Understanding India's UN Abstention on Sri Lanka

Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted in favor of a resolution on Thursday to establish an international investigation into alleged war crimes that occurred during the final stages of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war. The 26-year conflict between government troops and the Liberation Tamil Tiger Elam (LTTE) terrorist organization ended in 2009. Despite vehement opposition from Colombo, 23 members of the council supported the resolution, which was co-sponsored by a host of nations including the United States. While Washington's support was predictable, uncertainty surrounded India's vote. New Delhi had previously supported two earlier council resolutions condemning Sri Lanka's human rights record. Many speculated that it would again join with the United States in calling for an international inquiry into the war crime allegations.

In a move that appeared to surprise both Washington and Colombo, however, New Delhi abstained from voting on the UN resolution. What explains New Delhi's decision? India's abstention on Sri Lanka appears to be motivated by a combination of both domestic and foreign policy factors, as New Delhi struggles to walk a delicate tightrope between these two oftentimes competing considerations.

Domestically, the government of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has traditionally exercised considerable, if not disproportionate, influence over New Delhi's decision-making calculus toward Sri Lanka. This is a result of the state's historically close ties with the island nation's minority Tamil population. An estimated 40,000 Sri Lankan Tamils died during the final months of the country's civil war. New Delhi's support for the two earlier UNHRC resolutions, as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to boycott a summit of the Commonwealth nations in Colombo last year over the war crimes charges, were largely the consequence of immense pressure from various political parties from Tamil Nadu. The Congress Party-led governing coalition relies on alliances with some of these regional parties to form the country's government.

With national elections scheduled to begin in India in just a few days, voting against the UNHRC resolution last week -- and ostensibly expressing its support for the Sri Lankan government as a result -- undoubtedly would have alienated these regional parties. Although the Congress Party's electoral prospects in the upcoming election appear bleak, unnecessarily provoking many of its historic coalition partners and one of its important constituencies was a risk that that the government was unwilling to take.

Beyond these domestic factors, however, larger foreign policy prerogatives also contributed to New Delhi's abstention in Geneva. While the country's Tamil community has pushed New Delhi to condemn Colombo over human rights, India has watched with increasing unease and concern as Sri Lanka has in recent years sought closer foreign relations with China and Pakistan, India's strategic rivals. Some observers in India have asserted that New Delhi's tough stance toward Sri Lanka over human rights in recent years has been a key catalyst driving Colombo's embrace into Chinese and Pakistani arms. China has played a central role in Sri Lanka's post-war reconstruction, spearheading infrastructure projects and providing substantial financial assistance to the island. Colombo and Islamabad have begun to deepen defense and military cooperation since the end of the Sri Lankan war in 2009. Pakistan's fierce opposition to the UNHRC resolution last week seemed to rival Sri Lanka's. The evolving geopolitical alignments in the region have potentially far-reaching geostrategic consequences for India, and New Delhi is eager to blunt growing Chinese and Pakistani influence over the island. Its abstention at the UN on Thursday appeared to be one step towards that end.

India's abstention was, in fact, consistent with its past efforts to strike a delicate balance between these seemingly rival domestic and foreign policy considerations. Although it previously voted in favor of two earlier UNHRC resolutions condemning Sri Lanka, it refused to support a resolution characterizing the killings that occurred during the final months of the civil war as "genocide." Similarly, while Prime Minister Singh skipped the Commonwealth summit in Colombo last year to protest Sri Lanka's human rights record, India instead dispatched its top diplomat to the meeting. Viewed within this context, India's abstention should come as no surprise as it tries to carefully calibrate a policy that addresses its domestic constraints at home while still safeguarding its foreign policy interests abroad.

Despite India's best efforts in this regard, the abstention still ignited outrage amongst political leaders of India's Tamil community. Even senior figures of India's government seemed ambivalent and uncertain about the abstention, which has prompted heated and emotional debate throughout the country. While Sri Lanka appeared to express its gratitude toward India by releasing 98 Indian fishermen previously held in Sri Lankan custody, it is too early to assess to what extent, if any, the abstention will help mitigate growing Chinese and Pakistani influence over Colombo. With the international investigation by the UN Human Rights Commission scheduled to get underway in the coming weeks, India will continue to walk a delicate diplomatic and political tightrope between its foreign and domestic prerogatives. How successfully it can continue doing so remains to be seen.