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Ahead of UNHRC vote on Lanka rights record, Modi, Rajapaksa discuss multilateral cooperation

While New Delhi is yet to clarify how it will vote at the UNHRC, it has been watching Colombo’s actions carefully — it comes in the wake of another development that had recently strained ties between the two countries.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Saturday “reviewed topical developments and the ongoing cooperation between both countries in bilateral and multilateral forums” — days before the United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to vote on a resolution critical of the island nation’s human rights record on March 19.

A Ministry of External Affairs’ official statement said the leaders “agreed to maintain regular contact between relevant officials, including in the context of the continuing Covid-19 challenges”. PM Modi also reiterated Sri Lanka’s importance to India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy, the MEA said.

While New Delhi is yet to clarify how it will vote at the UNHRC, it has been watching Colombo’s actions carefully — it comes in the wake of another development that had recently strained ties between the two countries.

Just early March, a month after walking out of an agreement with Delhi and Tokyo on jointly developing the partially-built East Container Terminal (ECT), the Sri Lankan government, led by the Rajapaksa brothers, had decided to offer the West Container Terminal (WCT) to Indian and Japanese companies. The WCT is strategically-located next to a $500-million Chinese-run container jetty within Colombo’s sprawling port.

Sources in New Delhi and Sri Lanka deny that there is any link between the two decisions — the decision to award the port development and New Delhi’s vote at the UNHRC.

The UNHRC resolution was moved by a group of countries, led by the UK, Germany and Canada, among other countries, in response to a report released by the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights in January.

Responding to the report, India had late last month urged Sri Lanka to implement the 13th amendment to its constitution that is aimed at reconciliation with the country’s Tamil minority, even as New Delhi said it supports its neighbour’s “unity and territorial integrity”.

At the ongoing session of the UNHRC in Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said India remains committed to “aspirations of the Tamils of Sri Lanka for equality, justice, peace and dignity”.

The 13th amendment became part of the Sri Lankan constitution as a direct result of the Indian intervention in 1987, under the countries’ accord. It proposed the establishment of a provincial council system and devolution of power for nine provinces in Sri Lanka. However, successive governments in Sri Lanka have not implemented it. India has been urging Sri Lanka to implement and enforce the amendment ever since the country’s war with Tamil separatists ended in 2009. PM Modi had also taken up the issue with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he came to India on a bilateral visit in 2019.

At the ongoing session of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka has sought India’s help in getting the resolution rejected, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa writing to PM Modi seeking India’s support last month.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said that Sri Lanka’s efforts to bring justice to war victims have “failed” as she presented a report titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’.

“The growing militarisation of key civilian functions is encroaching on democratic governance. The continued failure to implement comprehensive reforms — or to vet personnel — leaves in place security and military officers who have been implicated in alleged grave crimes and violations,” Bachelet said.

Sri Lanka was defended only by a handful of nations, including Russia and China. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena had called on countries to reject the resolution, which he said was a “pure political move”.

India’s envoy Pandey said, “The assessment of the high commissioner regarding developments nearly 12 years from the end of the conflict raises important concerns. The Sri Lankan government has articulated its position on these issues as well. In evaluation of both of these, we should be guided by a commitment to find a lasting and effective solution for this issue.”

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