March 9, 2011

A classic diplomatic blunder at the United Nations on 11 February 2011 saw India's foreign minister, SM Krishna, mistakenly begin to read out the official statement of his counterpart from Portugal. It took a full three minutes for the error to be recognised, which may indicate how platitudinous and formulaic many such texts are.

No wonder the incident led to some gleeful snickering in India and abroad. But the fact that the minister was clearly unfamiliar with his own prepared speech, which began with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, was hardly the best start to India's two-year membership of the UN Security Council.

There is, moreover, a serious side to this otherwise trivial error. A rising India has become accustomed to making strident claims about its role in the world, and this episode has encouraged many to look more closely at India's actual stance on foreign affairs.

A larger role

India has subsequently done well by joining the UN Security Council consensus on Libya, embodied in the resolution critical of the Tripoli regime that was passed on 26 February 2011. But if New Delhi wishes to be considered a significant global player, it needs also to express a more active and engaged foreign-policy position in the domestic arena.

India's response to the eruption of protests in Alexandria and Cairo is a case in point. The government initially had little to say apart from voicing concern for its nationals residing in Egypt. As the remarkable demonstrations spread across the middle east, the eventual statement of prime minister Manmohan Singh was notably cautious. "Let me say, if the people of Egypt want to move towards the processes of democratisation, they have our good wishes. And that's true of all countries", he said. "We do not believe it is our business to advise other countries, [but] we welcome the dawn of democracy everywhere."

The danger of such bland propositions is that they can convey indifference to the plight of subjugated people who are desperately seeking - and support for seeking - the same rights as those living in democracies, India included.

The implication of the prime minister's words is that New Delhi endorses the status quo; supports governments no matter how they treat their own people; and might sympathise with the desire of others for human rights or to break free from an abusive or dictatorial regime - but does not believe it has any necessary role to play in advancing this outcome.

This is simply not acceptable, particularly now that India is serving on the Security Council and seeking a permanent seat. The council, after all, has a mandate to protect people from gross human-rights violations - whether protecting civilians in armed conflicts, stopping the use of child soldiers, ending the practice of rape as a weapon of war, or monitoring violations in countries with peacekeeping missions. It is expected to play an active role in preventing abuses from escalating into civil war, crimes against humanity or genocide.

India does not really need lessons for this job. It can simply recall episodes from its own past. These include its support of people's movements for democracy in Bangladesh and Nepal; its championing of the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka; its prominent position in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa; and its opposition to the military dictatorship in Burma. With these precedents in mind, India should once more stake out a position as a world leader in defending the rights and aspirations of downtrodden people.

A local responsibility

An obvious place to start is in India's own neighbourhood.

In Burma, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) predictably won more than 77% of the votes in the rigged national elections of November 2010. India has a strong record of supporting democracy in Burma, something its obsession with competition from China for influence and energy resources has led it to repudiate.

It needs to take a stand on principle here, and neither support this sham election nor pretend that in itself the release of Aung San Su Kyi (welcome though that is) fundamentally changes anything. As many states endorse a long-overdue UN commission of inquiry into serious international crimes in Burma, it is time for India to choose sides between the Burmese people and the generals.

India will have to make a comparable decision over Sri Lanka, and whether to back a repressive government or the victims of alleged war crimes.  The civil war which ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in early 2010 was marked by massive atrocities from both sides which caused unimaginable civilian suffering. Since evidence could implicate very senior Sri Lankan officials, the chance for domestic accountability is zero.

That reality led UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to set up a UN panel of experts to make recommendations for international action. The panel's report is due in March 2011. India should call on Ban to make the report public, and openly support the recommendations.

A louder voice

But India's role at the council will also require wider efforts elsewhere.
India can lead action against the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has moved out of its Ugandan base to wreak havoc in three other African nations. Indian troops are part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the region; but without a cross-border mandate, they cannot fully address the problem. India, with its own experience in tackling abusive rebel operations, should press the council to expand capabilities to protect civilians in areas affected by LRA attacks.

India's ability to act as a force for good in such situations, however, is handicapped by its reluctance to "advise" other countries - largely because India doesn't want to be advised itself. The way out of this bind is for India to be more confident, and accepting of the fact that being a more important power also means being on the receiving end of criticism.

India should therefore be willing to join other leading democracies (such as the United States and Britain) in taking the lead on human-rights initiatives, while rejecting their shortsighted support for dictators in the middle east and elsewhere. India's foreign policy should support aspirations for freedom and respect for basic human rights, and it should be on the frontlines with other states acting to achieve those goals.

As the tumult in north Africa and the middle east continues, India will have to do more than send "good wishes". India's voice now, and the role that it plays or fails to play, will become part of the chronicle of the period. The Indian government should be careful not to end up on the wrong side of history.

Meenakshi Ganguly is the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

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