Burmese demonstrators in New Delhi demand the release of political prisoners in Burma on November 3, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

The US has backed India's candidacy for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The enormity of such a responsibility will be apparent sooner though, since India is scheduled to serve a two-year term on the Security Council starting next year. There will be some hard decisions: whether a leader implicated in crimes against humanity must face an international criminal court; whether a government should be investigated for violations of laws of war; whether the UN should intervene if tens of thousands are at risk of being killed in ethnic clashes.

All these choices will be measured against India's own strategic and trading interests.

As a far less powerful nation in the past, India was able to take some strong moral positions. It provided sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and his followers fleeing Tibet, supported people's movements for democracy in Nepal and Bangladesh, and spoke out stridently against apartheid in South Africa. But that has now changed in favour of a policy of non-interference.

Even as US President Barack Obama celebrated India's emergence as a global power, he noted, in his November 8 speech to parliamentarians, India's responsibility to promote human rights abroad. "Speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries", Mr Obama said. "It is staying true to our democratic principles." A government spokesperson reportedly responded that "India has and will always decide its position on issues keeping in mind national interest, the situation in the region or specific strategic and economic compulsions".

As of course it should. But India has to be careful. Short-term economic or strategic gains need to be weighed against appalling human suffering or the creation of fault lines for which history will hold India to account.

For instance, India has moved from dismay when Burmese democracy leader Aung San Su Kyi was imprisoned two decades ago after winning an election, to needing now to be reminded by Mr Obama that it is "unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime". That is because India is now ignominiously in the company of countries such as Zimbabwe, Libya and North Korea in opposing UN resolutions to protect human rights in Burma. Does India really want to belong to this club?

A number of Indian analysts contend that the Western style "megaphone" diplomacy has failed in Burma. However, India's recent hands-off policy has not produced results either.

Perhaps, innovative thinking is needed to bring genuine change. As India takes its seat on the Security Council, it should work toward more effective interventions. But, it cannot lose sight of the broader goal, which is protecting and promoting the human rights, peace and security of all.

Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.