R2P - Perspectives from India

SD Muni
October 21, 2013

Using the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to justify decisions to intervene militarily abroad is often self-serving. Countries like India are ambiguous about the right to intervene because the practice is deeply inequitable. 

Salil Tripathi, B.S. Chimni and Gareth Evans address the friction between sovereignty, the morality of responding to atrocities in other countries, and the fears of western imperialism. But to understand the opposition to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine among many people in developing countries, like India, one must appreciate that they see its implementation as discriminatory.

India's own record of interventions shows why the Indian Government is hesitant about R2P. India used a concept similar to R2P in the past, before the current R2P doctrine was accepted by the UN in 2005. For example, India intervened to assist in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, justifying it in the name of stopping genocide. India also intervened in Sri Lanka with the Jaffna Food Drop. In the first week of June 1987, Tamil militants were cornered in Jaffna and Sri Lanka's Jayawardane government stopped essential supplies from reaching ordinary citizens. India sent unarmed bombers to airdrop relief supplies to starving civilians in the north. 

These interventions clearly violated the sovereignty of the countries concerned. When the Indian army marched into East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in 1971, it took on the Pakistani army. The food drop in Jaffna was not only a humanitarian act, but also a show of force to the Sri Lankan president. Despite the justification of a duty to protect people in neighbouring countries, Indian decision makers considered these interventions as primarily in the national interest. The humanitarian action in each case was in keeping with India's own strategic interests.

The Indian government's anxiety about supporting R2P in Syria stems from this experience, coupled with a historical anti-colonial mindset. It knows, from its own record, that the decision to intervene in another country is largely political and strategic, even though it may look humanitarian and serve also the purpose of saving the lives of innocent people caught in the conflict.

R2P is promoted as a new norm of international law. Invoking it, however, remains the prerogative of the United Nations Security Council, which in turn is dominated by its veto-wielding members, namely the USA, UK, France, China, and Russia. Even if the UN is built on powerful principles of human rights, in the case of authorizing the use of force, Security Council votes are driven by the strategic interests of the great powers.

That is why even when R2P was promulgated it was suspect in the eyes of critical observers, who see it as a tool for powerful countries to pursue international or regional dominance; or to pursue regime change and vested interests based on foreign relations or national security concerns. Within the UN framework, R2P is expected to justify the use of force in the interest of humanity for the universal good, but its exercise is often an excuse for interventionist action in the management of global affairs to suit the interests of the powerful.

Against this background, another aspect of the Indian state's ambiguity as regards R2P arises from its perception of its own vulnerability, and its place in the international order. The fear of R2P being used to justify interventionism by the western states is based also in future, even if hypothetical, threats to India's own sovereignty and autonomy (think Kashmir.) In this sense then, the national interest guides both India's use and support of the R2P rationale in situations where its own vital interests are involved, and its opposition to the present-day use of R2P at the global level. The fundamental flaw in the R2P doctrine lies in the assumption that those who invoke it to justify the use of force will do so in the wider interest of humanity and not be driven by their particular political considerations.

Geopolitical interests are inevitably intermingled with the R2P concept. There are gross violations of human rights around the world, including in several African countries, but western powers feel compelled to act only in a few instances. Why is R2P not invoked in these cases? The Middle East is going through a tumultuous period of transition. Power struggles between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel strongly influence western involvement. The Shia-Sunni imbroglio plays in Iran's support to Syria and Saudi Arabia's opposition, and this power struggle affects US policy, as does US backing for Israel. 

To be clear, the humanitarian framework of the R2P is unobjectionable: if a state does not protect its own citizens, the only other alternative is international pressure. And the United Nations, however imperfect, is the proper authority to decide on the use of force. But the actual practice of invoking R2P shows that it is discriminatory, opportunistic and severely unequal. Russia and China's approval of R2P in Libya but not in Syria is a matter of strategy. Such decisions are significantly coloured by political interest.

The UN is also meant to support the rule of law, essential for the realization of human rights. If countries are to adhere to the rule of law, and commit to abide by international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, it seems an underlying requirement is the restructuring of the UN Security Council. India has, in collaboration with Brazil, Japan and Germany (together known as the G4), proposed expanding the membership of the UN Security Council from the present 15 to 25 states. No doubt the proposal arises from these countries' own aspirations to play a larger role in international decisions. But prevailing vested interests would not want such radical reforms in the UN structure because the democratisation of the world body would keep some of their allies and associates out, thereby tilting the legal and political balance to their disadvantage. 

There is no perfect answer to the dilemma of the R2P. Not the rule of law, not unilateral intervention. R2P would work only if used in an equitable and judicious manner. Unless the doctrine’s underlying bias is rectified, or at least sufficiently discussed during Security Council voting, R2P will continue to fall tragically short of its humanitarian goals.


SD Muni was India’s Special Envoy to Southeast Asian countries on UN Security Council Reforms and served as India’s Ambassador to Lao PDR. He was the founder editor of Indian Foreign Affairs Journal and South Asia Journal. He is affiliated as a Fellow with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, and Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne. 


Originally published by openDemocracy

Photo by Centre for Security Analysis

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