China’s contretemps on Sri Lanka’s human rights issues
by R Hariharan on 25 Nov 2013 3 Comments

At the end of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in Colombo on November 17, Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa is probably a happy man having seen through the prestigious event despite global media focus on Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes issue and its fallout. Whether the international community agrees or not, his supporters would claim his stewardship of the CHOGM in Colombo in spite of a strong international campaign against Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes and human rights aberrations as yet another ‘victory’ of their hero.


So it must have come as a mild shock for him when China’s foreign ministry spokesman called upon Colombo to “make efforts to protect and promote human rights” while answering a media question on the issue of Sri Lanka hosting the CHOGM. The spokesman added that this was an issue within the Commonwealth, “but at the same time I believe that on the human rights issue, dialogue and communication must be enhanced among countries… Due to differences in economic and social development of different countries, there could be differences on human rights protection. So what is important is that the relevant country should make efforts to protect and promote human rights while other countries in the world should provide constructive assistance.”


Though there was nothing spectacular in the statement, it assumes significance because China made it at a crucial time when global focus was on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Beijing had always felt “the Sri Lankan government and people were capable of handling their own affairs,” was how China’s foreign ministry spokesman addressed the issue in March 2012 when Colombo was hauled up before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on concerns over human rights violations. China believed “dialogue and cooperation” was the way out for the human rights dispute in Sri Lanka. 


China had been the main supporter of a whole lot of countries like Sudan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka when hauled up in UN forums for their poor rights record. Contempt for international opinion on its human rights aberrations is one thing that China had long shared with Sri Lanka. Both countries have a chip on their shoulders about the Western world’s hypocrisy in commenting on human rights record of other countries when they choose to ignore their own gross human rights violations committed during their fight against terrorism and extremism resulting in loss of innocent civilian lives. 


Basically, China is opposed using country-specific human rights resolutions to apply pressure on erring nations; this has generally also been India’s stand. In May 2009 at a special session of the UNHRC, China joined hands with India to ensure the defeat of a resolution sponsored by Germany and 17 other nations asking Sri Lanka to ensure rights to minorities. Instead China and India ensured the success of a competing Sri Lankan resolution congratulating it for wiping out a major terrorist threat!     


When the US brought a resolution calling upon Sri Lanka to act upon alleged rights violations for the first time  at the UNHRC session in March 2012 , China saw it as a move to “impose pressure” on Colombo. Before the resolution came up for voting, China strongly opposed the move claiming that Sri Lanka had made great strides in promoting human rights and national reconciliation process.  Significantly, India changed its stance and voted for the US resolution on this occasion.


It should be noted that China’s strong support of Colombo in 2012 came after Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited Beijing earlier in the month. His meeting with Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie resulted in both countries pledging to deepen their strategic ties. The Chinese minister stressed that China would continue to support “Sri Lanka’s efforts in safeguarding state independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” which became a constant refrain since then.


Though China is agreeable to absorbing “rational human rights ideas from other countries” it does not accept the Western human rights ideas upholding that people are born equal as it feels people are not born equal and need to brought up to become so. Based on its own experience, China maintains human rights not only involve political rights but also economic and social rights.


At the same time, China wants to be seen increasingly as a responsible global power and not merely as an economic and military giant. So in the past, whenever there was strong international pressure on critical issues, China did not hesitate to dilute its stand. For instance when there was worldwide acclaim for the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in the Myanmar elections in 1990, China was the first country to send its ambassador to congratulate the NLD, though it never supported the movement for democracy. In keeping with international trends, China supported Myanmar’s 2008 “democratic” constitution and the 2010 multiparty elections despite its earlier stand of not interfering in the internal affairs of the country. 


China’s national interest and peace and tranquillity in its neighbourhood seem to dictate its international conduct, rather than the strength of its foreign relations with smaller countries. Keeping such Chinese contretemps in mind, Sri Lanka must be worried about Beijing’s unexpected statement on her human rights and wonder whether it is having second thoughts on its unflinching support to Sri Lanka on the human rights question. That may queer the pitch for Sri Lanka in the face of increasing international pressure on human rights issues.


As China is now a member of the UNHRC, its support will be crucial to Sri Lanka when it faces the US sponsored resolution for the third time on its accountability over human rights aberrations at the UNHRC session in March 2014. So it is not surprising that Colombo is already talking in terms of seeking China’s support, among others, when the US resolution is tabled. Sri Lanka foreign office spokesman said, “We want all countries to support us including China who have maintained strong ties with us.” It is significant that China came in for special mention, while India was ignored, perhaps because it is now seen as a hopeless case. Sri Lanka will be on tenterhooks to see how China handles the issue as a “responsible” member of the UNHRC when the US resolution comes up in March 2014.



-  South Asia Analysis Group Paper No 5607 dated November 21, 2013                                      

- Chennai Centre for China Studies C3S Paper No.2039 dated November 21, 2013

This article may be read in continuation of South Asia Analysis Group Paper No. 5595 dated  November 7, 2013, titled “China cashing on India’s Sri Lanka woes” available at URL:

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