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PM hand in Lanka vote abstention

New Delhi, March 27: India today abstained from voting on a UN resolution against Sri Lanka after a late-night intervention by the Prime Minister overturned an internal move to vote against Colombo, officials said.

The move is likely to aid India’s strategic interests at a time it was worried that its southern neighbour was drifting closer to Beijing, but it could hurt the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu.

India had voted against Sri Lanka the last two times the United Nations Human Rights Council had taken up resolutions against Colombo over human rights abuses. In 2012 and 2013, however, the Congress had had to bow to pressure from ally DMK, which has since dumped it.

The rights council passed the resolution, moved by the US and its allies, with 23 of its 47 members voting for it, 12 nations abstaining and another 12 voting against. Had India and the 11 other abstaining nations voted against the resolution, they could have defeated it.

Officially, India explained that it was uncomfortable with the resolution asking the rights council to conduct an external, international probe into rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

“It has been India’s firm belief that adopting an intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions is counterproductive,” India’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dilip Sinha, told the rights council.

The resolution, officials said, could set a precedent that could hurt India if hostile nations sought a similar international probe against New Delhi on, say, Kashmir.

But India’s decision to abstain and not vote against the resolution pointed to deeper motives, officials conceded.

“If we really feared directly getting impacted, we would have tried to defeat the resolution,” an official said. “But the abstention is a message to Sri Lanka. Politically, we were under the impression that a different message was to be sent — till the Prime Minister intervened.”

It is unclear if Manmohan Singh had consulted senior party members such as Sonia Gandhi. But the first voice of support for his decision came from one of the Congress’s fiercest critics: the BJP’s Subramanian Swamy, who has frequently attacked India’s recent Lanka policy, which has been influenced by domestic politics.

“I congratulate PM Manmohan Singh for ordering the Indian delegation in UNHRC not to support the dangerous US resolution seeking an international probe into the so-called human rights violations during the 2009 anti-LTTE war by Sri Lanka,” Swamy said in a statement.

Most major parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Congress, have questioned Colombo’s ability to independently probe rights abuses during its three-decade civil war with Tamil separatists.

In its manifesto released yesterday, the Congress had said: “We will work with other countries to prevail upon Sri Lanka to ensure a credible, objective, time-bound enquiry into allegations of human rights violations….”

Congress leaders such as P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony had pressured Prime Minister Singh into boycotting a Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka last November. Singh had taken the decision against his will, his aides have since confirmed to this reporter.

In the run-up to today’s vote, Indian negotiators were focused on tweaking the resolution’s wording to prevent any international probe against Sri Lanka from exposing India’s own late-1980s military intervention on the island from scrutiny. The Indian Peace Keeping Force had served in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990.

Yesterday afternoon, they won that battle and were preparing to follow political indications to vote against Sri Lanka.

“But on Wednesday night, the Prime Minister demonstrated that India can put its larger strategic and diplomatic interests over domestic politics, even at a time of elections,” a diplomat said. “This move has helped us recover a relationship that was otherwise sinking.”

New Delhi desperately wants to strengthen ties with Colombo, which had dubbed any international probe on its territory a violation of its sovereignty.

India’s decision to distance itself from the resolution against Sri Lanka will allow the country’s foreign policy establishment to tell their counterparts in Colombo that New Delhi respects the island nation’s sovereignty and wants to work with it, officials said.

China was among the 12 nations that voted against the resolution — Pakistan, Russia, Algeria, Congo, Cuba, Kenya, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Venezuela and Vietnam were the others.

Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gabon, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Morocco, Namibia, the Philippines and South Africa were the other nations that abstained.