Weighing ‘China Factor’ at UNHRC

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 13 2021
Columns Weighing ‘China  Factor’ at UNHRC

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Now that the dust has settled on the UNHRC 46/1 vote, it is time the Nation sat up and took stock. It is one thing for the government leaders of the day to wear their relative success on their sleeve, but it is another for the Sri Lankan State to assess the damage and damage control measures, from the past to the future.

There is no denying the UNHRC vote gave a long rope for Sri Lanka. It is not done in good faith. Instead, some voter nations, especially from among the 22 ayes and 14 abstentions telling the Core Group that they were against sanctions of whatever kind – at least not yet. There is the other/additional possibility of the Core Group working towards the time they will have greater numbers than already from among the voting members, who are elected at best for two terms each, to be followed by a term’s break. 

The ayes in favour of 46/1 and those in 2012-14 can be broadly categorised into three. The first group of Nations comprises those that want to ‘punish’ Sri Lanka for rights violations, independent of the Party or leader in power. Then there are those that want Sri Lanka punished if and only when the Rajapaksas are in power – as soon after the war, and at present. 

Then, there is the third group, more powerful than the other two, who want Sri Lanka punished for reasons other than rights violations, including war crimes. Theirs is a political cause, and they are punishing Sri Lanka for bending too much towards China, at the cost of the equally ancient relations with their Nations. Their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, abutting Sri Lanka, is their prime concern. Human rights can wait – but for how long they too are unsure.

Chosen ones…

The Nation’s current problem is with all these groups. The first group is not going to give up without an internal fight within the 46/1 aye-sayers, without a showdown of some kind, even if fought within four walls. They will look stupid in front of their own people, who value human rights more than the rest of the world. Those people, hence their governments, think that they are the chosen ones for delivering on human rights to the whole world. 

They have not come up openly this time, but given the HR composition of their own electorates, these Nations and their polities would put pressure for their governments to stand by past commitments on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation. Included in this group are the Tamil Diaspora voters from Sri Lanka, and their future generations that have obtained citizenship in those Nations. 

Of course, the human rights records of those Nations does not owe necessarily to the Tamil Diaspora voters there. Instead, it was only because they had such a ‘stellar’ record on the human rights front that they systems had in-built facilitation for asylum-seekers, in those Nations. It is an ‘I owe you’ kind of a situation in those Nations, where asylum-seekers who have turned voters from different parts of the world, fall back on one another, and support one another – politically, legally and electorally. Rather, their mutual sympathies are there for the common cause of ‘refugees,’ real and otherwise, voters or not. 

Equally concerned

There is no denying that among the Core Group members are those that are equally concerned about human rights violations and war-time accountability, but these are also Nations that are equally concerned about the China factor. The reverse is true in their case, or it would seem – but they are divided between their twin identities and necessities. 

They will be satisfied only with Colombo walking half the way on both counts. The Nation can ignore them, yes, but only after ensuring that it has the numbers in a given session of the UNHRC, but not otherwise. But these are also Nations whose help and assistance that Sri Lanka would require and for a long time to come, to turn around its economy.

So, compromising with them may not be a bad idea, as long as it is not tantamount to exposing its leaders and soldiers to international investigations, as outlined in Resolution 46/1. Yet, the kind of deal that is on offer and that which the Nation can accept are all in the future, and can change from session to session, issue to issue, voting pattern to voting pattern.

China, China!

The last but not the least of aye-sayers in the 46th session are those whose real concern viz Sri Lanka is not human rights per se, or their perceptions thereof. Invading and invasive Nations, these, they are often the big violators of human rights, both nearer home and overseas, even thousands of miles away. For them, human rights probes are a factor and tool in their foreign policy formulation and execution.

These are also the Nations that thought ahead – and have always thought ahead. They saw China and Russia as P5 members with their veto vote as a stumbling block in the UN Security Council (UNSC). They found in human rights violations and war crimes probes, a convenient stick to beat their emerging adversaries. They also use the same to keep their own new friends and newfound friends on the right side, the right track. Or, else….

The UNHRC fitted the bill. Yes, the voting members are elected in rotation, but there will always be a time when those numbers can be managed. More importantly, there are no veto powers here, not certainly China and Russia. All told, they have their way in the UNHRC. True, the UNSC can still intervene, but then they would have used the UNHRC to build international opinion through years before it all comes to the UNSC. There are also the elected, non-permanent members in the UNSC, and then the UNGA, if it came to that. 

If an affected Nation gets an idea of what is in store early on, they would not want to go through the processes, however, much they may be able to keep their people on the Government’s side, in the name of nationalism and patriotism, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Because all such demonstrations wear out thin and tired after a period – short, long or longer. Only greater difficulties await their populations. The example of Vietnamese, Afghanis and Iraqis, through the past decades, are a case in point, especially in these era after the Second World War.

Inherent limitations

There are also the inherent limitations that the UNHRC votes in 2012-14, and also 2021, have shown Sri Lanka for whatever they are worth. As a small and relatively less influential Nation in the region, and certainly the world, Sri Lanka cannot expect to gather the numbers at the UNHRC, where it all still owes even more to Nations calling in old ‘I owe yous.’ 

The Nation hence has to count on the unwavering support of one or the other of big players, either from the region or outside – and if possible, both. India is the most influential regional power, especially in global bodies, especially the UN and its affiliates. Colombo has all along known that the Indian vote at institutions like the UNHRC especially, does influence both other South Asian Nations and also those from distant regions in Latin America and Africa, which have no direct linkages, commitment or understanding of their distant world. 

Yet, India has a problem. When the chips are down, and if the matter were to go to the UNSC, successive Governments in Colombo have long since concluded that they needed a 

P 5 veto power on their side. UNP governments have traditionally counted on the US-led West, be it of the JRJ or Ranil Wickremesinghe generation. Alternatively, the left-leaning SLFP first, and breakaway SLPP regimes, have leaned towards the erstwhile Soviet Union in its time, and China even more, post-Cold War.

There was no problem for an SLFP Government in the past as both New Delhi and Moscow travelled in the same direction and pace in international affairs. The only time Moscow acted without informing, leave alone consulting New Delhi, they got submerged in the Afghan quagmire. That’s beside the point. But post-Soviet Union, a left-leaning political leadership in Colombo, has heavily leaned on Beijing. 

It is here where the problem of double-paddling India and China, both ambitious adversaries, arises. It is more so because Beijing does not want its friends and allies to treat India on the same plane as itself – at least until it had patched up with India on all fronts. It is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, not after Doklam and Galwan border clashes. Conversely, the Indian discomfort with China’s increasing presence in the neighbourhood arises from this particular attitude of China, though there is enough political, economic and strategic space for both to operate in the neighbourhood Indian Ocean. 

Today, extra-regional navies like that of the US are dominating the Indian Ocean waters. The US-centric Quad, of which India, Australia and Japan are other constituents, is already there. If India could accept them all, New Delhi might have had an open mind about Chinese presence in these parts. It is Beijing’s intransigence that is at fault. Sri Lanka is paying for it in the international arena.

It is simple. At the UNHRC, from 2012-14, and now also in 2021, China, rather China-Russia combo have shown the limitations in their combined ability to bring in the numbers. Now, there is a two-plus year period for Colombo to work its way out of the inevitable vote in 23 September. Maybe, it is time, Colombo went back to the drawing board, start off again, and see if it is worth counting on allies alone or look up at adversaries, especially in areas like domestic accommodation with the Tamil minority’s cause – which is what the UNHRC process is actually all about. 

The alternative is to continue to take cover behind China’s perceived capacities and capabilities – which are proven on economy, technology and even geostrategic fields. But then, bilateral diplomacy alone is Beijing’s proven strength. In contrast, at least in the case of Sri Lanka, Beijing’s ability and capacity in international politics and diplomacy has been limited only to avert a bad defeat, but not the defeat per se!


About the writer:

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. 

Email: [email protected]


CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 13 2021

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