Saturday, March 26, 2011

India's dodgy stand on the Libyan crisis

The Indian response to the  events in Libya has been craven and cynical. Just how craven is evident from the manner in which External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna rushed to condemn the coalition air strikes on Libya, even though by choosing to abstain on a crucial UN Security Council vote, New Delhi ensured that the action would take place. And just how cynical our polity’s response has been is manifested by the discussion in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday where all parties condemned the bombing. The fact that Mulayam Singh Yadav kicked off the discussion points to its true nature— the search for the Muslim vote.
After standing on the sidelines at the UN Security Council discussions and then shedding crocodile tears over the developments in Libya, India is displaying its tendency to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, a trait so painfully apparent in the triangular dealings between India, US and Iran, as revealed by Wikileaks.
But why blame India? The Arab League called for the action and two of the key African nations—South Africa and Nigeria—along with Gabon, voted for the resolution along with the principal western countries, minus Germany. Had India and, say, Brazil, actually opposed the resolution, it would have failed, as it would have if either Russia or China had voted against it.
The language of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (UNSC 1973) mandating “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians and the establishment of a no fly zone (NFZ) over the country, is as clear as it could be. The resolution was not passed in a hurry, but after extensive consultations and discussions.
All the diplomats there would have  known what a “no fly zone” meant. The one over southern Iraq in 1991-2003  involved attacks on any active air defence sites. Had Colonel Gadhafi immediately acknowledged UNSC 1973 on March 17 and indicated his compliance by grounding his air force and switching off his air defence radars, it would have been difficult to justify the attack that was launched three days later on March 20th. But the Colonel denounced the resolution and this meant that to implement the NFZ, it would be necessary to take out his air defence network.

Libya operates—to be precise operated—an extensive air defence network based on Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and fighter aircraft to protect its cities and oil installations along the Mediterranean coast. The coalition cruise missile attacks were clearly aimed at eliminating these. Of these, the SA-5 with a range of 250 kms and the Mig-25 fighters were particularly dangerous.
Two contrary pulls have marked the debate on Libya. One relates to the sanctity of the state, as underwritten by the Westphalian state system. The other is the right, sanctified in practice, if not international law, to revolt against tyranny. What is happening in Libya is not some western conspiracy. It arose out of the way in which Colonel Gadhafi sought to crush the rebellion in the state he had ruled with an iron hand for 40 years. Indeed as Gadhafi’s tank column neared Benghazi, the Colonel appeared on TV to declare that he would punish the “traitors” and “show no mercy” to them. Just what that would have implied was apparent from the use of tanks and aircraft in the process.
Clearly—as the discussions and the eventual vote in the UN Security Council reveal— there was consensus that something needed to be done to stop Colonel Gadhafi. No one opposed the NFZ, though India and China wanted the situation to be studied a bit more. But with Benghazi already under artillery bombardment, there was need for action, rather than discussion.
The world does have important and legitimate concerns over the action, though it seems strange that they did not figure in the discussions. First, for example, UNSC 1973 has not set any time-frame for the measures that it has mandated; second, we do not have a clear idea of what end state the world community seeks to achieve.
The NFZ in Iraq did not solve the problem there; indeed, it set the stage for the subsequent war whose consequences we still witness. The attacks on Libyan missile sites and airfields was necessary to create the conditions for a no fly zone, but of what category were the attacks on Libyan tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi? And what are we to make of  Obama’s press conference statement in Santiago, Chile that “It is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go”?
We can speculate that the western intervention arose out of its belief that the uprising represented democratic impulses, as in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, and therefore there was a need to support it. But there are some who argue that the rebellion was born out of the  long-standing tribal divisions in the country and that the eventual outcome of the present policy could be the division of the country along those lines.
In the last fifty or so years the world has witnessed many armed interventions. Most have been motivated by national interests and many minus the sanction of the United Nations. In this way, the US intervened in Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq in 2003, India in East Pakistan in 1971 and Maldives in 1988, the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
The list of interventions that did not take place is even more graphic. Between 1975 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge was allowed to carry on a genocide of the Cambodians and the Vietnamese invasion which overthrew the regime was opposed by China and the western nations. No one intervened in the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, or the systematic killing of Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s.
More recently, people have pointed out that while the UNSC has authorised action in Libya, it remains silent on Bahrain and Yemen, both well-known American allies.

Like it or not, we cannot avoid intervening in the affairs of others. Should the world stand by when rulers decide to punish their own populace, or, as in Rwanda, Cambodia and erstwhile Yugoslavia, wipe out entire groups of people because of their ethnicity or religion?
Obviously we need rules to undertake such ventures. Despite the flaws in UNSC 1973, it is based on international law which  is admittedly imperfect. Even so, countries who are now wailing, that they did not realise what an NFZ would imply are lying.
President Obama’s behaviour has not been particularly courageous on Libya; his travails in Iraq and Afghanistan probably explain this. But he did have a point when he told our Parliament last year that it was “unacceptable to gun down peaceful protestors and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade” and that national sovereignty could not be used as a shield for this.
In the same speech he had also bluntly pointed out that “in international fora, India has often avoided these issues.” In abstaining on the UN vote on Libya and fudging its stand the way it is doing, New Delhi’s response has, sadly, been par for the course.
Mail Today March 24, 2011

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