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Wednesday , April 17 , 2013
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- Responsibility, sovereignty and India’s position on Syria

In the epilogue to his biography-like account of both the United Nations and his trying years working for the UN, Kofi Annan recounts a popular Swahili proverb, “You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.” “The wind,” Annan argues, will “follow its unsettled course,” but unlike in the past, its direction is less likely to be controlled by “tyrants and bigots” alike. The force of people’s aspirations, the former secretary-general makes clear, can no longer be resisted. Indeed, this was all too evident in the winds of change that swept across parts of the Arab world. It dismantled regimes once thought to be infallible and removed giant-like actors from the theatres that they once produced and directed.

In keeping with this renewed spirit and reality of change, Annan makes his case for the doctrine known as the “Responsibility to Protect” or “R2P”. Accepted by all UN member-states at a World Summit in 2005, the guiding principle underlying this doctrine is fairly straightforward. It is to take “collective international responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. From the outset, and as India’s representatives at the UN have assertively argued, these are wholly unobjectionable aims. After all, they are codified in conventions entered into force as far back as 1951.

What has proven to be controversial and divisive is the issue of the use of military force when peaceful means fail. As Hardeep Puri, the former Indian permanent representative to the UN, was quick to underline at a General Assembly plenary meeting in 2009, R2P, he argued, “should in no way provide a pretext for humanitarian intervention or unilateral action”. In short, the use of force ought to be considered as the absolute last resort. Sovereignty, as Indian officials often stress, is paramount. In fact, one former representative rubbishes R2P as a “Trojan Horse for refurbished imperialism and colonialism”. No wonder then that India is often branded as a sovereignty hawk. Its abstention in March 2011, at the vote to consider Resolution 1973 authorizing the UN to “take all necessary measures” in Libya, reinforced India’s taxing sticker. In some ways, India has come to be seen as what the historian, A.J.P. Taylor, calls a “troublemaker”: relentlessly representing the virtue of dissent.

The urgency and ongoing civil war in Syria has once again highlighted the tension between the temptation of some states to intervene and the need — as clearly expressed in the BRICS joint communiqué in Durban in March 2013 — to encourage “national dialogue” whilst respecting “Syrian independence”. As much as brands and stickers are useful in dividing an argument into two convenient parts — that for or against intervention, it’s worth digging beyond the literal. In reality, India’s very approach to dissent is far more qualified than otherwise believed. That they remain unqualified in the Western elite imagination has as much to do with New Delhi’s less-than-forceful approach to public articulation, as the eagerness of the United States of America and Britain to turn a blind eye to trouble-makers. Two points perhaps merit attention.

First, although branded as a hawk, in the six or so statements on Syria between January 2012 and February 2013, India’s position has been far more elastic than otherwise understood. Whilst each and every intervention in the Security Council highlights the need to evolve an approach “anchored in state sovereignty” (February 12, 2013) that is “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned” (January 31 and August 30, 2012), Indian representatives remain cognizant of changing ground realities. India first pushed for the League of Arab States to pressure the Assad regime and the opposition to negotiate. It then worked through IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), and supported the effort on the part of Kofi Annan — in his capacity as the joint special envoy — to implement a six-point plan. Once the latter initiative failed, India threw its weight behind Lakhdar Brahimi — the UN’s joint special representative — to engage with both the ruling government and the Free Syrian Army. In short, there is no doubt that India actively supported, and continues to support, proposals authored by the Security Council.

Yet, its inability or lack of will to push back the common charge of its apparent obsession with sovereignty has done much to provide status quo powers with the opportunity to brand India as less responsible than they, a point often and lightly made by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN. Much more importantly, it reduces a subtle and poignant debate to two polar ends, undermining the finer arguments with regard to the R2P that will outlast the crisis in Syria. In fact, India’s position on Syria affords the opportunity to take ownership of a doctrine authored by those for whom the idea of responsibility is rooted in the reality of non-intervention in Rwanda.

A textual analysis of India’s position at the UN makes clear that it strictly abides by the two operative paragraphs (138 and 139) on international assistance outlined in the World Summit Outcome Document. Given this, why not take the lead in shaping the future of assistance and prevention? Rather than shun the R2P doctrine as one owned by those more willing to use force, it is perhaps time for India to better articulate its proven responsibilities beyond sovereignty, determinately pushing Rice and others to better appreciate the limits of force. There is no harm in accepting the parameters of someone else’s game for a balanced outcome.

Second, while the recent BRICS summit provided an occasion to forward a common front vis-à-vis Syria, unsurprisingly emphasizing the core issue of sovereignty, the question to ponder is whether a joint front is really useful. Russia and China may reach the same conclusion on intervention in some instances as India, as they did in the case of Resolution 1973 and Libya. But in others, such as in Syria where Russian and Chinese arms have propped up Assad for decades, the rationale for non- intervention hardly appear alike. Indeed, India’s position is so much more nuanced and constructive than those bandied by Moscow and Beijing. Further, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, seems intent on taking the lead among emerging nations at the UN. Admirably, Brazil is one of the only countries to have persistently pressed for the reform of the UN security council.

Rousseff called attention to the so-called norm of the “Responsibility while Protecting” or “RwP”. Rubbished by some as a means to position Brazil as an interlocutor between the global south and the US, the norm has invited exactly the sort of debate on intervention that Indian representatives press for on a daily basis, but fail to communicate beyond the stayed language of sovereignty. “Proportionality”,“last resort”, “balance”: all the key terms that make RwP are those underlined in each and every text produced and read by Indian representatives on crises such as in Syria. This is not to say that India should come up with acronyms for the sake of populism. It is to merely point out that leadership requires a dictionary of its own. Those producing the language for argument are inherently better placed to shape new grammar. India owes it to itself to escape the sovereignty catch. Its role as a trouble-maker promises to balance the scales in a world where the licenses afforded to nation-states are increasingly challenged from within. But even trouble-makers need finer language to emphasize dissent, if not to be heard by those deafened by the noise of their own jets and bullets, then by those on the divided streets of Syria who desperately require their oppressors and leaders to pay heed to the responsibility to protect.