Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister.

Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi

Who would have thought a neophyte Australian foreign minister could 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 in Colombo on November 15, insisting that Sri Lanka's human rights record is better advanced by engagement than isolation. Prime Minister Tony Abbott duly attended.

Manmohan Singh stayed away, joining Canada's Stephen Harper. The diplomatic snub to Colombo is more likely to set back regional cooperation and damage 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 something to be said for adopting association standards and suspending or expelling those who 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 record. No one believes Singh's primary motivation is the welfare of Sri Lankans; everyone knows it is a sop to India's 60 million Tamils before next year's election. His decision flowed not from personal conscience or political courage but cowardice. Harper's decision is also mostly a cynical effort to court the ethnic Tamil vote.

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 concretely by looking inwards instead of at others. The Harper government has been particularly bad in trashing parliamentary practices, conventions and institutions. Canadian NGOs that criticise the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation risk loss of government funding no matter how credible the charges.

In June 2011 Canada single-handedly blocked asbestos from being added to the hazardous-chemicals list of the UN's Rotterdam Convention. Canada was happy to mine, ship and profit from asbestos at the cost of large numbers of Third World lives. So spare me any Harperite sanctimony on the welfare of poor people in poor countries.

The scope for improving India's own human rights record is infinite, starting with 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. Singh could also assuage Sikh anger by launching criminal investigations against his own party leaders who incited killer riots against Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984.

Gandhi's son Rajiv was felled by a Tamil terrorist. His widow controls today's Congress Party and is party to a decision to diplomatically dishonour 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 more than 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.

West Bengal had already scuttled a carefully negotiated and potentially game-changing deal with Bangladesh. Is foreign policy now to be surrendered to the whim of every state government? Singh has fashioned a rod for beating the back of all future federal governments.

Chinese scholar Liu Zengyi comments that India's relations with its neighbours will be harmed. The last time an Indian prime minister visited Sri Lanka was 26 years ago. Singh's absence from Colombo will harden anti-Indian sentiment in all neighbouring countries. The primary beneficiary will be China, whose diplomatic, economic and military footprint in Sri Lanka and across south Asia will grow bigger. By attending, Singh could have led strongly worded public and private Commonwealth communications of concern on Sri Lanka's deteriorating human rights record, political freedoms and civil liberties. All Commonwealth leaders could have addressed the top Sri Lankan leadership directly.

C.V. Vigneswaran, recently elected Tamil chief minister of Sri Lanka's Northern Provincial Council, who attended the CHOGM inauguration, had urged Singh to visit the Tamil stronghold Jaffna. Singh 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' place in Sri Lankan society will continue to erode.

An opportunity missed, a high price paid, and little achieved of lasting value. Only a handful more votes to cobble together a governing coalition next year which too will be too hobbled by coalition politicking 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 neighbours. 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.