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India’s vexing flyover of Libya

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — Along with Germany, Brazil, China and Russia, India abstained the week before last from voting on the U.N. Security Council resolution that approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized “all necessary measures” for protecting civilians from Moammar Gadhafi’s forces.

India argued that it could not endorse the drastic steps called for in the resolution without hearing from the U.N. secretary general’s special envoy. It also underscored the African Union’s attempt to end the crisis in a peaceful manner.

India cautioned that “the resolution that the council has adopted authorizes far-reaching measures under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter with relatively little credible information on the situation on the ground in Libya.”

What was worse, India argued, there was no clarity in the resolution about who would enforce it, “what assets will participate and how these measures will be exactly carried out.”

Responding to reports that Libya should be divided, India in its remarks insisted that the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Libya should be preserved.

The Arab League had called for a no-fly zone to be established in Libya and the resolution, coauthored by Britain and France, was put on the table by Lebanon. The action by the U.N. Security Council was deemed necessary in light of the Libyan leader’s threat to launch the final attack with “no mercy” to push out rebels from Benghazi, the second-largest city in the country.

While the resolution excluded “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory,” it widened the scope of earlier sanctions that included a comprehensive arms embargo on Libya designed to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of arms and military equipment to Libya and a freeze on economic resources “owned or controlled, directly or indirectly” by Gadhafi family members.

The resolution ultimately passed 10-O, with five Security Council members, including India, abstaining.

Although the U.S. explicitly called on New Delhi to reconsider its stand on the resolution, India stuck to its guns. Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy envoy to the United Nations who has turned against Gadhafi’s regime, did not share his Indian counterpart’s concern, suggesting “it has nothing to do with the Libyan people.”

China’s permanent representative to the U.N. argued that his country supports “the U.N. Security Council’s adoption of appropriate and necessary action to stabilize as soon as possible the situation in Libya and to halt acts of violence against civilians,” but “China has serious difficulty with parts of the resolution.”

As military action has progressed, India, along with Russia and China, has criticized the bombing raids by Western forces, suggesting that the raids have gone much further than the agreed aims of the resolution to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians.

India, by abstaining, made it clear that it was not sure whether the answer was yes or no to the perplexing problem emerging in the Middle East. This lack of decisiveness is evidence enough that India is not yet ready for a seat on the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member.

This is a time of great tumult in the Middle East that is testing the resolve of the international community to tackle difficult issues in the region. All major global powers are struggling with tough choices as they try to strike a balance between their values and strategic interests in crafting a response to the unfolding crisis in Libya.

India is no exception, but it is under the spotlight at the moment after assuming the nonpermanent membership of the Security Council in January.

India, despite being the largest democracy in the world, has largely watched events unfold in the Middle East in silence. In many ways, this reticence is understandable. The region has been witnessing a highly unpredictable situation and the government was talking its time to think through the implications.

Furthermore, for New Delhi to comment on events unfolding in the region would have been hypocritical given how seriously India takes the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Much like China, India has traditionally resisted interventionist foreign policy doctrines emanating from the West and displayed conservative attitudes on the prerogatives of sovereignty.

India remains worried about the safety of its nationals who have decided to stay in Libya despite the crisis. It is also discomfitted by “precedent setting” parts of the resolution. And it is likely that coming the days and months of allied actions in Libya may well vindicate the position of naysayers like India.

Yet, India claims to be a rising global power today. America’s endorsement of India’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the Security Council, and India’s easy victory in election to the Security Council as a nonpermanent member, do indeed represent recognition of India’s credentials as a major global power.

But India still needs to convince the world that it has a legitimate claim to a permanent seat on the council. Now, in the spotlight, India finds its actions on critical global issues — including its silence on the democratic turmoil in the Middle East — being subjected to close and critical scrutiny.

The Libyan case underscores once again that India is finding it rather difficult to strike a balance between the pursuit of its narrow national interest and its responsibility as a rising power to help maintain global peace and stability.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.