New Delhi, Sept. 16: The Narendra Modi government was tonight grappling with a toss-up between two crucial strategic partners – one domestic and the other international – after a key UN report recommended international participation in a probe into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka.
The UN report said Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil Tiger rebels “most likely” committed war crimes, including mass killings of civilians, during their conflict that should be prosecuted by a special court with international judges.
Despite pledges by the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena to prosecute perpetrators, the criminal justice system was not up to the huge task alone, said the long-delayed report by the UN human rights office.
It called on Colombo to remove from office military and security personnel and any other officials “where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they were involved in human rights violations” in the 26-year war that ended in 2009.
India, which is aggressively courting a New Delhi-friendly government in Colombo, was hoping the long-delayed report of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva would accept the new Sri Lankan regime’s request for a fully domestic inquiry.
Such a recommendation would have allowed India to back the UN’s proposal and add some verbal advice to Colombo to ensure decentralisation of power for Tamils, without either taking a stand against the Sri Lankan government or appearing to openly support it.
Now, the Modi government risks a domestic fire in Tamil Nadu, where friend Jayalalithaa is ruling, if it openly opposes the UN’s own report and sticks to India’s traditional stand opposing international probes in its neighbourhood.
In Chennai yesterday, Jayalalithaa had led the Tamil Nadu Assembly in passing a resolution opposing a domestic probe in Sri Lanka and demanding that India back an international inquiry.
Tamil Nadu goes to polls in 2016, and Sri Lanka remains a politically sensitive subject in the state. Support from Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK is critical for the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, where the government is in a minority.
The UN agency said in its report: “The high commissioner remains convinced that for accountability to be achieved in Sri Lanka, it will require more than a domestic mechanism.”
The report, presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), recommended “hybrid special courts” that must include international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators. The OHCHR report came ironically on a day Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was still in New Delhi, meeting President Pranab Mukherjee at the end of a three-day trip.
Penned by a three-member team – former Finland President Martii Ahtisaari, former New Zealand judge Silvia Cartwright, and Pakistan human rights activist Asma Jahangir – the report marks Modi’s first big diplomatic test on Sri Lanka since a new government came to power in Colombo this January.
The UNHRC, of which India is a member, is expected to discuss the report later this month, and then vote on a resolution that is traditionally led by the US and usually critical of Sri Lanka, but was this time expected to be milder.
Sri Lankan President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have focused on improving ties with the West and India that had suffered under Mahinda Rajapaksa who was defeated in a surprise verdict this January. India and the US had lobbied with the UNHRC to push back the OHCHR report – which was originally due early this year – to allow the Sirisena government to demonstrate progress on human rights concerns. It will be difficult for India to vote for a resolution that sticks to the report’s recommendation rejecting a domestic probe.
“Barring a couple of times during Rajapaksa’s tenure, we have never voted for any UN resolution that even in passing suggests an international role in Sri Lanka,” former Indian high commissioner to Sri Lanka Nirupam Sen had told The Telegraph earlier this week. “I would expect India to maintain our position against international probes.”
India’s position against international investigations, especially in its neighbourhood, stems from worries that it too could face such probes over allegations of human rights abuses in Kashmir. New Delhi also views Colombo as part of its strategic sphere of influence, where it detests any international influence.
Officials hinted today evening that India would need to work with the US to try and ensure that the resolution based on the report exempts Colombo from an international probe, while holding out some carrots for Chennai too.
The task will not be easy.
On Monday, the day Wickremesinghe arrived in New Delhi, Sri Lanka’s top Tamil leader, R. Sampanthan, had told this newspaper from Colombo that the community’s apex political grouping – the Tamil National Alliance – would insist on an international probe.
Sampanthan said the TNA also expected India and other members of the international community to back such an inquiry. “Our experiences with domestic inquiries have shown they just don’t work in Sri Lanka,” Sampanthan had said.
In Chennai yesterday, Jayalalithaa said in a statement <>before moving the resolution: “India by itself should move a strong resolution at the UNHRC along with the US seeking an international probe against those who had committed human rights violations and war crimes in contravention of international rules and conventions.”