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Sri Lanka may have allotted port terminal to India, Japan due to human rights issues

China-gifted frigate 'P625' renamed 'Parakramabahu' at the Colombo port in Sri Lanka (IANS/Xinhua)

Sri Lanka's allotment of West Container Terminal (WCT) to India and Japan could have a human rights link. Currently, Sri Lanka is battling allegations of human rights violations after United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said justice still evades the victims of Sri Lankan war crimes.

War crimes and human rights

The UNHRC has recommended action against officials who have been held responsible for violations and seeks to impose targeted sanctions against officials. In a statement on Bachelet's report on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC last week, India said the assessment of the High Commissioner regarding developments nearly 12 years from the end of the conflict raises important concerns.

Following the controversy, Sri Lanka wants India to support it before the UNHRC the way Russia and China have extended open support.

Separately, the allotment of the port terminal is likely to also be a part of Sri Lanka's effort to balance arch-rivals India and China, engaged in the Great Game of influence in South Asia and beyond.

The WCT will be a new port

The Sri Lankan government announced that it had approved the development of the WCT by a Indo-Japan consortium in partnership with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. The government added that the Indian High Commission in Colombo has approved the project. None of the probably two partners – India and Japan has offered comments on the new Sri Lankan proposal.

The department of information of the Sri Lankan government said the Sri Lankan cabinet, “has approved the proposal to develop the West Container Terminal on Build, Operate and Transfer basis for a period of 35 years as a public-private partnership with Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited and its local representative John Keels Holding PLC, and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.”

News agency AFP reported that the Sri Lankan government has informed the Indian high commission and the Japanese embassy about the WCT, requesting them to nominate investors for the project. AFP quoted Sri Lankan Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella as saying: "The discussions to develop the WCT will be only with India and Japan.”

Rambukwella added that the cabinet decided on Monday to allow India and Japan to have an 85 per cent stake in the WCT – the same terms China was granted when building the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT).

ECT cancellation was controversial In February, the Sri Lankan government had in a controversial move cancelled the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) under pressure from the trade unions. However, the Sri Lankan government also said the Indian firm involved in the project refused to agree to its new terms. Ports Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena had told the Parliament: "We entered talks from a favourable position to us, then that company refused to go ahead with our conditions," which forced Sri Lanka to scrap the deal. The government then said that the Sri Lanka Ports Authority will work on the ECT.

Chinese shadow lingers on in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan business newspaper, the Daily FT quoted Rambukwella as saying: " …we made it very clear that the WCT would be done with foreign investment. Since Sri Lanka was already bound to the pre-existing MoU signed in 2019 it was decided to get India and Japan’s involvement. We want to make it very clear that this is not a decision that is detrimental to Sri Lanka, like the handover of the Hambantota Port for 99 years,” Rambukwella said.

The island nation is making the most of Chinese power play in South Asia as it dangles the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments to India's neighbours. However, Rambukwella's statement on the WCT shows that the Chinese shadow haunts the country. Unable to repay huge Chinese debts, Sri Lanka gave away its Hambantota port to the communist giant on a 99-year lease, sparking concerns that the nation has granted a foothold to China extending its naval power to shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean region.

The WCT is yet to be built but will be located on the other side of the Chinese-run CICT. The CICT is the same port where China has twice sent its submarines, raising fears about increasing the reach of the Chinese navy.