In Geneva, a tough resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka was passed with 22 votes out of 47 countries supporting the resolution.
The current resolution gives more teeth to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate and collect evidence of human rights violations, not limiting to the past unaddressed concerns by the government but also to the future concerns in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government, which is explained by Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, speaking on behalf of the European Union at United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Backed by the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, he ‘called on the Council to adopt resolutions due to Sri Lanka’s lack of accountability for war crimes.’ Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was quick to respond soon after the vote, “The UN Core Group failed to secure 25 votes from the 47 member UNHRC,” calculating the nations who did not support and abstained as one group; an illogical victory was projected.
The result at UNHRC was quickly weaponised by the government in their favour, catering to their majoritarian voter base. The ultra-nationalist political view of the government is a readily available feature that could be used to call it an attempt by Western countries to bully countries such as Sri Lanka.
This projection itself gives a bad start to work towards the resolution; the need of the hour is correcting the path towards addressing minority concerns, not narrating an alternative view with unacceptable arguments and rejecting the resolution. Before the vote in Geneva, Sri Lankan foreign secretary assured India will vote for Sri Lanka, this was his own assessment and not a commitment that came from New Delhi.
India abstained, with the Tamil Nadu election on the cards and much pressure from the Tamilian polity due to the present Sri Lankan government’s unfulfilled commitments where nothing substantial was spoken or achieved on Tamilian concerns. India to abstain from voting at UNHRC is justifiable due to the internal pressure from Tamilian polity and non-commitment from Sri Lankan government towards the devolution of power and absence of a genuine reconciliation process, clearly highlighted by minister Jaishankar’s visit in early January.
It has been 12 years since the end of the civil war and all subsequent governments have failed to implement a domestic mechanism that could win the Tamilian and the international community. The trust deficit has widened from co-sponsorship of its own resolution in 2015 to a complete withdrawal by the present government.
This was due to an inconsistent policy on reconciliation and multiple voices of several foreign ministers pledging its support from different solutions, speaking at previous UNHRC sessions in Geneva. The new feature of the present resolution not only limits to the Civil War, thus giving more emphasis to the last two years of the deteriorating human rights environment, adding new concerns such as on militarisation of the present government.
The danger of this resolution is two-pronged. First, if the Sri Lankan government completely rejects the resolution, which was referred by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Geneva, C.A. Chandraprema as “unhelpful and divisive.” A similar rejection was expressed after the vote by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa expressed his displeasure pointing out to geopolitics and India’s devolution plea “I will not allow these countries to achieve their geopolitical needs by introducing separatism under the guise of power devolution.”
The complete rejection of the resolution could directly impact the relationship with the West and deteriorate Colombo’s commitment towards international norms, moving the foreign policy balance away from rules-based order, Indo-Pacific norms, and its allies. Second, it could impact the overall country’s exports to the western nations, with the EU and the US being its largest export markets. This would also impact the country’s image to attract western investments, initiating an inexorable drift of Sri Lanka towards China.
The new feature of the present resolution not only limits to the Civil War, thus giving more emphasis to the last two years of the deteriorating human rights environment, adding new concerns such as on militarisation of the present government.
Anchorage to IOR
United States (US) Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, met with China’s most senior diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and State Councilor, Wang Yi, in Anchorage, Alaska, marking the beginning of the Biden administration’s China policy.
Both parties were to exchange their views to ease the US-China tension that had exacerbated in the last few years. The US position on China was clearly articulated, highlighting China’s aggressive behaviour and violation of human rights in several geographies. According to senior US diplomat Richard Haass, the discussion was “mishandled and a terrible start” to the de-escalation efforts, where both sides accused each other on their respective policies.
A day before the Alaska summit, the US escalated its sanctions on China over its crackdown of political freedoms in Hong Kong. According to Wang Yi, “Chinese people are outraged by this gross interference in China’s internal affairs…this is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests…this is miscalculated and only reflects the vulnerability and weakness inside the US. And this will not shake China’s position.”
Adding to that, Yang Jiechi said, “the time had passed when a small group of wealthy Western nations could dictate the shape of the global order and the US no longer represents world opinion…” While both sides depicted the same hostility, it is perhaps a deliberate recalibration, well-orchestrated by the US to continue the anatagonism to build strong relationships with her allies, which is a priority for the Biden administration.
A Japanese scholar Satoru Nagao argues that ‘the more China escalates the situation, more the defence capabilities of the Quad will be institutionalised.’ In the meantime, due to US administration’s unfavourable China policies, Beijing is charting a course ahead that depends less on the West, with its ‘dual circulation’ economy which is a more self-reliant economic model.
The tense US–China posture in Anchorage will impact the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China’s belligerence could propel nations to expand their security footing in the IOR. Strengthening Prime Minister Modi’s Security and Growth for All the Region (SAGAR), the Indian Foreign Minister Dr Jaishankar made repeated visits to the Maldives to establish the coast guard naval operational base in at Sifvaru–Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF), which will be developed and supported by Indian naval assistance, further extending US$ 50 million credit line for defence.
Sifvaru, which is geographically situated closer to the southern Indian shores, is a perfect location for Indian logistics, HADR efforts, and maritime security operations. The Maldives has been a strategic location even during the British Empire where Gan (Addu Attoll) in the Maldives was used for a similar purpose by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The second leg of Dr. Jaishankar’s visit was to Mauritius where security and defence cooperation was further strengthened. The northern island of Agaléga in Mauritius has already been developed by India for military use. A P-8I reconnaissance aircraft could easily land on the newly built runway. All these, and more security partnerships such as those with Japan to access Djibouti are clear security expansions made in the western IOR by India. The recent tripartite agreement between Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and India is considered to be a move in the same direction of minilateral successes.
During the Quad leaders’ summit with India, US, Australia, and Japan, where Joe Biden, Scott Morrison, Yoshihide Suga, and Narendra Modi pledged their commitment to safeguard the interests of democratic nations and to sustain a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific where Chinese aggression is a concern to the Quad. The US commitment to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific was reiterated in Sri Lanka by the most senior US General, Kenneth S. Wilsbach, who visited the island after a decade. The US, along with Quad commitment and the role of the Quad has strengthened due to the assertive behaviour of China in the Indian periphery, the only Quad member who shares a land border with China. In this geopolitical equation, it is vital that India strikes a balance and deter Chinese expansion, especially towards the IOR. Indian scholar, Brahma Chellaney, correctly observed, ‘it is imperative that the Quad gain strategic heft so as to bring an expansionist China under pressure.’
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy posture is to balance the US and China, being part of both BRI and the Indo-Pacific. Neither can it afford to move away from India nor the rules-based alliance, where Sri Lanka could play an important strategic role rather than a passive partner, silently accommodating China’s expansion in the island.
However, there are clear signs that the Rajapaksa administration will continue to tilt in favour of China in certain sectors due to China’s unconditional support in defending the Sri Lankan administration on its human rights record in Geneva, questioning the OHCHR report. Along these lines, China will support the domestic political position on minority concerns taken by the Rajapaksa regime to make strategic inroads into the politics of the island. Few days ago, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked President Xi for China’s support at UNHRC over the recent telephonic concertation they shared. During which President Xi also gave a firm pledge to stand by Sri Lanka in case of undue pressure exerted by western countries.
This growing Chinese space in India’s periphery will be of great concern for New Delhi. Sri Lankan foreign policy bureaucrats and advisors should clearly understand the geopolitical concerns, not limiting to mere rhetoric of ‘India first’ approach from the front door while welcoming ‘China preferred’ approach from the back door. While the Sri Lankan government has drafted a 20-point Foreign Policy Directive in an attempt to have a more consistent foreign policy, approved by the cabinet without inputs from the Parliament, that is privy to only a few ministers, needs a broader view and a collective approach to calibrate the balance. (Courtesy Oxford Research Foundation)
(Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is an international security and geopolitics analyst and strategic advisor from Sri Lanka. He has led two government think tanks providing strategic advocacy.)