Who would have expected a neophyte Australian foreign minister to get policy right on Sri Lanka while India’s prime minister scores yet another foreign policy own goal in his backyard? Julie Bishop rejected calls for Australia to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo on Nov. 15, insisting that Sri Lanka’s human rights are better advanced by engagement than isolation. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott duly attended.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stayed away, joining Canada’s Stephen Harper. The futile gesture is less a snub to Colombo than a setback to regional cooperation and India’s national security.

Having won a decisive victory on the battlefield against the vicious Tamil Tigers, Mahinda Rajapaksa has done his very best to lose the ensuing peace with intimidation and incarceration of opponents, dissidents and journalists, serial harassment of ethnic and religious minorities, and extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

There is much to be said for adopting association standards and suspending or expelling those who fail to meet or violate collective norms. It makes less sense to boycott meetings held on the territory of members in good standing.

India’s decision is not likely to exercise any positive impact on Sri Lanka’s human rights. No one believes that Singh’s primary motivation is the welfare of Sri Lankans; everyone knows it is a sop to India’s own 60 million Tamils whose votes will be assiduously courted in next year’s federal election. Harper’s decision is also mostly a cynical effort to court the ethnic Tamil vote, especially in Toronto. Their decisions flowed not from personal conscience or political courage but cowardly domestic political calculations.

There are many arguments against gesture politics. First, governments have control over their own laws, policies and actions but not over that of other countries. They can promote human rights laws and practices far more concretely and effectively by looking inward instead of at others.

The Harper government has been particularly bad in trashing parliamentary practices, conventions and institutions. Canadian NGOs that criticize the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation have suffered loss of government funding and hostile takeovers of their boards. Harper has systematically silenced civil servants and diplomats, cynically published guidelines on how to disrupt hostile parliamentary committees, and suppressed research that contradicts ideologically driven policy, for example on crime.

In June 2011 Canada single-handedly blocked asbestos from being added to the hazardous chemicals list of the United Nation’s Rotterdam Convention. Canada does accept the science: Asbestos could not legally be sold domestically because of tough health regulations. But Canada was happy to mine, ship and profit from asbestos at the cost of large numbers of Third World lives. So please, spare me the Harperite sanctimony on human rights and welfare of poor people in poor countries.

The scope for improving India’s own human rights is infinite, starting with the record of brutality in Kashmir and extending to the need to protect women from sexual violence, rescue children from slavery and trafficking, and protect ethnic, religious and tribal minorities from violent assaults and rapacious depredations. Instead of calling ineffectually for accounting of crimes committed against Tamils by Sri Lankan soldiers, Singh could launch criminal investigations against his own party leaders who incited killer riots against fellow Sikhs when Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984.

Her son Rajiv was decapitated by a Tamil terrorist. To think that Rajiv’s widow, who controls today’s Congress Party, should be party to a decision to diplomatically dishonor the government that liquidated the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist force.

State political leaders in Tamil Nadu are closing ranks with fellow Tamils across the Palk Strait by closing their eyes to the reality of the terror unleashed on Sri Lankans for over two decades. New Delhi also risks undermining its own numerous struggles against demands for autonomy and secession that could threaten national unity and territorial integrity.

By capitulating to the tribal instincts of a state government at the cost of the country’s larger interests, New Delhi is fashioning a rod for beating the back of all future federal governments. West Bengal had already scuttled a much needed, carefully negotiated and potentially game-changing deal with Bangladesh. Is foreign policy now to be surrendered to the whim of every state government?

An article in the state-run Global Times by scholar Liu Zengyi commented that India’s relations with its neighbors would be harmed by Singh’s decision. The last Indian prime ministerial visit to Sri Lanka was 26 long years ago. Singh’s absence from Colombo will harden anti-Indian sentiment in all neighboring countries. The primary beneficiary will be China, which has stepped in to become the champion of Sri Lankan interests in international forums. Its diplomatic, economic and military footprint in Sri Lanka and across South Asia will grow bigger.

By attending, Singh could have used India’s unique geographical and geopolitical clout to lead strongly worded public and private Commonwealth communications of concern on Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights, political freedoms and civil liberties. All Commonwealth leaders could have addressed the top Sri Lankan leadership directly.

C.V. Vigneswaran, the recently elected Tamil chief minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council who attended the CHOGM opening ceremony, had urged Singh to visit the Tamil stronghold Jaffna. He would then have had a global platform to underline India’s stakes and promote justice for the Tamils, and thus could have “messaged” his visit as an affirmation of solidarity with the Tamils. Instead India’s influence on Colombo regarding the Tamils will continue to erode.

An opportunity missed, a high price paid and little achieved of lasting value other than possibly a handful more votes to cobble together a governing coalition next year that, too, will be too hobbled actually to govern.

And that is likely to be history’s harsh judgment on 10 years of Singh’s tenure: He was in office but failed to exercise power to any visible social purpose. Or to mend and improve relations with neighbors. Or even to deepen human rights protections in India and South Asia.

Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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