'Where self-interests are involved, big powers invoke R2P'

It is a year since the uprisings in Libya that resulted in a change in regime with uncertain prospects for its citizens even today.

The Syrian confrontation between different sections of that complex polity continues with the only certainty being begetting more violence. Even as these clashes unfold in the real world, there is a conflict of doctrines too as they relate to international relations. Here is a brief attempt to analyse the underlying divergences in the universe of ideas that compounds the tensions in the world of action.

What is the relation between the Raja and his Praja is an age old question. We should not forget that not too long ago, whether in the East or in the West, a Raja ruled supposedly because of his divine rights; he became a ruler because of his birth in a  family.

He continued to prevail because of the forces at his disposal, to subordinate or where necessary to subdue his citizens, or to repel his external enemies. A good ruler, however, also provided protection to his citizens. We still have features of this political order in many societies, even if we may have given up the terms ‘Sovereign’ or ‘Raja.’ A full blown democracy is not a universal standard.

The old question in our time is framed thus: ‘What is the relationship between a state and its citizens?’  As the political consciousness has matured, the idea that a state has to protect and try to look after its citizens and that the citizens should obey the laws of the state has come to be accepted. This is the ideal social contract, but in the real world tensions do exist invariably in the state-citizen equation.

In the nineties, there were some terrible tragedies. In Srebrenica, in Yugoslavia, in the heart of Europe several thousand citizens were killed because of their ethnicity, with the powerful forces of the western world close by being unable to prevent the bloodshed.
On a much larger scale in 1998, the small country of Rwanda saw 800,000 people killed in a matter of days with the UN forces fleeing in panic.

The debate on whether outsiders have a role and a responsibility faced with such horrific violence within a country got an impetus. It is the international version of the difficult question: if your neighbour is beating his wife and children brutally, do you keep aloof because after all it is his house, or do you try to intervene? In the domestic case, one option is to try to call the police, but in the international arena, there is no police with jurisdiction. ( Whether the United Nations is such police is a complicated question.)
Though cruelty and even ethnic cleansing were aspects seen before, the scale of it led to a vigorous discussion mainly in western democracies about the ‘right to intervene on humanitarian grounds.’ Advocates of the idea argued that responsible nations cannot shut their eye in the face of such brutality and that the so called international community (a code word for the community of western democracies) had a right and indeed a duty to step in and stop the killings.

Concept of absolute sovereignty

In the international arena, this idea directly comes into conflict with ‘sovereignty,’ the notion that what a country does within its borders is its own affair, a matter for its people and leaders, and other countries cannot meddle. The principle is fundamental in international law, though we should recognise that absolute sovereignty is a concept and that in the real world every nation has to live to varying degrees with external influences.

The doctrine of the ‘humanitarian right to intervene’ immediately drew much criticism. It was rejected by many as an ‘excuse to interfere’ by big powers. Others asked as to by what criteria and process is a determination to be made on an impending humanitarian catastrophe.

Selectivity and prejudice were another issue. Governments regarded by the powerful nations as rogue or inimical or of ‘strategic interest’ were likely to be targeted. Others, for instance, Congo, Sudan or Afghanistan were likely to be ignored by the interventionists, even if the humanitarian calamities were even larger. If you argue for the right to intervene, will you accept the concept of ‘duty to intervene’ and go to every trouble spot was another question.

The doctrine evolved and was refined. The concept of the ‘right to intervene by others’ was turned on its head and has become the ‘the responsibility to protect.’ It has now acquired the fashionable acronym ‘R2P.’ The underlying idea is that every state has a responsibility to protect its own citizens.

But there are situations when a state turns on its own people and targets them because of political, ethnic or religious grounds as examples of Rwanda or Sudan shows. The argument is that when such violence goes beyond a threshold in cases like genocide or ethnic cleansing, the ‘international community’ cannot remain a silent spectator and should exercise the responsibility to protect the innocents.

But how to decide whether the level of violence has crossed a point? Who is to decide whether a government is unwilling or incapable? These questions are to be determined by the Security Council and this creates a familiar set of fundamental problems. Given the very structure of the Security Council the most powerful nations can escape questioning because of their veto; the judgments depends on political equations; there is selective focus and discrimination; in short all the ills associated with an unrepresentative decision making body.

But who said that the world is just? From the Indian point of view, with our belief in human rights and at the same time, in the principle of non-intervention, what is important is to contribute to the debate, to stay engaged, to project our perspective on an issue that will be on the global agenda.

(The writer is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil)

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