India: Time for Multilateralism in Sri Lanka

From the 1970s onwards, government policy has been characterised by tough anti-terrorism laws and harsh police action against alleged militants, while successive administrations have ignored underlying political grievances. Government repression fuelled violent reaction and provided popular support to what were initially small and marginal groups in Tamil society. The cumulative effect has been disastrous. Attempting to defeat the LTTE through exclusively military means has created a strong sense among Tamils of group solidarity and of being under siege.[1]  

There is little evidence of any change in the Sri Lankan Government approach described above as it ramps up the conflict against the LTTE. Indeed government policy is veering worryingly into open racism.


As recently as September 2008, the Police ordered all Tamils who had moved to the Western Province over the last five years to register at police stations. Many Tamils with an identity card that identified their home address in rebel-held areas were reportedly arrested. The Deputy Minister of Vocational and Technical Training, P Radhakrishnan has accused the police of putting five to ten Tamils every day in preventive detention in the capital Colombo. Sri Lanka's Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva has stated that nearly 1,400 Tamils are in preventative custody.[2]


On 5 September 2008, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order[3] instructed the UN and other NGOs to withdraw from LTTE-controlled Vanni region on security grounds. No food convoy has been allowed to cross the Omanthai checkpoint into the Vanni since 5th September 2008.


According to the UN, at the end of September 2008, there were between 200,000 and 230,000 internally displaced persons in the Vanni region. However the Government of Sri Lanka has since allowed UN officials to accompany food convoys to the LTTE held areas about two weeks after asking the UN to pull out of the North.[4] The situation remains too dangerous for humanitarian agencies.


I. Indian concern for Tamil rights


On 18 October 2008, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa telephoned Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. This followed an official communication from India underlining the need for a peacefully negotiated political settlement. President Mahinda Rajapaksa reportedly assured Prime Minister Singh that all necessary measures were being taken to ensure the safety and welfare of Tamils.[5] On 16 October 2008, Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee stated:It is essential that their [Tamil] rights be respected, that they be immune from attacks, and that food and other essential supplies be allowed to reach them[6].


India’s sudden concern for the welfare of Tamils is something of a turnaround. In August Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Colombo to attend the SAARC summit. The assault had already begun and hundreds of thousands of Tamils were already displaced. PM Singh issued no statement of concern.


A. India’s domestic agenda 


The policy shift is explained by the threat from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnettra Kazhagan (DMK) Party Chief Mr. M. Karunanidhi to withdraw their support from the Congress led United Progressive Alliance Government.[7] On 6 October, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi issued a statement exhorting people to send communications to PM Singh to “intervene immediately and stop the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka”. On 17 October 2008, all seven Members of Parliament of the DMK (except Mr. Dayanidhi Maran) submitted their resignations to party Chief Mr. Karunanidhi.[8]


B. India needs to seek more than assurances


India has been aware of the humanitarian and human rights situation for a very long time and has done nothing. Rajapaksa has kept Delhi fully appraised of its counter insurgency actions since it began. If its latest interventions are to mean anything more than rhetoric, India needs to do something more than seeking empty assurances from a government with an appalling human rights record.


The international community, including India, ought to be very concerned. This is compounded by the repeated extraordinary statements by politicians and senior members of the security forces exhorting the members of the security forces to ignore the rule of law in carrying out their duties. For example, in April 2007, the Police Chief Victor Perera stated that the Police have to go beyond the law to combat ‘crime’.[9]


The security forces are responsible for serious human rights violations including arbitrary killings, torture, mass arrest and detention during 2007. Violations are not a matter of contention. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak visited Sri Lanka in October 2007. He concluded that the use of torture by the security forces was widespread. He concluded that: “This practice is prone to become routine in the context of counter-terrorism operations,[10]


Amnesty International also recorded their concern that civilians have not just been “caught in crossfire”, but have also been deliberately targeted by the security forces, the LTTE and other armed groups.[11]


The Sri Lankan Air Force continues to bomb the LTTE held areas. Bombing is inherently indiscriminate and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the Sri Lankan security forces to respect the basic International Humanitarian Law (IHL) principle of making a distinction between those who are directly participating in hostilities and those who are not. This amounts to indiscriminate use of lethal force.


II. India’s missed opportunities for peace in Sri Lanka


India’s latest intervention underlines existing concern over its foreign policy with regard to the peace process in Sri Lanka.


A. Indian Sabotage I: The Norwegian brokered peace process


India failed to effectively support the 2002 Norwegian brokered peace process. Throughout the peace process, New Delhi’s role has been deplorable. India demanded to be informed about each and every development from the Norwegians, but provided no active support. New Delhi refused to accept the invitation to join the Co-chairs of the peace process which included the US, EU, Japan and Norway.


In May 2006, Mr. Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Chief Facilitator visited New Delhi to discuss the escalating violence. He urged New Delhi to play a greater role in restoring peace and stability in Sri Lanka. Indian officials refused. India’s refusal to support the process has played a significant role in the breakdown of the peace process.


B. Indian Sabotage II: Opposing resolution on human rights situation in Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council


Human rights violations should in themselves be a concern. But human rights violations committed on the scale as in Sri Lanka are counter productive. They feed grievances which if unaddressed fuels violence.


Given the grave human rights situation in Sri Lanka, at the 9th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2008, the possibility of sponsoring a resolution on Sri Lanka was discussed. India showed little interest. Had India shown interest, the situation in Sri Lanka might have looked very different now.  


III. Indian foreign policy: Long overdue for an overhaul


India’s foreign policy requires overhauling. The evidence is compelling: Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Clearly, things are not going well in South Block but even with this alarming situation there is little discussion of the need to change in the face of repeated failure.  


India responds to Sri Lanka as a regional super power. Indian concern is primarily driven by a domestic political agenda. India foreign policy is based on the idea that: ‘this is the way we have always done things round here’. India rejected any idea of a resolution on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council because of an ideological attachment to the idea that there should be no any “naming and shaming” at the United Nations.


This tried and tested mantra of distrust of multilateralism stands uneasily with recent India's experience in South Asia, most notably by the positive role of the United Nations in restoring peace in Nepal. When India ran out of options in Nepal, it had no other option but to acquiesce to the resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2005 to establish a monitoring mission of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal. During the Nepal conflict OHCHR played a key role in preventing violations of human rights and containing the abuses by the conflicting parties. Its mission helped provide a significant confidence building measure that assisted the parties to move toward peace. The United Nations Mission in Nepal provided the environment that allowed Nepal to carry out the most peaceful election in its history.


India opposes multilateralism primarily because, it has have always been against multilateralism with the Western powers. Internationally, its multilaterism has been focused on Non-Aligned Movement. At the regional level, it is entirely bilateral in strategy.


Bilateralism has also been the strategy for Sri Lanka for decades and it has repeatedly failed. In 1987, Sri Lanka launched the Vadamarachchi Operation (Operation Liberation) and laid siege to Jaffna. Responding, again to pressure from Tamil Nadu, India sent a convoy of unarmed ships to northern Sri Lanka to provide humanitarian assistance. Inevitably India was drawn into the conflict. Indian Peace keeping forces were dispatched, unleashing a chain of events that led to the murder of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; an event that colours New Delhi’s policy towards the conflict in Sri Lanka to this day. Despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, bilateralism remains the strategy.


IV. Recommended Actions


Peace in Sri Lanka is in India’s interest. A Sri Lanka based on inclusive democracy is in India’s interest. A Sri Lanka that respects human rights is in India’s interests.  If India is committed to peace in Sri Lanka, then it must consider support to a multilateral approach. And it is time to look beyond Norway. Small countries are often desirable: they are generally seen as having no hidden agenda and flexible. But the downside is precisely their size. They carry little weight or authority. The success of any peace mission is in a large part a function of their political weight. India’s failure to support the Norwegian peace process was fatal. The weakness of the Norwegian peace agreement, not least the failure to monitor human rights, is testament to the problem.


And a commitment to peace means that India must recognise the grievances of the Tamil people is a key factor in the conflict. India has sufficient evidence to understand that the assurances of the Sri Lankan government are not enough and advocate for a real measure of protection of all Sri Lankan minorities.


ACHR urges India to consider the following measures:


·         Announce its support for and join the Core-Group consisting of the US, European Union, Japan and Norway;

·         Catalyse international action for an immediate cessation of conflicts and resumption of peace talks;

·         With the Core Group identify an independent party or mechanism to facilitate the negotiation;

·         Examine options for expanded and empowered multilateral cease-fire monitoring;

·         Support international action leading to the immediate dispatch of a large United Nations Human Rights Mission to protect and prevent further violations of human rights by both sides to the conflict and provide a confidence building measure toward a sustainable peace; and

·         Actively defend the work of independent civil society organisations and UN humanitarian operations.

[1] Sri Lanka ’s Human Rights Crisis Asia Report N°135 International Crisis Group, 14 June 2007,

[2]. Sri Lanka Tamils 'being arrested', BBC News, 15 October 2008  

[3] numbered SMOD/320/DEM/GEN(45)

[4]. Lanka allows UN to go with food supplies to LTTE areas, The Hindu, 28 September 2008

[5] . Rajapaksa calls up Manmohan, The Hindu, 19 October 2008

[6] . India worried about civilian sufferings, says Pranab, The Hindu, 17 October 2008

[7] . Karunanidhi threatens to withdraw support to UPA, available at:

[8] . DMK MPs submit resignation, The Hindu, 18 October 2008

[9]. Cops and killers: Who reigns? The Sunday Times, 27 May 2007

[10] UN human rights expert reports allegations of torture in Sri Lanka ,

[11] . Sri Lanka: urgent need for effective protection of civilians as conflict intensifies, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, Media
Briefing, AI Index: ASA 37/009/2007 (Public) News Service No: 068, 5 April 2007

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