The Indo- Sri Lanka Joint Communique: Delineating the Parametres of Action in Response to the Panel Report

[Editors’ note: An edited version of this article appeared in the Daily Mirror on the 26th of May 2011.]

4. Both sides agreed that the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka created a historic opportunity to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation imbued with political vision to work towards genuine national reconciliation. In this context, the External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his Government’s commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the ongoing dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties. A devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation.

5. In response, The External Affairs Minister of India urged the expeditious implementation of measures by the Government of Sri Lanka, to ensure resettlement and genuine reconciliation, including early return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their respective homes, early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas and redress of humanitarian concerns of affected families.

The above two extracts from the Joint Communique issued by the External Affairs Ministers of India and Sri Lanka following the recent visit of the latter are especially significant for Sri Lanka in this postwar, post –Panel period and into the future as well.  They underscore what at times is obscured in the din of sloganeering and propaganda. The most important bilateral relationship for Sri Lanka is that with India, whether some of us like it or not.  China is very important; but India is pivotal. And at this time too, when we needs friends in the global South who will look to India and take their cue from Delhi when it comes to Sri Lanka in any international fora.

Consequently, the communiqué needs careful reading, not so much for what the GOSL indicated it has done and would do, but more in terms of what Delhi felt important to emphasize and include. Note there is no reference to the Panel Report or to accountability. Yet there is reference to “investigations into allegations of human
rights violations”. Delhi “urges the expeditious implementation of measures” in this regard. Note too, that is it is inconceivable that Minister Peiris would have agreed to anything in the communiqué without first getting the go-ahead from the President.  Consequently, the President is surely as responsible for what is contained in this communiqué as his minister. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that the joint communiqué contains the measures the regime should take in order to neutralize any adverse consequences of the Panel Report.

2011 is not 2009. In 2009, India proactively lobbied on behalf of Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council and backed the Rajapaksha regime to the hilt in defeating the LTTE. In 2011, Delhi has awoken to a Sri Lanka situation in which the Chinese are popularly seen as the closest friends of Sri Lanka and accordingly Chinese assistance is given greater prominence and publicity than the steady flow of assistance Delhi continues to send our way. Especially galling, may well be the simple fact that whilst Delhi gives us grants and the Chinese loans, the latter seem to get the greater share of praise and thanks. Furthermore, as the joint communiqué reveals there are a number of outstanding issues ranging from the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to the Sampur coal power plant, a number of other development projects and the violence meted out to Indian fishermen.

An underlying thread in all of these issues is the political commitment to expedite movement. In the case of CEPA though, the issue is as much about political commitment as it is about the ideological bias underpinning that lack of commitment.  Procrastination over CEPA is more about the regime subscribing to the primordial fears of the Sinhala nationalist lobby with regard to Sri Lanka being swallowed up by the big brother to the north than it is about anything substantive.  It is indeed a shame that those within and around the regime who recognize the benefits of CEPA for this country, keep quiet – a measure perhaps of their own insecurity within the existing power structure?

Delhi’s perspective on Colombo will now be coloured by its relationship with the Jayalalitha government in Chennai. As has always been the case, the Tamil Nadu factor in the Indo- Sri Lanka equation gets activated when Tamil Nadu sees utility in using Sri Lanka as a source of leverage in its relations with Delhi and to a lesser extent vice versa. In this respect there is probably a period of six months maximum in which Jayalalitha will also beat the human rights accountability drum in respect of Sri Lanka and therefore Delhi’s position on Sri Lanka could be expected to reflect this, though not in the fullest measure of Tamil nationalist fantasies and Sinhala nationalists fears. Whilst Delhi will be sensitive to Tamil Nadu, South Block is not going to allow policy to be dictated by a state government.

Delhi’s position seems to be that there is a historic opportunity for Sri Lanka to move into a post-conflict phase. The responsibility for this lies, as indeed it must, with Sri Lankan actors who should take national initiatives and measures to achieve meaningful unity with reconciliation. Consequently, Sri Lanka must be given time to do this. However, whilst there is no deadline to be imposed, this should not be interpreted to be an indefinite and elastic period. Moreover, there has to be demonstrable progress to assure that the trajectory of change is within the framework of meaningful reconciliation and unity. Were this not to be the case, there are options to be exercised including at the international level.

This point could well be reinforced at present by action or the lack of it, calculated not to stymie momentum, such as there is, vis-a-vis the Panel Report. No proactive, explicit endorsement of its findings and recommendations or proactive involvement in the expediting of action in respect of them. The mention of human rights violations is significant and not mere window dressing as is the omission of any explicit mention of the Panel Report and accountability. The Rajapaksha regime has a window of opportunity to come good on what the international community and local human rights organizations have been asking of it as a basic minimum.

Human Rights violations and the Panel Report aside, there is the pivotal issue of a political settlement, which Delhi has consistently championed.  In this context, the phrase “building on the Thirteenth Amendment” holds out hope that the Thirteenth Amendment Plus formula will still be in play and with it those unimplemented sections relating to land and police powers to boot. “ Building on”, in this context, also presumably means that the “Plus” relates to the powers devolved to the provinces and that the proposal for a second chamber is in this respect, essentially extraneous to the principal task at hand, though complementary to it at the margins. The message is surely that of getting real and down to brass tacks.  Placating and distracting attention with elaborate and protracted sideshows like the APRC, will only result in the regime fooling itself, and its “urumaya” fellow travellers.

The Panel Report underpins the joint communiqué. It should be seen as a catalyst, a sharp reminder to the regime that whilst bread and circuses and shrill pronouncements about a nation besieged may keep the masses relatively docile and supportive, governance in the globalized world of the twenty –first century requires mature policy making and tough decisions.

As for national sovereignty, it surely must depend on more than the national interest and benevolence of Russia and China?

  • Nimal Sandaruwan

    Robert Blake’s recent testimony before a US Congressional committee gives us an insight to the Indo-Lanka joint communiqué.
    Blake has said that “The Administration [ US] believes – and Congressional Appropriations language specifies – that our security cooperation, in many forms, should remain limited until progress has been made on fundamental human rights, democracy and governance issues, and the concrete steps necessary for a true and lasting national reconciliation…….. We have urged Sri Lanka to take credible and meaningful steps towards accountability and have warned that a failure to do so is likely to generate pressure for an international commission. “
    Dr Saravanamuththu’s advice- “The most important bilateral relationship for Sri Lanka is that with India, whether some of us like it or not. China is very important; but India is pivotal. And at this time too, when we needs friends in the global South who will look to India and take their cue from Delhi when it comes to Sri Lanka in any international fora”- to the Rajapaksha regime indicates the extent to which US administration is willing to compromise and the flexibility to appreciate the “complexities” the Rajapaksha government is facing in trying to get out the mess they are in.