India, Africa and peacekeeping: Beyond the responsibility to protect – Part II

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India, Africa and peacekeeping: Beyond the responsibility to protect – Part II

Abhijnan Rej

30 May 2019

5min min read
  • Peacekeeping forces

Read Part I here


s we discussed in the first part of this essay, the first challenge in front of UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKO) is the need to develop capacity of regional stakeholders in face of western disengagement. I argued that India could emerge as an important partner of African states in this regard. The second challenge, ironically, follows from its exact opposite: the possibility, especially in geostrategically-contentious locations, of robust interventionism by great powers, with or without United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorisation. This not only creates new spaces in need of peacekeeping, as the experiences with Syria and Libya show, but protection of civilians itself can potentially become an alibi for regime change. 

That said, there are circumstances where robust peace enforcement or even preventive measures may be an imperative. The Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre (in the Balkans) of 1994 and 1995, respectively, serve as cases in point. They prompted serious discussions at the UN around two issues: first, the role of UN peacekeepers in active conflict zones which lead to the 2000 Brahimi Report and second, the larger issue of humanitarian intervention at the potential expense of national sovereignty which eventually led to the still-evolving doctrine of Responsibility to Protect/R2P.

In many ways, the tragedies of Rwanda and Srebrenica marked turning points in the evolution of UN peacekeeping. It went largely from monitoring and maintaining ceasefire lines during the Cold War (and hence the original meaning of keeping peace between states) to enforcing peace forcefully (which was an implied recommendation of  the Brahimi Report), and finally to R2P. – which in its most severe reading advocates preventive war if necessary to protect civilians. If peacekeeping draws its legitimacy from both Chapter VI (peaceful settlement of disputes) and Chapter VII (UNSC-mandated military intervention) of the UN Charter, by 2011 calls were growing to decisively draw from the latter at the expense of the former.  

India’s position on this shift (both from the Brahimi Report as well as R2P) is interesting. 

As scholars Richard Gowan and Sushant K. Singh observe, while New Delhi rhetorically espouses the need to limit the use of force in UN peacekeeping, in practice Indian soldiers in UNPKO have acted robustly, often crossing the line into peace enforcement (which involves forcibly disarming combatants). Another scholar, Thierry Tardy, has noted that Indian peacekeepers have been praised for “operating with unprecedented force” in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

However, India’s unease with robust peacekeeping became evident when – as a non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2011 – it registered a note of caution against the use of heavy force in maintaining post-election peace in Cote d’Ivoire (even though it voted for it along with the rest of the UNSC). Then Indian ambassador to the UN, Hardeep S. Puri, noted that “peacekeepers could not be agents of regime change”. The fact that India’s dissent note came while it occupied a seat on the UNSC signalled to many western observers that New Delhi’s haranguing oppositional politics at the United Nations was not altogether a thing of the past.

India’s two-year term as non-permanent member of the UNSC (2011-2012) also proved to be fateful in other ways. Its position on  international interventions in Syria and Libya was oppositional and ambiguous, respectively. When the UNSC passed Resolution 1973 – paving the way for a NATO-led intervention in Libya on the grounds of R2P in March 2011 – the doctrine itself seemed to  confirm New Delhi’s worst fear – that the doctrine was merely an instrument for “reordering of societies from outside using military force”. (The NATO-led intervention, in effect, would be an act of regime change; Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was  killed seven months later.)

Domestically, the Indian strategic elite remains sceptical of R2P though Indian thinkers continue to interrogate the rationale behind India’s position on the doctrine. Reflecting on the country's stance during the Syria and Libya debate at the UNSC, prominent commentator C. Raja Mohan suggested it marked a return to its “default non-aligned position on sovereignty and non-intervention”. New Delhi’s positions also had an unexpected negative effect in that it came across as indecisive and “unprepared for the downside of what [United Nations Security] Council membership entails".

India continues to argue that the real lesson of Libya is that vested western interests (especially the UK and France) were aware of an unfolding crisis there  but chose not to act, only to overreact in the guise of R2P. Therefore, the (self-serving) argument goes, the answer to such crises is not radical sovereignty-violating doctrines but reforms of decision-making bodies such as the UNSC – in other words, allowing countries like India to become permanent members.

The third challenge is that the return of great-power competition (especially between the US and China, and the US and Russia) could split the UNSC dramatically. Note that while Russia and China (along with Brazil and India, as non-permanent members) had in effect allowed the Libya intervention to happen by abstaining from voting on Resolution 1973, they – along with  South Africa – later adopted a hardened stance. (Curiously, South Africa, also a non-permanent member in 2011, had voted for the resolution earlier, only to change its mind later.) This split dynamic played out more significantly when it came to Syria in 2014 where the United States and a few key allies intervened militarily without UNSC authorisation.  Furthermore in the case of Syria, Russia made itself an overt player in the conflict by 2015 by siding with the Assad regime militarily, ostensibly in the name of fighting the Islamic State. 

What would be the future of India-Africa peacekeeping cooperation under such circumstances where geopolitics may prevent consensus at the UNSC? 

One pathway would be to create new ‘post-regional’ coalitions which would involve regional as well as experienced extra-regional actors. New Delhi’s preference in recent years has been for greater involvement of regional actors in peacekeeping efforts, such as the ones led by the African Union. This political preference, supported by joint training of Indian and African troops (through initiatives such as the AfIndex-19), could form a nucleus of a robust South-South political-military peacekeeping/peace-enforcement axis. Such a coalition should be prepared to act – in extremis – on its own, should the UNSC fail to come to a consensus in a crisis.

Another pathway is that in some distant future India sheds its traditional posture of balancing relations with all great powers,  and joins the United States and its allies to push for a robust peacekeeping agenda in Africa that exceeds the current UNPKO framework, especially as its commercial  footprint on the continent grows. India’s foreign policy posture has evolved as its economic heft has increased and, for better or worse, this has led to a closer alignment with the United States. But it is quite unlikely even under this (low-probability) scenario that New Delhi would upend its traditional commitment to Westphalian sovereignty, not least because it knows that the interventionist argument can very well be used against it someday when it comes to Kashmir (albeit rhetorically) by others. Therefore, even under this scenario India could act as a modulating influence, and a norm-shaper in a peacekeeping architecture that is in dire need of a radical rethink.

(Main image: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.