Syria, Libya and Security Council

Print edition : March 23, 2012

Hardeep Singh Puri: I am one of those who believe that if you didn't have the United Nations, you would have to invent the United Nations.-PTI

Interview with Hardeep Singh Puri, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations.

THE United Nations Security Council sits in a solemn emergency room in the heart of the U.N. complex in New York City. The 15 members of the Council, including the five permanent members, sit around a horseshoe table, under a mural done by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh. The panels of the mural showcase everyday life in northern Europe. At its bottom centre there is a phoenix, emergent from the flames, around which stand people who seem stereotypically Eastern (the women here have their faces covered, and the men wear turbans). A field artillery gun points at these people. It is their fate. Under an imagination that trusts in the good faith of the West and the perfidy of the East, the Council deliberates.

After the U.N. was formed in the 1940s, serious-minded people in its orbit wondered if the organisation needed its own military force. When conflicts break out, the U.N. would only have the power of moral suasion, and perhaps the authority to call for trade embargos. Nothing more was possible. Article 47 of the U.N. Charter called for the creation of a Military Staff Committee to advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council's military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security. As the Cold War heated up, neither the Atlantic powers nor the Soviet bloc would permit the U.N. to create its own military force. The idea went into permanent hibernation.

Both the Atlantic powers and the Soviets built up their own military capacity, and the U.N. became the preserve of the Third World, which took refuge there to try and build an alternative to the dangers of a nuclear showdown and the proxy wars on their lands. The United States and Western Europe created the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a robust military alliance that has now outlived the context in which it emerged. That context was the contest with the Soviet Union, which ran out of steam in the 1980s and ended finally in 1991. NATO remained, and thrived. It has since expanded out of its original base and absorbed most of Europe, including Eastern Europe, and has created networks with countries outside its region (through the NATO-Russia Council and the Mediterranean Dialogue). The singular aim of protecting Europe is now gone. Remarkably, in NATO's 1991 Strategic Concept paper, a new mission appeared, Allies could further be called upon to contribute to global stability and peace by providing forces for United Nations mission.

The Atlantic powers had ignored or tried deliberately to undermine the U.N. through the Cold War, and this tendency remained in the musty corners of the Far Right in the U.S. (represented by President George W. Bush's Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton). NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept paper went a long way in establishing the centrality of NATO for preserving peace, preventing war and enhancing security and stability outside the lands of the member-states. But NATO would no longer act without seeking U.N. authorisation. The communiqu that was prepared by NATO's Defence Planning Committee meeting on December 7, 1990, pointed explicitly to U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, which authorised the use of all necessary means if Iraq does not comply with its withdrawal from Kuwait. NATO members would, the committee noted, continue to respond positively to United Nations request, namely to go to war against Iraq. From 1991 onwards, NATO began to be the de facto military arm of the U.N. No other member had the capacity to bring all necessary means to bear on countries that did not follow through on U.N. resolutions.

Since NATO is not the U.N.'s official military force, it is only the U.N. resolutions that NATO finds most in line with the national interests of its member-states that feel the full brunt of its military power: NATO did not act to protect Palestinian civilians in 2006, nor Congolese civilians during the long war from 1998 to 2007 that cost the region eight million lives. NATO members entered the Iraq war under a U.N. resolution; NATO went to war against Yugoslavia without U.N. authorisation but sought it afterwards; NATO threw itself into the War on Terror slowly in the 1990s and then forcefully after 9/11 (when it invoked Article 5 of its treaty, to defend one of its member-states that had been attacked and to go out of area to do so). There has been a substantial increase in the expansion of NATO's geographic domain, from the narrow confines of the North Atlantic to Afghanistan. It likes U.N. authorisation, but its troops do not put on the blue hats of the U.N. command.

MEMBERS VOTE ON a resolution on Syria in the U.N. Security Council on February 4, at the United Nations in New York.-DON EMMERT /AFP

The Yugoslavian war allowed NATO to extend its own sense of itself. No longer was NATO simply a defensive pact. It was now to be the defender of human rights, and it permitted itself to abrogate national sovereignty if this meant that it would prevent atrocities from taking place outside its domain. The shadow of the 1994 Rwandan genocide hung heavy over this shift, as did the 1995 killings in Srebrenica (Bosnia). It was because of these grotesque events that the NATO member-states pushed the U.N. to consider what must be done to protect populations from harm. The Canadian government created the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000, and its report (The Responsibility to Protect) was produced the next year. The idea of responsibility to protect (R2P) won out among the committee over the ideas of right to intervene and obligation to intervene. The notion of intervention was to be kept out of the concept, although R2P is often seen as synonymous with Humanitarian Interventionism. In 2006, the U.N. adopted R2P as a mandate. NATO was to be its enforcer, and the International Criminal Court (which came into being in 2002) was to be its juridical arm.

The entire ensemble of the U.N. Security Council, R2P, the ICC and NATO was tested in the 2011 Libyan war. No prior war had seen all of these elements on display in one conflict. At an informal meeting on R2P at the U.N. on February 21, 2012, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, said, The Libyan case has already given R2P a bad name. Why was this so? As soon as the [U.N. Security Council] resolution was adopted, the overenthusiastic members of the international community stopped talking of the [African Union]. Its efforts to bring about a ceasefire were completely ignored. Only aspect of the resolution [that was] of interest to them was use of all necessary means' to bomb the hell out of Libya. In clear violation of the resolution, arms were supplied to civilians without any consideration of its consequences. No-fly zone was selectively implemented, only for flights in and out of Tripoli. Targeted measures were implemented insofar as they suited the objective of regime change. All kinds of mechanisms were created to support one party to the conflict and attempts were made to bypass the sanctions committee by proposing resolutions to the Council. It goes without saying that the pro-interventionist powers did not ever try to bring about a peaceful end to the crisis in Libya. In other words, the international community, namely the NATO member-states, used the U.N. Security Council resolution for their own ends, disregarding the protocols in the resolution itself.

FORMER PRESIDENTS GEORGE W. Bush of the U.S. and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt at the White House in Washington in April 2001. There is a fundamental difference in the Council between the years of the Bush administration and the Obama administration, Hardeep Singh Puri says.-RON EDMONDS/AP

The principle of R2P is being selectively used to promote national interest rather than protect civilians, noted Ambassador Puri. In August 2010, Puri reminded the General Assembly that even the cautious go-ahead for developing R2P in 2005 emphasised the use of appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations. The responsibility to protect should in no way be seen as providing a pretext for humanitarian intervention or unilateral action. Puri's rear-guard defence of the principles of R2P and the U.N. Charter runs up against the determination of the West to exercise its authority through the fog of human rights.

When the February resolution on Syria failed to pass the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called the Russian and Chinese veto disgusting. Germany's Ambassador Peter Witting told reporters that it was a disgrace. For the U.S. and its NATO allies, the protocols of their new system (UN-R2P-NATO-ICC) had to be put into motion. Smarting from the experience of Libya, the Russians and the Chinese decided to use their power to put a stop to it. India voted for the resolution, even though Ambassador Puri is one of the main figures who have offered an intellectual criticism of the way in which R2P has operated. In this interview in New York on February 18, Puri explains why India abstained from the vote on the Libyan resolution (1973) and why India voted for the Syrian resolution now.

India has been on the U.N. Security Council for a year now. You have been India's representative for the duration. What is the mood in the Security Council during this year? What has been India's role?

The Security Council is primarily entrusted with the task of dealing with situations that constitute a threat to international peace and security. That has not changed over the years. What has changed and what is clearly demonstrable is that countries that wield political and economic power want to use the Security Council much more vigorously to deal with issues whose relationship with the maintenance of international peace and security is at best remote. This new approach started a few years ago. It is conditioned by the fact that in the major Western capitals there is a reinforced desire to seek legitimacy for their policy choices through the Security Council. Contrast this with the Bush administration, when they had a permanent representative here, John Bolton, whom my predecessor had the distinction of interacting with. Bolton said that if you knock 10 floors off the U.N. building the world would not be any worse off.

In our small limited world of people who join the foreign services of their respective countries, our tribe is broadly divided into two categories the bilateralists and those who have some kind of fascination for pluri-lateral or multilateral work. I have no hesitation in saying that, yes, bilateral work is extremely important. But for a country like India, which has both the civilisational past and the recent history as a young modern secular nation, and with aspirations to play a role, I don't think those objectives can be achieved without a multilateral arena. So I am one of those who believe that if you didn't have the United Nations, you would have to invent the United Nations.

The mood in the Security Council is determined by the overall global situation, the number of hot spots and so on. But the mood is also determined by those who have the capacity to influence and the capacity to mould the Council. There is a fundamental difference in the Council between those years of the Bush administration and [those of] the Obama administration. When we were first elected to the Council in October 2010, before we took our seat, we were invited to Washington for a discussion. President Barack Obama dropped in and engaged in a discussion of the major issues in which the Council was engaged. That shows the extent to which the U.S. under the Obama administration wants to utilise the Council and wants to pursue matters in the Security Council.

LIBYAN LEADER MUAMMAR Qaddafi (right) with British Prime Minister Tony Blair outside Tripoli, Libya, in March 2004. India did not have the kind of relationship with Qaddafi that some Western leaders had, says Puri.-

This has to be nuanced. The interest in engagement by Washington doesn't mean that they want to bring all issues to the Security Council. In fact, the cynic would tell you that Western governments only bring those issues to the Security Council which they do not want to handle entirely by themselves, through coalitions of the willing, Afghanistan being a case in point. They went in alone first, and subsequently U.N. missions came in.

The mood is also determined by the fact that global hot spots have suddenly proliferated. I mean when we were elected, Cte d'Ivoire was simmering. Cte d'Ivoire was relatively a simple situation. This was a question on an election in which the U.N. had a certification role. When the election results came out, the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down. The U.N. had a role to play. The talk at this time was, if Gbagbo does not step down, then let us get an interventionary force involved. The politics between ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] and the African Union interrupted this talk. You suddenly discover that talk about interventionary force is easier said than done. I think that in some capitals, the excitement of action gets the better of hard decision-making.

This excitement leaks into the Arab Spring, no doubt?

The fact of the matter is that most of the governments affected by the Arab Spring had the support of the West. I think the relationship between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the West is well documented. The situation of Egypt in the context of the Israeli security calculus is well known. The fact that there was a sense of ferment on the Arab Street was well known. You could witness that in places like Tunisia where all it required was an inspector and an act of oppression against a helpless fruit vendor. It's palpable everywhere. But then there was this expectation that the Arab Spring is going to result in an outcome, which would have a democratic ending. Democracy being defined in Western liberal terms, not in terms of whatever majority comes up, as is the case in the West Bank [when Hamas won the elections in 2006]. Everyone welcomes the fact that the people of a country must express themselves; they must articulate their aspirations. Up to there, everyone is in agreement.

But the minute the result is such that the composition of the Egyptian legislature is 60 per cent Islamic Brotherhood and 25 per cent Salafists, then people start saying, you know, this is not what we bargained for. And the prospect of change as a part of the Arab Spring ushering in radicalised Islam is something which, I think, gives cause for concern to those who were operating on a Western liberal democratic template.

What about the role of the mood created by the non-permanent members?

The mood in the Security Council during 2011 was, I think, determined by the fact that the Council had five aspiring members: Brazil, Nigeria, India, South Africa and Germany. So, at the very least, that makes for richness of debate. Therefore, the traditional, you know, somewhat apathetic approach to the Security Council was not on display. The permanent members, by virtue of their continued presence, tend to call the shots. But the non-permanent members do have views. However, the Council's outcomes are not always determined by those views.

Give me an example of when the five aspiring members were able to change the tone

In fact, I am going to make a different point. So the world is perceived as being divided between the five permanent members and the other 10. So the first baby steps that we took in the Council is that we formed a group called the E10: the Elected 10 or the Elegant 10! As with any organisation which is looking at real life issues that affect people, you invariably end up as my experience in trade negotiations in Geneva showed introducing what are called Coalitions of the Interested. Now it would not be correct for me to say that all five aspiring members invariably took positions and were on the same page. In terms of broad policy, yes. In terms of the nature of the statement that they made, yes. But there were aberrations. For instance, we repeatedly found one of the African members, a declared aspirant for permanent membership of the Security Council, adopting a very low-key approach and voting invariably with the West.

Including in Resolution 1973 on Libya.

Including in Resolution 1973, if you are referring to a particular African state. You had another member from Africa which supported the resolution. Surprisingly, one of the European members did, too. Germany abstained. Well, one needs to understand why this took place. It is only when you get that clarity that you know what happened between U.N. Resolution 1970 (on Libya), 1973 (on Libya again) and then the Syria resolution, which was vetoed, and in between, the unanimous articulation of the Security Council's position on Syria in the Presidential Statement (PRST) on August 3, 2011, when I was chairing the Council. That will remain for a long time to come as the only such unanimous PRST. We got a lot of kudos for it then, but I think in retrospect not many people who focus on the Council's work realised the value of the August 3 statement, both its content and the manner in which we got it through. But we will come to that in a minute. In order to understand what happened in Resolution 1973, you have to understand what happened prior to that, in Resolution 1970, which was the resolution of the Security Council on Libya that was unanimously voted.

The only disagreement that I recall on 1970 was the formulation contained therein, referring Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and some others to the International Criminal Court. There was a lively discussion within the Council, and some of us said, Look, the threat of a referral would be more appropriate, because once you've referred somebody to the ICC then the clock is ticking, and you don't have the leverage which is required. The Americans agreed with our view, but some of the European members were in a terrible rush. They said, No, no, we have to [refer it to the ICC]. This is the minimum. So I said, Alright, in which case, what will happen when you come back because the situation is not going to change. I mean the manner in which the situation in Libya was spiralling out of control in February. So the short point is that that we got a unanimous resolution (1970), even though there was unease in the Council on that resolution.

By the time we came to 1973, there were major disagreements. Why? That is entirely due to what was being proposed. It was very clear that many Western capitals were openly espousing regime change to begin with. Secondly, the language of 1973 contains explicit provisions for punitive and coercive action. It contains an explicit formulation, all means necessary, which is a euphemism or code word for military action. Now you don't need knowledge of rocket science to realise what these provisions mean. We were going in for a Western-NATO military operation.

In the negotiations for Resolution 1973, all people of goodwill tried to insert some formulations in there, such as the call for a ceasefire, an arms embargo, and so on and so forth. The final outcome of 1973: I knew that this was going to be a stepping stone to disaster. Why? Not because any of us wanted to hold a brief for Colonel Qaddafi . Let's be clear. India, in any case, did not have the kind of relationship with Qaddafi that some Western leaders had. You remember two visits by [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair to Qaddafi's tent in the desert, in 2008 and in June 2009. If you look at the nature of the relationship many Western capitals had with Qaddafi, it is well documented that many sold arms to him. And there are allegations that Qaddafi's money was not only subverting academic principles (at the London School of Economics), but also financing elections in Western Europe. India didn't have this kind of relationship. In fact, the only known interaction at head of government level that I can recall was when Indira Gandhi visited Tripoli in 1984.

Yes, there were Indian workers in Libya, about 18,000 of them. But they were not working as part of large commercial contracts that India had. These were poor people who were hired by Western economic entities. They were in a difficult situation. After the last Western citizens were pulled out, the West declared war on Libya. And China and India had to start, you know, locating their citizens, making arrangements for them being taken to safety.

AFTER A NATO air strike on pro-Qaddafi forces, on the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah in Libya in March 2011. From 1991 onwards, NATO began to be the de facto military arm of the U.N.-GORAN TOMASEVIC /REUTERS

It's interesting that there were news reports that suggested that the reason India abstained from voting on Resolution 1973 was that it was preoccupied with the problem of its nationals.

I know a little bit about that because I was the person here negotiating, and I was the person in charge of the Mission in New York. No. We abstained because we understood what was happening. Nobody wanted to hold a brief for Colonel Qaddafi. But we realised that this is a society that is characterised by tribal animosities and that the use of force is going to exacerbate the situation. But the interesting thing here is we were not alone in that assessment. There were several others, including people who voted for the resolution. The South Africans have told me on a number of occasions that their vote for the resolution was a mistake. But they said that their decision was not influenced, but conditioned, by the expectation that Resolution 1973 would help bring peace to Libya. Our assessment was different. Our assessment was that this was going to result in an Iraq kind of situation, with a Security Council rubber stamp. And I think in retrospect we were absolutely right. Interestingly, Russia and China also abstained. But you talk to the Russians and the Chinese now; they say, We made a mistake. We should have cast the veto.

What is their assessment? If they had vetoed Resolution 1973, how would events have played out?

That is very difficult to say because that involves a hypothetical scenario. The military operations commenced on March 14, 2011. In the run-up to the commencement of the military operations, the question was, where would the assets come from? And it was very clear that it would have to be a NATO operation, and within NATO also there wasn't much of an appetite from the U.S. But they were talked into the situation, or they decided to get involved, and then they pulled back. All of us realised immediately that this talk about countries in the region participating was without a solid basis. I don't know how many Arab countries in the region could participate. But it was essentially a NATO military operation.

When military operations ostensibly concluded, it was clear that the post-conflict Libya would require a lot of attention. But during the military operation justified by Resolution 1973, the Council faced the spectacle of not being able to enforce a ceasefire, which was in the resolution. When we all asked for a ceasefire, we were told that, no, they were not in the mood until the entire Qaddafi establishment, the entrenched establishment, was overthrown. So even though Resolution 1973 does not talk about regime change, that was certainly the standard.

What about the arms embargo, which was also in 1973?

You know the only reason the Council agreed to the arms embargo was that there was a desperate plea from the Arab League. And they said, if the Council does not intervene there will be rivers of blood, and they went on to say that the Council owed it to the poor people in Libya who were being slaughtered. Saif al-Islam [Qaddafi's son] had made a statement on the previous day that they would hunt down all the Benghazi rebels like rats. I remember the statement that I made in the Council. This was all in a closed session. I said, first of all, the phrase rivers of blood is the intellectual property of Enoch Powell, the Member of the British Parliament from Wolverhampton. Powell said that in the context of immigration of coloured immigrants from the Commonwealth. And you know, that turned out to be baloney. So we don't know what will happen.

In that atmosphere nobody wanted to be seen to be doing nothing, and the intentions of those who were asking for the resolution were not suspect till then. The arms embargo means that you will not be arming the Benghazi rebels while you are conducting military operations against Qaddafi. We kept asking this. I remember asking, Do you know who these guys [the rebels] are? These chaps that you are arming, etc? Now we know the facts of who these people are, such as Belhadj [Abdelhakim Belhadj, the emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group] who had been handed over in a terrorism rendition case. They kept saying that this is a grand alliance between the people of Libya and the West in order to get rid of a tyrant. We kept telling them to listen, just think this one through. And now we are told by a senior human rights officer that about 8,000 people in detention centres are being held without trial in today's Libya about the rampant abuse of human rights and extrajudicial killings: that's exactly what we were saying.

Is there a mechanism in the Security Council to go back and revisit the Libyan war, Resolution 1973, and exactly how you are laying it out? Is there a way for the U.N. to do this in order to understand the precedent set for the Council?

Russia has asked for the Security Council to undertake an evaluation of protection of civilians, because Resolution 1973 is about protecting civilians. So what kind of damage was there, collateral damage to civilians, etc? There is great reluctance to undertake that. That is the issue. So I hope you are very clear as to why India abstained on Resolution 1973. You know, as students of history, one does not know how it's going to work, but with the benefit of hindsight, you should have voted against it. That is the predominant view on the Council. Those who clamoured for military action wanted it with enthusiasm. Now they don't want to have a discussion about what is going on in Libya. That is why they don't want any open sessions.

What about Syria, then?

Look clearly, given a situation in which the Alawites constitute 12 per cent of the population, with the total minority at about 26 per cent. Any society where there is a minority of 26 per cent and a majority of 74 per cent, there is going to have to be a social compact. That compact worked because different communities were co-opted. But one thing is very clear about Syria. As we proceeded in the Council, it became clear (and this also comes out in the [al-Dabi] report to the League of Arab States) that there is an armed component to the opposition. Those who want a strong condemnation of Damascus will tell you that helpless civilians turned to the opposition, and they armed themselves only when they were being slaughtered. Be that as it may. It is very difficult to calibrate as to when one became the other, when the peaceful became the armed, when a qualitative change took place. My sense is that you cannot get peace in Syria unless both sides walk back. Therefore, you need complete cessation of violence. You need an inclusive Syrian-led dialogue without preconditions, and you need the engagement of all sections of civilian society on issues related to constitutional reform.

Do you think the Libyan experience has made it impossible for both sides in Syria to take a step back?

Well, there is some suggestion that President Bashar al-Assad might be willing to talk, but those who are financing and arming the opposition think that they will be able to succeed, drawing on the Libyan experience. I must say frankly: whether we vote for or against or abstain on the Syrian resolution is not the issue. Because of the Libyan experience other members of the Security Council, such as China and Russia, will not hesitate in exercising a veto if a resolution and this is the big if contains actions under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which permits the use of force and punitive and coercive measures. So your question is absolutely pertinent. And, you know, the Libyan experience means different things to different people. The unsettled state of Libya means that there are mercenaries who are operating in Libya, who are going back to Niger and Mali, bringing chaos.

Nothing that I've said should lead to any inference being drawn that we are unhappy with the transitional government. We want to see the people of Libya being able to vote, and we hope for a positive outcome. What we are doing here is understanding Resolution 1970 and Resolution 1973.

We were able to get unanimity in the Council, under the Indian presidency, on the presidential statement in the Council on Syria on August 3, 2011. We stopped short of incorporating Chapter 7. We condemned the violence. We called on both parties to step back and we asked for a dialogue abjuring violence. That was the message we had given bilaterally through IBSA [India-Brazil-South Africa]. That is a message we have given collectively.

We were told we that is, the PRST [U.N. Security Council President's Statement] need unanimity. So our contribution, apart from making sure that we got the text that we wanted, was to get unanimity. We have seen statements by former U.S. diplomats who said, Oh, this was not an Indian thing, this was negotiated between Brazil and France. I mean, I can tell you, you can talk to the Secretariat, the Indian presidency was the first time in the history of the Security Council when the President did the negotiating. I mean full marks to all the delegations because they came on board, but we were doing the negotiating. We were not only chairing. Then we knew that this would fall apart because Lebanon would not be able to join the PRST. So we looked for a precedent to allow them to disassociate from the statement. We found one in 1974. So we got a unanimous Presidential Statement in August 2011.

Then two months later, on October 4, Britain and France brought a resolution before the Council which was essentially the same as the PRST, except it had a reference to Article 41. This would mean we would consider further measures, including from Article 41. Not that they will take these measures, but if this does not work, then they would. Two permanent members of the Security Council co-sponsored the resolution. Two permanent members [Russia and China] vetoed it, and the fifth, the U.S., under provocation from the Syrian ambassador, walked out.

So this is it. There is a complete difference between August and October. We abstained in October. So why did we vote in favour of the February resolution on Syria? Because the February resolution [which Russia and China vetoed] was explicitly clear that it was not under Chapter 7 [use of force]. So Resolution 1973 and this one are fundamentally different. So that's the reason why we supported one and didn't support the other.

So you think now the sense is that people are going to be extremely concerned about Chapter 7?


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