March 27, 2012


Kunwal Sibal

Mail Today

Many arguments can be made against our decision to vote against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a decision highly questionable from the foreign policy point of view. Domestic compulsions seem to have outweighed foreign policy considerations in this case.

India and the West have been at odds on how best to address the issue of human rights internationally. India shares the view that the West uses the issue to embarrass, destabilise or topple politically uncongenial governments.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union was succesfully destabilized through the human rights basket of the Helsinki Accords. Cuba has been a favourite target year after year.

After the Cold War ended many countries have come under the West’s scanner on human rights issues, ranging from Libya, Iraq and erstwhile Yugoslavia to Iran, China and Russia. Belarus is under pressure on this count and so is Syria. India, until recently, has been under stress too.


With improved India-US ties the US government now disregards periodic reports from international human rights organizations on our alleged human rights infringements in J&K in particular, but the issue has not disappeared.

Because the West uses the issue of human rights selectively, targetting adversaries and protecting allies, India has taken a principled position all these years at Geneva to oppose or abstain on human rights resolutions against individual countries in the Human Rights Commission and its re-incarnation under US pressure as the Human Rights Council.

India has not believed in this name and shame game played for cynical ends by powerful countries who claim the high moral ground on humanitarian issues, but whose own international actions, often hugely costly in human terms, are shielded from any formal censure because of their dominant position.

India also believes that the principle of sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs should be respected. While India shares the values of democracy, pluralism and human freedoms with the West, it differs with it on the degree of activism to spread these values world-wide.

In India’s thinking promotion of values should not be a cover for an aggressive promotion of self-interest. India does not want to be in the business of shaping the global order according to the values it espouses as a country, as that entails passing judgments on how countries run their internal affairs and assuming burdens on behalf of the citizens of a foreign country that rightly fall within the purview of national governments.

In the case of the vote on Sri Lanka, irrespective of the reality of the human rights situation there, we have departed from our principled position on these matters. The irony is that in the past we have stood on the side, explicitly or implicitly, of China, Sudan, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Iran, Syria and so on by voting against or abstaining on resolutions.

Are these countries closer to us than Sri Lanka? If we had to move from principle to pragmatism on human rights issues, should we have begun with Sri Lanka, where bilateral sensitivities are far more acute than in any other case?

Once we drift from our moorings of principle at Geneva, we will not be able to escape taking up positions on human rights issues involving specific countries.

Tomorrow how will we justify not voting against Iran, or for that matter China? And, if for delicate political reasons we do not want to rock our relations with these countries by joining others in indicting them, how will we justify in retrospect our vote against Sri Lanka?

In voting against Sri Lanka on a western sponsored resolution, have we now concluded that the West’s treatment of human rights issues has become universally acceptable and even-handed in its treatment of friends and adversaries?


Our vote against Sri Lanka in a multilateral forum should have followed a public hardening of posture bilaterally with our neighbour. We should have appeared to have exhausted bilateral diplomacy before joining the West at Geneva to summon Sri Lanka to assume its human rights responsibilities towards its own population. We have, however, maintained an intensive dialogue with Sri Lanka on the Tamilian question and are undertaking rehabilitation and reconstruction operations in the North.

We have not given any impression of a diplomatic impasse with Sri Lanka even as we have continued to press it to discard triumphalist thinking and move forward on reconciliation and devolution.

That we amended the US/EU sponsored resolution to make it less intrusive, more balanced and more respectful of Sri Lankan sovereignty is not sufficient justification for joining with distant powers to pick on Sri Lanka at Geneva.

We should be in control of our relationship with Sri Lanka instead of following the lead of others or seeking to achieve our own political ends through them. Those in India advocating that we should have taken the lead at Geneva to move against Sri Lanka are implicitly endorsing the manipulative dimension of western human rights policies, while forgetting that this instrument has been used against us in the past and can be in the future. Those who argue that in censuring Sri Lanka India has shown its readiness to act as a responsible power subscribe to demeaning criticism of India in western circles as well as the fiction that western policies are inherently responsible.

While democracies have to be sensitive to public opinion, should our foreign policy be held hostage to coalition politics? Should individual states be allowed to dictate to the centre foreign policy decisions whose implications go beyond immediate domestic political equations? Our foreign policy risks becoming erratic and capricious if domestic pulls become overly influential in shaping its direction.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary

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