The Logic Behind The Libya Decision
Did India do the right thing in abstaining from the vote on UN Resolution 1973 on
Libya? It is easy to criticise India for being foolish and cowardly. However, the
decision is defensible and may prove to be a sensible one.
Those who argue that India should have voted for the no-fly zone and for the
authorisation to use all means, short of occupation, to protect the Libyan people
base their case on three main contentions.
The first is that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is busy killing defenceless people, and
India should have supported what is a morally proper move to protect those who
cannot protect themselves.
The second contention is that since the Arab League and Muslim opinion in many
places were behind 1973, India, as a member of the UN Security Council for the
next two years, would have earned the understanding, if not gratitude, of these
countries by voting for the resolution.
The third contention is that India would have done well strategically. New Delhi
would have been regarded as a power player, as a ‘constructive’ member of the
global community, and would have built bridges to the US and other western
powers (as a ‘responsible stakeholder’). This would have strengthened India’s
case for permanent membership of the Security Council.
This is not a trivial case. Yet, abstaining is defensible on moral, political and
strategic grounds (voting against the resolution would have been almost
Morally speaking, the question is: if the world is to intervene against Gaddafi, why
not against others who may be as bad or worse? Indian diplomats at the UN
argued it would have been proper to get more evidence of the situation in Libya.
Clearly, Gaddafi’s men are killing ordinary unarmed citizens as well as those who
might be lightly armed. Yet, there are places in Africa where the situation is
harrowing. Is Gaddafi’s Libya worse? Furthermore, what if rebellions such as
Libya’s explode into violence in several other places? Will the world rush to defend
those peoples as well? This seems unlikely, given the pool of resources to deal
with such problems.
There is another moral quandary. Will the opposition in Libya be more democratic
and respectful of human rights? The groups fighting Gaddafi are, reputedly,
drawn from diverse clans and tribes. Will they live in peace with each other and
other Libyans? No leadership worth the name has emerged, and no party or
council with a vision for the future has made its appearance to help us decide
these questions. Bad as Gaddafi is, are we even reasonably sure that intervention
would leave Libyans happier?
Politically, while many Muslims are calling for Gaddafi to be stopped, there are
also many others fearful of what an intervention by largely western forces will
mean politically. In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, westerners
fighting Muslims and killing them (even if unintentionally in their bombing raids
against Gaddafi) could be destabilising for a whole range of governments – and
worrisome for liberal modernisers in various countries who will be identified as
pro-western because of their liberalism.
Finally, Indian strategic caution over Libya is not incomprehensible. Libya could
become an unending military quagmire and help radicalise many Muslims who will
increasingly see intervention as a West-versus-Islam war, if it drags on. India will
not be helped by a world in which Islamic extremists gain ground. There is also
the ingress of China into Africa and other regions, as Beijing presents itself as a
bulwark against bullying western democracies. Voting with the West and allowing
China to stand as the champion of the weak in Africa, Asia and Latin America is
not a strategic plus for India.
Finally, and most crucially, there is India’s insistence on the sanctity of
sovereignty. With so many internal dissidents in India, New Delhi unsurprisingly is
extremely wary about supporting intervention, even on humanitarian grounds, for
fear that this might be turned against India someday.
Whether or not India has done right will become clear in the months and years
ahead. But to say that New Delhi’s decision was senseless and base is unfair.