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6 December 2011, Gateway House

Reconsidering R2P, post-Libya

After the crass misuse of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Libya, the broader question is: where is R2P headed? Do the events in Libya herald a more explicit assertion of this doctrine in other parts of the world? And should India rethink its viewpoint towards this ambiguous doctrine?

Former Indian Ambassador

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Events in Libya this year, the rigidity and cruel oppression of the Libyan people by the Gaddafi regime, and popular opposition by the masses in many Libyan cities, prompted the United Nations to adopt a ‘no-fly zone’ to the region which swiftly led to armed intervention to overthrow that government. The rest is history.

We can view these events from two perspectives: First, how the doctrine of the Responsibility To Protect or R2P has influenced the unfolding of the ‘Arab Spring’ that started with Tunisia and spread like wildfire to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Morocco and Kuwait. These events may still infect and influence other states of the Arab world.

But first, a brief on R2P.

In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a declaration on this subject, stating:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.
  3. The international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.

The above decision, as also the 2004 United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1674 and the UN Secretary General’s subsequent reports, have carried forward the elaboration of this ‘R2P’ doctrine. Major support for this comes from Canada, supported by Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Many in the international community have seen this decision as an important advance in the evolution of humanitarian international law. But some countries, including India, have viewed the third ‘pillar’ in the above list with considerable reserve. There are reasons why.

R2P has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed results. But let us focus on this year’s Arab Spring and the role of R2P.

Developments in Tunisia and Egypt show that even when regime change has taken place, it is far harder to install democratic regimes than many have imagined. How can an electoral process deliver results when the institutions that underpin democracy, and modes of political behaviour that are also the prerequisites, do not exist? This story is still being played out, and it seems inevitable that the Arab world may undergo much turbulence before the full consequences of the Arab Spring work their way, not in just the countries named above, but in the other states that have their own problems with transparent governance and public accountability.

Can the Libyan model be applied to Syria? As matters stand, this is not likely; for one thing it would be far harder for the West to enforce the same set of methods. A civil war in that country would be far messier and for that reason, it might be impossible to push such a decision through the UN Security Council. Much also depends on how the Syrian regime handles the crisis.

The second broader question is: where is R2P headed? Do the events in Libya herald a more explicit assertion of this doctrine in other parts of the world?

India, China and Russia are among a handful of countries that expressed reservations over the R2P doctrine, but a majority of UN members, including most members of the Non-Aligned and the G-77, do not share these concerns. A clear, even overwhelming majority is of the view that the sovereignty principle does not entitle autocratic or despotic regimes to oppress its own people.

Should India rethink its viewpoint? Perhaps India’s position is rooted in its colonial experience, and reconsideration is required not as a concession to the West but in consonance with India’s contemporary faith in democracy and human rights. It might appear that India wants to guard its own position, to ensure it does not become a victim to such R2P initiatives, be it in Kashmir or elsewhere.

The reality is that even when questions have been raised over the actions of Indian security forces in Kashmir and elsewhere, it has been public opinion and the media within India that have asked the hardest questions. It is unthinkable that India will deliberately trample on the rights of its citizens to anywhere near a level that might invoke R2P issues. The actions in Libya went much beyond the three pillars of the 2005 R2P declaration. A self-confident India, playing a larger global role, ought to be less defensive and more articulate on principles involving basic human rights, even while retaining a balanced perspective on R2P and urging caution on the politically motivated actions of the West in that regard.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly on 24 July 2009, the Indian Permanent Representative Hardeep S. Puri had said:

“Sovereignty as responsibility has, however, always been a defining attribute for nation states where safeguards for protection of fundamental rights of citizens are constitutionally provided…These measures [R2P], Mr. President, not only have to be used as a last resort but have to be in conformity with the provisions of the UN Charter…responsibility to protect should in no way provide a pretext for humanitarian intervention or unilateral action…”

A few elements to keep in mind in reconsidering Indian policy:

  • Western countries, the leading proponents of R2P have always been selective in the application of the humanitarian principles they espouse. One does not see any rush to apply R2P to Somalia or to the Sudan.
  • Notwithstanding this hypocrisy, does it behove India to be in the company of authoritarian regimes in opposing, in principle, a doctrine that is patently based on sound humanitarian principles?
  • Surely a democratic and open India, practicing responsible, accountable governance, has nothing to fear from the application of R2P in any future eventuality?

This subject deserves informed debate among our opinion leaders.

Kishan S. Rana has served as India’s ambassador to several countries, including Germany; he is professor emeritus with DiploFoundation (Geneva & Malta), and author of six books on diplomacy and inter-cultural issues.

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