Wednesday, March 14, 2012

India, Sri Lanka & the UNHRC

The debate on how India should vote on the Sri Lanka resolution at the UN Human Rights Council has gotten absurd. This afternoon I read the following argument from a very senior journalist on Twitter.
“Tomorrow EU could move a resolution at UNHRC against India for 'war crimes' against Maobadis. And back it with an Amnesty report. What then?”

I’ll respond to this twisted logic in a minute. But first, some perspective.

A former colleague visited Sri Lanka a few months before and then shortly after the war. I’ve spent much time discussing his visits with him. During the final days, my colleague was also given access to information from the battlefield through a source on the ground. What we saw and heard mortified us.

There can be no doubt of one thing: civilians were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan army. The final toll may be as high as 100,000. This is a mind-numbing figure. So let me put it in perspective. It is equal to seventy passenger planes falling from the sky - every day - for a week.  

But let’s be balanced. The army was not alone in these killings. The LTTE ‘contributed’ by butchering families that refused to serve as human shields. The LTTE also refused to recognize international laws that forbade the use of heavy weapons in civilian areas.

So how should India approach the UNHRC vote? There are several complications aside from the reprehensible crimes committed by both sides.
  • There are numerous reports of China’s attempts to ingratiate itself with Sri Lanka. If successful, India will be kept on the backfoot in its own neighbourhood.
  • India’s own dirty history with fighting terror groups from Kashmir to the North East. The senior journalist I quoted above believes an attempt to condemn Colombo could invite a tit-for-tat resolution against India’s own atrocities. 
  • Our own dirty history with the LTTE. As another friend and former colleague wrote to me in a tweet: We create LTTE, send IPKF, get the PM killed, sympathize, letting them [get] killed by SL forces, sympathize”.

I’ll take these one-by-one.  
I believe China-related fears are overblown. China cannot and will not replace India in Sri Lanka for one reason. Beijing is 5,000 kms away from Colombo. India lies across the Palk Strait. This proximity is the reason why 14% of all Sri Lankan imports come from India. Remember how New Delhi can’t annoy Tehran because Iranian oil accounts for 12% of our total fuel imports? Similarly, Sri Lanka cannot afford to be overtly anti-India.

On our own dirty history of fighting terror groups, I’ve always believed that the State risks undermining itself. India should be honest with the victims of its armed forces’ atrocities. We should admit grave wrongs and work swiftly to make reparations. We can’t afford to look away from grave wrongs in other countries because we fear being exposed. Superpowers take responsibility. As an aspiring superpower, we should too. 

On our own dirty history with the LTTE, it’s time to admit our confused policies over the past 30 years have failed. We failed to separate Tamil terrorists from Tamil civilians. It has now coming back to haunt us. Time, once again, for a clean break from the past. We must admit our policies have failed and make our future intentions clear. 

The way forward
On that note, let me conclude with what India can do. At the heart of this debate is the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people. This next bit is important: they were killed by both sides. India can introduce an amendment to the resolution to reflect this.

We should call for an independent investigation of war crimes by both the Army and the LTTE. Now, justice has already been done to LTTE war criminals. It’s time war criminals from the Sri Lankan army were also held accountable.

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