Rites of Passage

India's shifting attitude at the United Nations

India’s evolving role in the Security Council is evident in its nuanced position on the resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. WIKIMEDIA COMONS
01 December, 2012

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, ANTHROPOLOGISTS, led by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, began documenting ceremonies that marked transitions in the social status of people or groups. These ceremonies, which van Gennep called “rites of passage”, usually represented the transformation of individuals from one status to another—from adolescent to adult, maiden to mother, or living to dead. In van Gennep’s classification, these rituals had three distinct phases: separation, transition and incorporation. First, the individual would break away from her group, by shedding its collective psychosocial characteristics. Then, a series of elaborate rituals would test her “worthiness” to join the destination-group. The final cycle of rites would completely assimilate her identity with that of a new and distinct collective.

Van Gennep’s rites of passage offer a useful analogy to understand the significance of India’s two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, which comes to an end this month. Between 1992, when India last served as a non-permanent member of the Council, and the beginning of the present term in 2011, the country’s rise as an influential voice in international politics presented an opportunity to break with the past.

Despite being a founding member of nearly every multilateral forum of note today—the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) in 1944, the United Nations in 1945, the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1955, the World Trade Organization in 1994—for most of its history, India had largely relegated itself to two functions at these venues: damage control and advocacy. When not defending our claim to Jammu & Kashmir, our aggression in East Pakistan, or our sovereignty against China, we were a vocal representative of the “global South”, a position that required neither muscle nor vision. India rallied against apartheid, advocated nuclear disarmament and promoted non-alignment—all weighty causes that did not require us to deliver concrete results. Meanwhile, we manipulated our neighbours’ politics and policies, imposed a national Emergency, enforced highly protectionist trade measures, and detonated a nuclear bomb.

Then, in 1991, reality hit back, both at home and abroad. The story of India’s balance of payments crisis and the economic reforms that followed is well known. Less fabled, however, is our tenure at the Security Council during a period marked by enormous international churning. The Cold War had ended, the Gulf War had broken out, the Horn of Africa had descended into chaos, and the Balkan Peninsula was being torn apart. Caught unaware by the sheer scale of its international exposure, India watched from the sidelines—almost always banding with a “non-aligned caucus”—as Great Power politics played out in the Security Council. His experience as the Permanent Representative to the UN during India’s 1991-92 term led Chinmaya Gharekhan to write: “We ought to realise by now that the Council is not about justice in any legal or moral sense; it is and will always be a political body.”

Nevertheless, this period laid the foundation for India’s first rite of passage. On more than one occasion, we supported tough sanctions against Iraq and Yugoslavia, who had been old comrades in non-alignment. Both had clearly violated international law, forcing the Council to intervene. In many cases, the Western sponsors of punitive resolutions against them had motivations of their own. But that did not, laudably, stop India from taking what were the right steps. In other words, we unshackled ourselves for the first time from a dogmatic foreign policy that saw all of international politics through the lens of two competing narratives: developed against developing, the self-determined against the colonisers, human rights against state sovereignty.

During this same period, India substantially increased its contribution to UN peacekeeping missions, indicating our willingness to tackle some of the world’s toughest conflicts. Taken together, these actions affirmed India’s faith in the global institutional architecture. In the years that followed, however, we retracted to a foetal position. Much of our disillusionment had to do with the Council’s failure to prevent and stop genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica. Some of it was born out of a humiliating (and by no means unexpected) defeat to Japan in the 1996 elections to a non-permanent Council seat. The election of a conservative nationalist government in New Delhi did not help either. After the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, the international community woke up to India’s double standards on global disarmament and non-proliferation. Our actions were condemned by the Security Council; and the G-7, among others, imposed strong sanctions on India’s economy.

If anything, these unfortunate events increased our isolation even at a time when people, goods and ideas began to flow robustly across Indian borders. Wounded by the attitude of powers-that-be, and buoyed by a few years of continuous economic growth, India styled itself as a defiant nation bent on achieving greatness. This, for a long time, formed the ideological basis of our quest for the Holy Grail: a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

Ten years later, the demand for Security Council reform did gain traction internationally. But India put its feet on two boats—it joined the L69, a bloc that vaguely resembled the Non-Aligned Movement; but conscious of the mismatch between rhetoric and reality, it also lobbied as part of the G4, along with Germany, Japan and Brazil, candidates more likely to be elevated to permanent status. The Council itself had been marginalised after a period of extraordinary American unilateralism, abetted by “coalitions of the willing”. Without the practical considerations associated with Security Council membership, we repudiated many policy proposals that emanated from the West, most notably the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine. That R2P was once endorsed by Bernard Kouchner and Tony Blair was enough for us to discard the humanitarian impulse as “military humanism”.

Then, in 2009, our UN policy underwent a radical, qualitative shift. What had changed? For one, India had appointed a new Permanent Representative, known for his hardy but level-headed approach to international politics. Unlike his predecessor, who frequently resorted to polemical rhetoric at the UN, Hardeep Puri had cut his teeth in multilateral venues like the WTO. Back in New Delhi, South Block had already undergone a sea change in thinking, as ideologues were replaced by seasoned diplomats. The United Progressive Alliance had also been re-elected with a sizeable mandate, offering Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a freer hand to navigate foreign policy. Above all, India was balancing the necessity to project an autonomous foreign policy with its aspirations to engage the world.

So that year, at the Debate on the UN Secretary General’s Report on Implementing R2P, India welcomed the norm in principle, while offering a sophisticated paragraph-by-paragraph, pillar-by-pillar critique that raised legitimate concerns about its application. This period leading into India’s tenure in the Security Council marks the second and transitory phase of its approach to international politics.

What can we expect from this phase? For starters, we are now willing to influence, and be persuaded by, the quality of proposals advanced by other Security Council members. India is certainly not discounting the strategic compulsions of other Council members. But unlike previous terms, when Indian diplomats were given explicit instructions to base our vote on those of other countries—usually, how China and Russia exercised their vetos—we have moved towards a meritocratic approach to Council debates.

India’s current Security Council tenure testifies to this shift. As crises broke out in rapid succession in the last two years, necessitating Security Council intervention, India centred its response on three or four main principles: to eschew the use of force as a first step in conflict resolution; to bring regional organisations on board to help defuse crises; to adhere to the letter and spirit of Security Council resolutions; and, in situations where UN peacekeepers are involved, to consult contributing members.

Taken in sum, these measures reflect a desire to ensure “collective” responsibility of the Council, not just on paper but also in practice. Analysts have suggested that India’s abstention, especially on the Security Council resolution that imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, indicates ambivalence over R2P. This is an inaccurate assessment. On three separate and critical occasions, India wholeheartedly endorsed Council resolutions invoking R2P, relating to Ivory Coast, Libya, and Mali. All three resolutions held the belligerent regimes directly accountable for the safety of their civilians. What’s more, these declarations were backed by Chapter VII measures (which permit a range of responses, from severing diplomatic ties to the use of force). Elsewhere, Ambassador Puri is on record suggesting that “if a state is not able to meet its obligations to protect its civilians, and if Pillar 2 [of R2P, i.e., efforts by other countries to help protect civilians] has also not worked, then the international community must step in.”

By the time the resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya was tabled, many countries had chosen not to comply with the arms embargo imposed earlier by the Council—which India, as mentioned, had supported—and it was clear that the Council would merely watch as NATO undertook military operations against Gaddafi’s army. In hindsight, India’s abstention may turn out to be a great call by our diplomatic establishment. The ensuing “mission creep” in Libya significantly reduced the appetite for R2P measures not just in New Delhi, but among other non-permanent members as well.

By July 2011, it was impossible to secure consensus in the Council to tackle the Syrian crisis. Given the near certainty of Russian and Chinese vetoes, India could have chosen to remain ambivalent. Instead, we tried to practice what we preached: as President of the Council in August 2011, India undertook a failed—nevertheless significant—mission to Damascus along with Brazil and South Africa to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Of the four draft resolutions tabled subsequently before the Council, India abstained from the first and supported the remaining. The last draft of July 2012—vetoed by both Russia and China—which called for parties to comply with Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, also threatened Syria with economic sanctions. The situation in Syria had been deteriorating, and the Assad government was trying to pulverise its way out of a deadlock. India’s decision to support this draft was correct, credible, and most importantly, commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis.

All this is not to say India’s current record at the UN is spotless. Some decisions, like participation at the “Friends of Syria” conference this year, and the abstention from the UN General Assembly’s Resolution on Syria, ought to have been explained better. But the ongoing tenure offers compelling reasons to believe that Indian foreign policy is no longer based on reflexive action. It is open to be acculturated by norms that may not resonate entirely with the country’s established consensus but are necessary to project India’s status as a global stakeholder. No example can illustrate this better than our vote at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year against Sri Lanka. First, we broke with our position against singling out states at international venues. Second, we expressed willingness to deliberate South Asian concerns at the UN, rather than dealing with them as problems in our backyard. Most importantly, India leveraged the power of the Human Rights Council, a platform that we were initially reluctant to support when it was conceived in 2005. India took a stance that basically went against the grain of South Block’s conventional wisdom.

Where does India go from here? It is too early to talk about a third rite of passage. India may or may not join the ranks of global powers, But for now, South Block seems to have realised that troubleshooting immediate crises cannot be held hostage to the symbolism associated with permanent Council membership. The emphasis, therefore, is very much on the present. The writer Pankaj Mishra, who used this analogy of maturation in a Bloomberg column this year, predicts that our future outlook will be based, among other things, on regional history and national pride. Others like C Raja Mohan argue that high principles have had no role in “pragmatic” Indian foreign policy. Both miss the point; ideals and values have, and will continue to have, a major impact on India’s worldview. How successful we are in defending those values while calibrating their impact on the ground will determine India’s place in the world.