations of international law. In view of this, when the resolution comes up for review in 2014, more baggage could be added to it unless Sri Lanka is able to convince members of the progress it has made.

Sri Lanka’s flawed strategy

Sri Lankan representative’s speech on March 21 showed lack of specific strategy to handle issues raised at the current UNHRC session though its broad contours were indicated by three visiting senior bureaucrats of Washington as early as November 2013. Sri Lankan representative’s speech still focused upon procedural issues and rather than meaty issues relating to mounting allegations of human rights violations and war crimes and other substantive issues raised in Ms Pillay’s report. Even if Sri Lanka did not recognise her report, the speech could have addressed them.

A second aspect relates to floor management of voting. With the U.S. and the EU supporting the resolution which was sponsored by 41 UN members, the chances of success are high.  Last time, even the muscular support of China and Russia could not bale out Sri Lanka. In their absence, active support of India and Brazil –both influential powers beyond their geographical regions was required to defeat the resolution. However, apparently Sri Lanka’s efforts did not produce the results. Indian vote was probably conditioned by internal compulsions. However, Brazil voted in favour of the resolution probably in view of its increasing international role, beyond regional limitations.

After the 2012 UNHRC experience, Sri Lanka should have foreseen India’s difficulty in voting against the U.S. resolution in 2013 as the ruling coalition became more dependent upon external support than ever before for survival.  The DMK has been trying to change its image of a fellow traveller of the Congress-led coalition to an ardent supporter of Tamil Eelam as it battles for survival against the AIADMK. It has chosen the Sri Lanka issue as a convenient foil to fight for its flock in Tamil Nadu.

Sri Lanka Tamils and the UNHRC resolution became critical issues even for national parties including the BJP and the Congress when there was an emotional surge in Tamil Nadu after the publication of photos of alleged custodial killing of Prabhakaran’s son’s. So New Delhi had little manoeuvring space other than supporting the UN resolution.

So initially, India perhaps did the next best thing to make the resolution more acceptable to Sri Lanka so that a voting could be avoided. Sri Lanka was reluctant to accept this ‘diluted’ draft it seems.  Apparently India’s well meaning effort had a strange reaction from Rajapaksa brothers. They appear to be only interested in using the issue to strengthen their nationalist credentials rather than bringing it to a smooth closure as evident from their statements appearing in the media.

A Island news report on the subject said: “Responding to a statement attributed to Sinha [Indian representative at the UNHRC] that Sri Lanka should address accountability issues to the satisfaction of the international community, the Defence Secretary [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] told The Island that those wanting Sri Lanka to satisfy the global community should realise that they were adopting double-standards. In fact, they would never have tolerated external intervention in domestic issues, though Sri Lanka was being asked to give into an investigation on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations….Would India address its accountability issues to the satisfaction of Western powers or the UN? The Defence Secretary asked, while pointing out that no one was talking about the accountability of those godfathers of terrorism here.”

According to news reports, President Mahinda Rajapaksa lambasted the US-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council against his country, and said that such “attacks would not defeat or intimidate” Sri Lanka. “This attack would not surprise us at all. These attacks would not subdue us either, nor would they defeat or intimidate us in any way” he added….He also termed all allegations against his Government as “false accusations with ulterior motives”.

Sri Lanka’s policy makers would do well to read what Dr Dayan Jayatilleka wrote in the Daily Mirror on March 23, 2012:  “If one has to identify a single critical or crucial variable for Sri Lanka, it is India, but our strategy cannot be reduced to Indian support...A few weeks after we fought and won our battle in Geneva in May 2009, Myanmar lost in the same forum though it had the votes of India, Russia and China.”

According to him Sri Lanka’s victory in 2009 “was not simply and solely India...We will find it almost impossible to win without India’s support, and we cannot win if India ever turns against us, but we cannot win only with India’s support.   We must always remember that many Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American states will take their cue from India. India has a wide presence and is widely respected among Sri Lanka’s friends.”

Prophetically, he said if India’s position had changed from that of Sri Lanka’s May 2009 UN HRC victory, “we must seek out the reasons and rectify them jointly.” On the contrary, Sri Lanka chose to completely ignore India’s concerns; after India’s vote a second time, it has gone into a sulk. Why is Sri Lanka doing this?

Limitations of China card

Sri Lanka appears to put too much faith in the real politick of India-China relations despite its access to Indian bureaucracy, politics and media at all levels. While Sri Lanka is an important variable in deciding India-China relations, Sri Lanka has its limitations in conditioning it. There are many reasons including the ever-growing Sino-Indian trade pie that govern the mindset of the two nations in deciding the course of their inter-relations.  But ultimately, it is the leadership style in both countries that takes a call on the form and content of the relationship.

A new leadership has taken over in China under President Xi Jinping. He is unlikely to take any radical action to upset Sino-Indian relations in the near future. He indicated this on the run up to the BRICS summit starting in Durban, South Africa today. 

A Xinhua report said: On Sino-Indian ties, Xi said, to jointly follow a path of peaceful development and development through cooperation not only meets the common interests of China and India, the two largest developing countries in the world, but also does a great service to Asia and the world at large.

Speaking highly of the important headway in bilateral ties in recent years thanks to concerted efforts of the two sides, Xi urged both countries that are pursuing development at a faster pace to seize the opportunities and take solid steps to bolster cooperation and exchanges in all fields, accommodate each other's core concerns and properly handle their problems and differences.

On the boundary problem, Xi said it is a complex issue left from history, and solving the issue won't be easy. But he said he believes "as long as we keep up our friendly consultations, we can eventually arrive at a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement."

"Pending the final settlement of the boundary question, the two sides should work together to maintain peace and tranquility in border areas and prevent the boundary question from affecting the overall development of bilateral relations," the president added.

As far as India is concerned, the Manmohan Singh government will be facing parliamentary elections in 2014. Already its cup is full with economic issues, internal problems and international issues related to Pak-inspired trans-border terrorism. Though New Delhi would always carefully watch and analyse China’s increasing influence and activity in Sri Lanka, it is unlikely to react hastily to any potential threat to the relations. Both countries have shown a matured approach to regularly communicate and interact at various levels. So we can expect the two countries to dissipate any build up of pressure that disturb their inter relations.


Many analysts have commented on India keeping the sanctity of its Sri Lanka policy insulated from internal political compulsions. In every country internal compulsions often dictate external policies; more so in India. Regional satraps are holding the reins of survival of the Manmohan Sing-led coalition at the Centre. And Tamil Nadu has a big clout in determining the fate of such coalitions in the future as well.

Indian foreign policy has always been influenced by the perception of the people. And Sri Lanka policy is no exception to this. The only way to manage Sri Lanka policy for Manmohan Singh government is to defuse the emotional build up in Tamil Nadu. This can be done only by taking proactive measures to make Sri Lanka respond to India’s concerns, rather than reacting only to what the U.S. does and what Sri Lanka does not. But given the poor record of this government in taking such initiatives, we are unlikely to see any major government move till 2014 when the Sri Lanka issue would come up again in UNHRC. But by then parliamentary poll would be on and India’s membership of the UNHRC would be ending. So India’s stand is likely to be buffeted by many winds as before; in other words, the future course of India is anybody’s guess.

Tailpiece: While the public anger and students passion in Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka Tamils travails is understandable, the danger of the situation being taken over by fringe elements is real. The despicable acts of beating up of innocent Bhikkus or Sri Lanka passengers are a manifestation of this. Strangely, these fringe groups of Tamil Nadu seem to have their kin among Sinhala chauvinist elements in Sri Lanka. The elements emboldened by a sense of triumphalism are now coming out of the woodworks. Though a small number, they are gaining more influence and visibility by attacks on Muslims, who are essentially Tamils. The same groups have a veneer of religious extremism and anti-Indian stance in such acts and comments made on them. However, probably Sri Lanka is in a better position to control such actions than India. Tamil Nadu government, while sympathising with the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, need to take urgent and visible measures not only to arrest perpetrators of such acts, but also prevent them from taking place.  Tamils should remember provocative acts against Sri Lankan visitors of all hues could rouse ethnic passions in Sri Lanka resulting in attacks on Indians and their business interests in which Tamils have a lion’s share. 

[This article includes comments made by Col R Hariharan to electronic and print media as well as in a TV discussion after the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session passed the resolution on Sri Lanka.]




Human Rights Council

Twenty-second session

Agenda item 2

Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General

The Human Rights Council,

Reaffirming the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,

Guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and other relevant instruments,

Bearing in mind General Assembly resolution 60/251 of 15 March 2006,

Recalling Human Rights Council resolutions 5/1, on institution-building of the Council, and 5/2, on the code of conduct for special procedures mandate holders, of 18 June 2007,

Recalling also Human Rights Council resolution 19/2 of 22 March 2012 on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka,

Reaffirming that it is the responsibility of each State to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of its entire population,

Reaffirming also that States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law, as applicable,

Welcoming the announcement made by the Government of Sri Lanka that elections to the Provincial Council in the Northern Province will be held in September 2013,

Welcoming and acknowledging the progress made by the Government of Sri Lanka in rebuilding infrastructure, demining, and resettling the majority of internally displaced persons, and noting nonetheless that considerable work lies ahead in the areas of justice, reconciliation and the resumption of livelihoods, and stressing the importance of the full participation of local populations, including representatives of civil society and minorities, in these efforts,

Taking note of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission of Sri Lanka and its findings and recommendations, and acknowledging its possible contribution to the process of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka,

Taking note also of the national plan of action to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission of the Government of Sri Lanka and its commitments as set forth in response to the findings and recommendations of the Commission,

Noting that the national plan of action does not adequately address all of the findings and constructive recommendations of the Commission,

Recalling the constructive recommendations contained in the Commission’s report, including the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all and enact rule of law reforms,

Noting with concern that the national plan of action and the Commission’s report do not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,

Expressing concern at the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief,

Calling upon the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its public commitments, including on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population,

Expressing appreciation for the efforts of the Government of Sri Lanka in facilitating the visit of a technical mission from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and encouraging the Government to increase its dialogue and cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner,

Noting the call made by the High Commissioner for an independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,

1. Welcomes the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on advice and technical assistance for the Government of Sri Lanka on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka[1] and the recommendations and conclusions contained therein, in particular on the establishment of a truth-seeking mechanism as an integral part of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to transitional justice;

2. Encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations made in the report of the Office of the High Commissioner, and also calls upon the Government to conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable;

3. Reiterates its call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to implement effectively the constructive recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and to take all necessary additional steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans;

4. Encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to cooperate with special procedures mandate holders and to respond formally to their outstanding requests, including by extending invitations and providing access;

5. Encourages the Office of the High Commissioner and relevant special procedures mandate holders to provide, in consultation with and with the concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka, advice and technical assistance on implementing the above-mentioned steps;

6. Requests the Office of the High Commissioner, with input from relevant special procedures mandate holders, as appropriate, to present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-fourth session, and a comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its twenty-fifth session. [1] A/HRC/22/38.