Q What is happening?
The DMK, Tamil Nadu’s largest political party, has pulled out of the ruling coalition in India because it feels India has not taken strong enough action over war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka. The DMK has 18 seats and some sources say the Government of India has a majority of 13 – so this action has been said by some to end the majority in the Indian Parliament.
While the DMK have said that they have pulled out of the Government they have not made final arrangements to do so (it has not sent a letter to the President formally signalling its intent), and it may be possible that they can be persuaded to stay in the coalition if tougher action is taken. Events are unfolding rapidly; this site is doing a minute-by-minute update service.
Q So has the Indian Government lost its majority?
There are various different ways of measuring how large a majority the Indian Government has. You need 272 seats for a majority. Previously the coalition had a total of 248 seats, and it had the outside support of 59 more (SP – 22, BSP – 21, RJD – 4, JD (S) – 3 and Independents – 9), making it a total of 307. The DMK’s withdrawal brings the coalition down to 230, but with the outside support of 59, it still has 289 seats.
But some of these parties were more supportive than others and so not everybody agrees that you can count on these parties for outside support. This is particularly true of the SP, and its by not counting the SP that you get the headline that the Indian government had a majority of 13 and has now lost it. Others say the Government never had a majority (or that it lost it a few months ago when some other parties left the coalition) and others maintain that the Government still has a majority. Regardless, what is clear is that the Indian Government will continue, but that it will now struggle to pass legislation.
Q What action do they want?
The Human Rights Council, a body of the UN that meets in Geneva, is currently considering a resolution regarding Sri Lanka. This resolution will probably be voted upon on Friday – a simple majority of the 47 member states have to vote in favour for it to pass. The text is proposed by the USA and can be read here. India have said they will support the resolution but behind the scenes it is believed that India was a key force behind watering down the resolution.
The DMK believe that rather than weakening the resolution India should work to strengthen it. In particular they believe that the resolution should use the term “genocide” to describe what took place in Sri Lanka.
Q Is this possible?
The draft resolution can be technically amended right up to the moment of adoption which could be as late as Friday afternoon this week. However, amendments need to be politically acceptable to all co-sponsors and the challenge would be to get the necessary political acceptance, including instruction from the capital city for many or most delegations.
The Indian Government have suggested that the term genocide can’t be used until after an international investigation has taken place, and so can’t be used in this resolution. While there may be no procedural rule to that effect that is likely to be politically true, and furthermore any resolution that mentions genocide would be highly likely to then fail to receive enough votes to pass.
Q What is desirable?
We have long insisted that what Sri Lanka needs is an independent international investigation into the war crimes, and crimes against humanity, that both sides participated in in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. This resolution falls short of delivering that.
Nevertheless, this resolution is a positive step: it builds on the resolution that was passed at last year’s Human Rights Council but uses stronger language and gives an enhanced mandate to UN experts (known as Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedure Mandate Holders) to hold the Government of Sri Lanka to account over human rights violations – and it’s an important step on the road towards the international investigation we need. It is very important that the resolution not be abandoned as a result of this controversy.
That said, this resolution is much weaker than it could have been, and hopefully this controversy will enable the resolution to be strengthened: either in terms of language, or by more clearly allowing the High Commissioner of Human Rights to investigate war crimes allegations, or even by asking for the independent international investigation we so clearly need. India was previously thought to be a major road block to that kind of strengthening – hopefully that road block has been removed.
However what would not be helpful would be for the term genocide to be included. It is entirely possible that the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, when 40-70,000 people died in the space of a few months fit the test for a genocidal incident. It is also possible that the ongoing disruption of normal life in the North, the destruction of mosques and temples, the building of Buddhist stupas, and the promotion of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy fit the pattern of a cultural genocide. It is also possible that the LTTE’s (the Tamil Tigers) removal of the Muslim community from the north be considered a form of cultural genocide, and that the Sri Lankan Army’s brutal suppression of the Marxists Nationalist JVP uprising be considered a Cambodia-style self-genocide. However the inclusion of the word genocide in this particular resolution will not advance that debate. The only thing it will achieve is to ensure that the Human Rights Council resolution dies, and that would be an enormously wasted opportunity.
What we really need is an independent international investigation but this resolution is a positive development. It should have been more demanding, but it might be too late to change the resolution now. If India wants to win back support in Chennai they must propose tough action via the Commonwealth.
Q What else could happen?
If the Government of India wants to win support in Tamil Nadu it shouldn’t just think about the Human Rights Council. The biennial Commonwealth summit (CHOGM) is to be hosted in Sri Lanka this November and many people feel this meeting should now be cancelled. Moreover key figures in the Commonwealth (The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group or CMAG, who next meet on April 26th) are considering taking strong action against Sri Lanka. India has been silent on both these points, but could now push for the commonwealth to take a stand.
Additionally the administrative head of the Commonwealth (the Secretary General) is a former senior Indian diplomat called Kamalesh Sharma – he is thought to be close to Sonia Gandhi. He has been less than neutral in his handling of Sri Lanka before the commonwealth and has continually shielded Sri Lanka from human rights investigations. India could pass him a message that defending the Government of Sri Lanka in this way is not helpful.
Q What have the major human rights organisations said about the resolution?
The Human Rights Council should establish a Council mechanism devoted to monitoring and reporting to the Council on the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka and should throw its support behind growing demands for an independent international investigation into allegations of crimes under international law committed in Sri Lanka.
Over the past year the Sri Lankan government has alternated between threatening activists who seek justice and making small, cynical gestures to keep the international community at bay, the Human Rights Council should dismiss these tactics, end the delays and authorize an independent, international investigation into the estimated 40,000 civilian deaths at the conflict’s end.
Strong international action should begin with Sri Lanka’s immediate referral to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and a new resolution from the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) calling for concrete, time-bound actions to restore the rule of law, investigate rights abuses and alleged war crimes by government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and devolve power to Tamil and Muslim areas of the north and east.
In this context, MRG says, international action is now crucial. It calls on the UN Human Rights Council to start a formal discussion on both the LLRC report and the UN Panel report with the aim of establishing an independent international mechanism to investigate fully the credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian committed by all parties involved in the armed conflict and to monitor progress towards the implementation of an effective transitional justice process by the Government of Sri Lanka.