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Stand up for your rights

We do not have to give out empty threats of taking pre-emptive actions against adversaries. We just have to stand firm on our principles.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2003 13:54 IST

The Iraq war has brought into focus some major moral issues. Every day we saw buildings and residences being blasted, innocent civilians screaming in pain, shouting and protesting against the invaders, who, in turn, claimed that this was being done to free the Iraqis.

Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator but nobody should forget that he was in Iraq because the same superpowers now invading the country put him there. The chemical wars on the Kurds were perpetrated at a time when Saddam was a close ally of the US. The Iraqi people paid for his installation. They are again paying for his ouster.

Lofty principles like freedom, democracy and human rights were touted as reasons for the campaign. However, hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. The fact that these principles were invoked to garner public support shows that the moral values they reflect have an appeal in western democracies. The real motives for the attack, however, were possibly just the desire to exercise power and dominate the Middle East. After all, if the Iraqis fell in line with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the international oil economy would be under control of the West. But, obviously, these reasons could not be used to gather support for the war.

Even the argument that Iraq was fuelling terrorism did not hold, as few believed that Iraq had any connections with Al-Qaeda and that defeating Iraq would defeat terrorism. The claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was credible to many, until UN inspectors kept reporting their inability to find them. Even if the WMD were well hidden, Iraq could not possibly be more dangerous than many of the other countries possessing them. This, surely, was no justification for attacking Iraq.

So, the pretext for war gradually changed from real-politick to moral principles. Officially, the US wanted a regime change because Saddam was a dictator who’d denied his people their rights and freedom and championed the cause of terrorism. There was no need for them to seek UN approval. The US, a world leader, had the responsibility to ensure its own security and freedom. If the UN agreed to the strike, well and good. If not, the US could take pre-emptive action because a threat to world security was a threat to itself.

It is important to understand this process of legitimisation by the US, because no president could have launched a war without a mandate from the Congress and without public support. The policies could be made by an oligarchy. But they had to be sold to the public, in the idioms of moral arguments acceptable to them.

In the beginning, almost 50 per cent of public opinion in the US was against the war. The situation changed later, through appeals to patriotism and through intense campaigning in the name of democracy and human rights. Many Americans were faced with a moral dilemma. They disapproved of the real motive or liberal credentials of the present government, but they could not accept Saddam’s rule in Iraq, any more than they could the rule of Milosevic or other dictators. Some 14,000 writers, academics and intellectuals published a petition against the war. But there were liberals like Michael Ignatieff of Harvard who said that overthrowing Saddam by force was not morally unjustified because of the immorality of the Saddam regime. Bernard Kuchnair, the founder of ‘Medicines without Frontiers’, observed that the Saddam regime should have been overthrown in 1991 itself, but the fact that a wrong was done earlier did not justify opposing a right that was being done now.

These people missed the real point why the war was waged. Human rights violations by Saddam were just an excuse given by a government which does not hesitate to support dictators or ignore human rights violations by those rulers who are its allies. How can one be sure that another dictator will not be installed in place of Saddam, one who will be more pliable? How does one know that terrorism exported by that ruler will not be overlooked by the Americans, if that helps in the next battle against Iran or Syria or Palestine? The human rights argument does not allow for war to restore democracy and freedom in another country, except as the very last resort. Ends do not justify means. Indeed, sticking to the right means is often more important. That is why a rule of law cannot be ignored even if it allows some guilty agents to escape the legal net. Democracy is desirable even if it does not always produce the best government.

Millions of people came out on the streets in most cities of the world to reject the hypocrisy of such a moral argument. They would not support Saddam but would not accept the US right to unilateral pre-emptive action or the US claim to custodianship of world freedom or security. It is here that India could have played a major role. The largest democracy in the world, India has championed the cause of freedom ever since its independence. It has fought terrorism against all odds. Its legal and constitutional systems uphold human rights, no less than any country, including the US and Britain. So, India has the bona fide and the moral stance to say clearly, and unequivocally, that the Anglo-American justification of the Iraq war is wrong, that they have perpetrated the worst violation of human rights in the name of securing freedom for the Iraqis, that they have flouted the basic tenets of international law by their unilateral action, that a fight against dictatorship and terrorism has to be universal and cannot be pursued selectively to serve narrow political or economic interests.

Indeed, the world has come to expect India to play that role. India has not been a major military power and, not until recently, a strong economic power. Still, it is recognised as a major player in international politics because it has upheld moral principles, even during its fight for national independence. This inspired many small nations to unite and assert themselves. Power is meant to influence and India has long been a power to reckon with in that respect.

Today, our potential for exercising that power is greater, because we are now also a strong economy and we cannot be pushed around. If we take a moral stand, no one can penalise us by withdrawing aid or investment or preventing trade or transactions. Americans do business with us because they profit from it and they will continue to do so if our economy remains buoyant. Large sections of the American public would also agree with our stand. Criticising the American government would not make us anti-Americans.

However, citing national interest, India decided to lie low and make feeble noises that were hardly noticed in the world. It is vulgar to think our national interest is now reduced to procuring a few million dollars’ worth of contracts for the post-war reconstruction. Foreign policy is surely meant to serve national interest, but that national interest is reckoned in terms of our national pride and independence, in not bowing to pressure and in our ability to
influence other people’s behaviour by championing a moral stand.

For that, we do not have to give out empty threats of taking pre-emptive actions against adversaries. We just have to stand firm on our principles.

On Iraq, those principles demanded that we speak out in all international fora, opposing dictatorship and terrorism wherever and whenever they came up and upholding the principles of international law exercised through the UN. If we could galvanise world opinion it would surely serve our national interest.

First Published: Apr 17, 2003 03:00 IST