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US resolution, Indian abstention and the blowback

2014 Apr 09

One week after resolution A/HRC/25/L.1/Rev.1 was adopted in the Human Rights Council, it seems that the aftershock of the Indian abstention on the vote continues to be felt.  Abroad, that is. Sri Lanka — the subject of the controversy — is preoccupied with its favourite pastime of holding elections and dissecting the results, while the key international players in this drama scramble to come to terms with the fallout of the action they initiated, which didn’t go exactly according to script.  None of this alters the harsh reality that a resolution is in place, and that it will be acted upon.

The US’s description of its response to the Indian abstention as one of ‘disappointment’ was surely an understatement.  India’s ‘strategic partner’ is clearly more agitated than it cares to admit.  India on the other hand has sensed that something is off, in what it sees as US targeting of Sri Lanka. It would appear the US overshot the mark by insisting on an ‘international inquiry mechanism’ in a resolution that concerned happenings in the regional superpower’s backyard. This went beyond the demands of the previous resolutions of 2012 and 2013 which India supported.  India’s refusal to align itself with the US in Geneva in 2014 has hit a ‘reset button’ in regional politics, and arguably in Indo-US relations as well. As a headline in the ‘Hindu’ read, it was a case of “Abstention louder than any vote.”

Differences that have surfaced between the US and India over Sri Lanka, and the general discomfiture of the US after India’s desertion, were mirrored in two separate media interactions of their respective ambassadors with the Foreign Correspondents Association last week.  The differences were reflected in tone, language and attitude adopted towards Sri Lanka during these interactions.

India’s position consistent
The subtext throughout Friday’s interaction with High Commissioner Y. K. Sinha was that of conciliation, of not wanting to exert undue pressure, of a desire to see Sri Lanka itself take the necessary steps towards reconciliation. India’s position remains consistent — “to encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to take forward the process of broader dialogue” and move towards meaningful devolution of powers through “full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond.”  India urged the GoSL and the TNA to engage in a spirit of mutual accommodation to address the needs of the people of the Northern Province. The GoSL had to create the environment for that.

It was put to the High Commissioner that the government has indicated it was not interested in moving any further on the matter of devolution.  Sinha said it was important for the people of Sri Lanka to implement their own constitution. “Sri Lanka has to proceed along the lines of the LLRC. There is a healthy debate going on. All we are trying to do is point out that the 13th Amendment could help in a political settlement and national reconciliation.”

Ambassador Michele Sison’s interaction with foreign media on Thursday showed that the blowback resulting from India’s move was felt by the US.  Her guarded stance translated into a set of carefully phrased messages, with the result that many of the journalists’ questions were left unanswered, or unsatisfactorily answered. “This-is-our-story-and-we’re-sticking-to-it” seemed to be the line adopted.

The themes Sison kept returning to were that ‘the US goal is for Sri Lanka to cooperate with the OHCHR investigation,’ ‘the US wants to work with the GoSL to move this forward,’ and the resolution ‘in no way shuts the door on continuing the process of the LLRC.’ She did not speak to suggestions that these exhortations were incompatible with the interfering nature of an ‘international investigation,’ or comment on India’s future role.

“There has been criticism that this resolution is somehow “against” the people of Sri Lanka,” Sison said.  “It most certainly is not.”
The ambassador was asked how the assertion that the resolution was ‘in support of the Sri Lankan people’ could be supported in a context where political parties were seen competing on election platforms to present themselves as ‘defenders of the nation’ in the face of the threat posed by the resolution.  Nor did her position factor-in the widespread apprehension reflected in the mass media, it was suggested.

Does the US want regime change?
Here is a sampling of questions asked and Sison’s responses (from notes taken in the auditorium):
Q: Two questions. Some people, including former UN ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka, are saying the resolution is not improving the ground situation, that it’s only deteriorating.  And what’s the end of this resolution — is it going to the International Criminal Court?

We don’t believe a resolution would lead to division. That’s not a correct notion.  Our goal is for the Government of Sri Lanka to cooperate with the OHCHR to address outstanding issues of the government.

Q: Regarding Sri Lanka banning terrorist organisations under UN (Security Council) resolution 1373, will you cooperate?
We have not heard from the Government.  Under resolution 1373 each state is to designate whom they consider to be terrorist organisations. It’s not binding. They are listed by the states.

Q: This is the third resolution.  Come March 2015 are we going to see another resolution?
The intent of this resolution was the dual facet (?…indistinct) of the OHCHR taking the lead as well as monitoring.

Q: It is said the US intention is regime change in Sri Lanka ..?
We are working with Sri Lanka on a wide range of issues.  We cannot ignore the responsibility of the
Government of Sri Lanka to ensure a better future for the people.

Q: Are you ruling out regime change, or not?
I just answered your question.

Q: India described the resolution as ‘intrusive.’ Also the GoSL. Most of the sponsors of the resolution were western.  There was no Asian support, no neighbours of Sri Lanka. Isn’t that a concern?
It was supported by a broad range of countries, including Asia, Africa, Latin America. Regarding Sri Lanka doing it (an investigation) themselves, the text (of the resolution) refers to the LLRC. There’s no way it shuts the door on progress that comes out of the LLRC.

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