During his address at the UN General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rightly said that it’s “the essence of democracy and fundamental human freedoms” for governments to enable citizens “to freely determine their pathways to development”. But he proposed a “cooperative, rather than confrontationist, approach” in which people “have the right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future”.
India’s foreign policy is rooted in the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States. But, clearly, it isn’t working when it comes to places like Syria where approximately 3,000, including 187 children, have been killed by security forces since the protests began in March.
India wants to be a global player. While every visiting head of State is expected to support India’s claim to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), it hasn’t reciprocated by acting like a responsible ‘global citizen’. At a time when human rights can become a political game — as the recent UNSC vote on Syria suggests — India should distinguish itself with a principled foreign policy that puts people first.
So far, India has gently recommended non-violence but encouraged governments in the troubled North African and West Asian nations to take steps to accommodate their people’s aspirations. This would be sufficient if private appeals to reform and human rights were always effective. But we know, sadly, that this is not the case.
On the one hand, New Delhi has repeatedly encouraged other governments to do the right thing. But on the other, it’s opposed international sanctions or even human rights resolutions to nudge these regimes to adopt better human rights practices. This suggests that the rights of the State trump those of the people — an odd approach by a vibrant democracy that, at least on paper, supports the full range of human rights.
India, together with Brazil and South Africa, visited Syria and urged reform and protection of human rights. None of these governments deny that abuses are occurring. But all three, as temporary members of the UNSC, abstained from voting on a resolution calling for sanctions against Syria. If the three countries had voted ‘yes’, it’d have sent a strong message to the Bashar al-Assad regime that even sympathetic governments from the global South oppose the use of force that’s killed thousands of people.
India is also a member of the UN Human Rights Council. But in August it abstained from a resolution on Syria saying that it doesn’t “regard spot-lighting and finger-pointing at a country for human rights violations as helpful”. Instead of standing up for victims, as required by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this kind of diplomacy emboldens abusive governments whose leaders believe they can count on India’s silence. Syria’s official news agency reported that the country’s minister for foreign affairs, Walid al-Moallem, recently “thanked the Indian leadership and people for their supportive stance at the UNSC, which prevented the adoption of western draft resolution that could allow for foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs.” Was this really India’s intention? It makes one wonder how India will act if it were a permanent member of the UNSC.
To begin with, India should speak up on Syria. It’s managed to build a consensus on an earlier UNSC presidential statement demanding restraint. It should use its influence again. The Arab League has already called for a cessation of violence in Syria. Turkey, too, is considering imposing sanctions on Syria in coordination with the US.
India should take the lead in building a consensus to support a resolution at the UN to call upon Syria to end violence and to allow monitoring. Only this will protect, in the prime minister’s words, the fundamental human freedoms of the Syrian people.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch
The views expressed by the author are personal