India Forces Glare Off IPKF

- Delhi to back UNHRC resolution against Lanka

| by Charu Sudan Kasturi

Indian Peace Keeping Force jawans in Sri Lanka in 1990, the year they withdrew from the island nation

( March 27, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) India has succeeded in insulating its late-1980s misadventure in Sri Lanka from international scrutiny in exchange for its support to a resolution that for the first time empowers a United Nations agency to independently probe human rights abuses by Colombo.

The final draft of the US-mooted resolution, tabled yesterday at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and accessed by The Telegraph, demands an international probe in Sri Lanka, but only to examine allegations of excesses between 2002 and 2009.

The resolution the US and its allies wanted to target Sri Lanka with had sought an international probe into human rights abuses by Colombo during its three-decade civil war — which could have exposed India’s military intervention on the island in the 1980s to questions.

“We’ve averted what would have been a choice between the diplomatic equivalent of the devil and the deep sea,” a senior official here said. “India will now support the resolution.”

The UNHRC today began discussing a scathing report against Sri Lanka’s human rights record prepared by the UN agency’s chief, Navi Pillay, based on a visit there last year that led to a public spat with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

After the debate, India and the 46 other members of the council will vote on the resolution that endorses Pillay’s report and recommends an international probe into human rights abuses during Sri Lanka’s civil war that ended in 2009. The vote is expected tomorrow.

The final version of the resolution “takes note of the high commissioner’s (Pillay’s) recommendations and conclusions regarding ongoing human rights violations and the need for an international inquiry mechanism in the absence of a credible national process with tangible results”.

Although Sri Lanka can count on allies like China to block any resolution against it in the UN Security Council, no nation has a veto in the human rights council, and a simple majority is all that a resolution needs to pass.

But the positions that India — as Sri Lanka’s largest neighbour, its biggest trading partner and military supplier, and the world’s largest democracy — takes on global censures against Colombo are always crucial in determining their effectiveness.

New Delhi desperately wants to strengthen ties with Colombo — which has dubbed any international probe on its territory a violation of its sovereignty — amid growing worries that its southern neighbour is drifting closer to Beijing.

But India has twice before voted against Sri Lanka at the UN human rights body, pushed to do so each time by domestic political compulsions. And for several weeks now, it was widely recognised that New Delhi was leaning towards doing the same this time too.

Less than a month before the April 24 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu, where every party has demanded that India’s Sri Lanka policy be dictated by concerns over the island’s Tamil population, little different could be expected, officials said.

But the actual text of the initial draft resolution — proposing an international probe into human rights abuses covering the entire duration of the Sri Lankan civil war that started in 1983 — left India worried, the officials said.

India had sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 after then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene inked the Indo-Sri Lanka accord that year.

Though the force was initially not expected to engage in significant combat, it was soon drawn into direct battles with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel group seeking a separate Tamil state.

Several Sri Lankan commentators and human rights activists have accused IPKF members of human rights violations in the country’s north and east — a charge India has denied.

The IPKF eventually withdrew in 1990, after Jayawardene’s successor Ranasinghe Premadasa asked India to pull back its troops.

“There’s no way we could accept exposing the IPKF to any international probe,” another official said. “We made that clear to interlocutors from nations pushing the resolution.”

India, officials said, gambled on the belief that the resolution’s sponsors — the US, supported by the UK, Mauritius, Macedonia and Montenegro — would want its support, and would be willing to accept its demand to limit the period of the civil war that an international probe would cover.

A panel Sri Lanka set up to probe human rights violations during the civil war, called the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”, had investigated allegations of abuses between 2002 and 2009.

India, in parleys with American and British diplomats over the past two days, suggested tweaking the resolution to limit the mandate of an international probe to the same period, officials said.

The British resisted, Indian officials said. But faced with the option of losing Indian support, they yielded.

( The writer works for the Telegraph India, where this piece originally appeared)