The Syrian question

Obama’s appetite for a fight

David Ignatius has a good article in the Washington Post arguing that US credibility is at stake in Syria, and the consequences of a tattered credibility will hurt US interests in the region and beyond. In articulating what the Obama administration should do, he reflects what many commentators in Washington are saying: carry out a military strike to punish the Bashar Assad regime and deter it from carrying out further atrocities.

The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The strike should be limited and focused, rather than a roundhouse swing aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. But it should be potent enough to degrade Assad’s command-and-control structure so he can’t conduct similar actions in the future. Officials hope the strike will make a diplomatic settlement more possible; they don’t want a decapitation of the regime that would leave no counter-party for negotiation.[WP]

This prescription should sound reasonable to Barack Obama, a man too liberal to ignore the atrocities in Syria but too prudent to launch into a muscular military interventions abroad. The problem, though, is that while Mr Obama’s stakes are limited to shoring up US credibility, Mr Assad is battling for survival. So there is a good chance that Mr Assad will not be deterred or punished at any level short of being overthrown. Should this happen, Mr Obama will have a choice between a dented credibility (should Mr Assad brazen it out) or a much bigger military operation, that could trigger other conflicts.

Also, if the international intervention is ‘limited and focused’, the risk to civilian lives does not disappear. If the Assad regime continues, we can expect more bloodbath. If the Assad regime collapses, we can expect more bloodbath. It is not as if Mr Assad’s adversaries are liberal democrats who will spare the lives of members of the Assad regime or the sectarian/ethnic communities that are aligned to it.

There is enough happening in Syria for the United Nations to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. It is quite unlikely that the dynamics of the UN Security Council will allow it. Even if there is an international intervention now, the expectation that it will be limited, focused, inexpensive or quick is likely to be unfounded. Protecting lives in Syria requires the United States to have the appetite for a big fight, and the tenacity to embroil itself into a longish peace-enforcing mission. If this is not forthcoming, it may perhaps be better to let events take their course and deal with the consequences.

From India’s perspective, any steps that heighten the risk of a conflict that raises oil prices and might cause supply disruptions will be undesirable. The domestic economic situation—and the current account deficit—looms larger on the minds of India’s political leaders than events in Syria. Expect Indian diplomacy to reflect this concern.

Book chapter: On humanitarian intervention & democracy promotion

India’s middle path

shapingtheemergingworld2x3_2x3I have contributed one chapter in “Shaping the Emerging World – India and the Multilateral Order“, a book edited by WPS Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Bruce Jones, and published by Brookings. According to the promotional material, it is, for “…anyone interested in the future of India’s burgeoning economy, twenty-two scholars have developed one of the most comprehensive volumes to date on India…” The list of authors has such stars as Shyam Saran, C Raja Mohan, Sanjaya Baru, Devesh Kapur, David Malone, Christophe Jaffrelot, Srinath Raghavan and Kanti Bajpai.

I’m sure the editors must have had something in mind when they tapped me to write a chapter on India and international norms: Responsibility to Protect (R2P), genocide prevention, human rights and democracy, as they must surely have been aware of my scepticism towards such norms and value promotion agendas. I wrote the chapter at an interesting time, when India had been on the UN Security Council and a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East went into a wave of political transformation. Given that I was a critic of some of India’s positions at the UNSC during that period, the result is a chapter that is almost entirely devoid of romance. (That’s a good thing, in case you were thinking otherwise).

Here are a couple of excerpts from my chapter:

The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations declared in speech in October 2012, “is the most important challenge that the international community, anchored in the United Nations, is going to face.”1 Arguing that the initial suspicion of many developing countries towards the newest norm in international relations was misplaced, he supported the need for a “collective response by the international community to ensure that mass atrocities like genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity do not take place.” Explaining why India had abstained in a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorising military intervention in the Libyan civil war of 2011, he judged the implementation of the doctrine “gives R2P a bad name.”

The Indian diplomat’s arguments are a good example of India’s attitude towards international norms infringing on state sovereignty in furtherance of human security, human rights or liberal democratic goals. This chapter argues that India takes a middle path, supporting the evolution of human rights and democratic norms, but exercising caution in the manner of their implementation. It delves into the foundations of India’s policy approach towards two sets of norms: those concerning human security and those pertaining to liberal democracy. It interrogates these norms as they have evolved and examines them from an Indian perspective. It concludes by exploring how Indian foreign policy in the context of these norms might change as it emerges into a more powerful player in international politics.

Constitutional values, a democratic political culture and a diverse, plural society make India generally supportive of defending the world’s people from oppression, promoting human rights and democracy. New Delhi’s foreign policy orientation is at the very least consistent with a rules-based international order and is underpinned by liberal democratic values. The Indian republic’s subscription of liberal international norms, however, has been tempered both by competing norms and by reservations on the nature of international interventions. The result is a foreign policy that treads a middle path.

Even as Indian foreign policy made the transition from Nehru’s utopianism to the pragmatic realism of the post-Cold War governments, it never abandoned commitment to values. Normatively, New Delhi strikes a middle path. India is committed to genocide prevention, R2P, human rights and liberal democracy in principle, but has serious reservations regarding their practical implementation. The commitment is born out of its own national values. The reservations are borne out by its experience too.

India has been supporting multilateral efforts – or has acted unilaterally, on occasion – in response to international emergencies. It has been less enthusiastic in enterprises promoting liberal democratic norms, for it is a state primarily concerned with maintaining its own national unity, social transformation and economic development.

To what extent will India deviate from the middle path if it comes a bigger power in the international system? This chapter contends that the answer depends on whether the UN reforms itself to better reflect contemporary global balance of power, on the nature of India’s geopolitical footprint and on the extent of internationalism in Indian civil society. Broad trends indicate that it is likely that the Indian nation will become increasingly global-minded and internationalist, even if at a pace that is sometimes frustrating and other other times exhilarating. So the chances of the Indian republic becoming a rule-taker in the international system will improve to the extent that it is better accommodating into the rule-making circles of a reformed UN. A richer, more powerful India may yet be a stronger defender of human security around the world, if not simultaneously a champion of liberal democracy. [Shaping the Emerging World]

Put Pakistan on a genocide watchlist

All of Pakistan’s minorities are under systematic attack

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business-Standard.

Earlier this month, provoked by a grenade attack, hundreds of militants affiliated to radical Sunni groups stopped buses in Gilgit-Baltistan (a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir under Pakistani control), rounded up Shia passengers and executed them. Similar incidents in the region over the past few months have claimed scores of lives. We do not know how many exactly, because Pakistan has imposed a media blackout. It is already clear though, that the killings of Shias were systematic and carried out with the connivance of the Pakistani state authorities.

That’s not all. All of Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities are under attack.

While the lot of religious minorities in Pakistan was never pretty, it has gotten far worse in the last few years. The brazen, unpunished and celebrated assassinations of personalities like Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti divert attention from the violence against minorities on a day-to-day basis. There are reports of several dozen Pakistani Hindu families seeking asylum in India. Compiling figures from Sindhi language newspapers, Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani writer and activist, has estimated that 3,000 Hindu girls have been abducted and converted to Islam in the province. Christian families have been forced to flee after charges of blasphemy were levelled against their members.

It’s a similar situation for ethnic minorities. In Balochistan, the Pakistan army’s counter-insurgency strategy includes terrorising the population through enforced disappearances, torture and killing of citizens followed by the dumping of their bodies as a warning to the rest. The Shia Hazaras are not only a religious minority, but also an ethnic one. Over the last two years there has been an escalation in violence against them in Balochistan, in FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The perpetrators and immediate motives in each of these cases are different. They range from Sunni jihadi groups targeting people they consider apostates, to rival communities seeking domination, to the Pakistani armed forces fighting insurgents. They are called sectarian violence, gang warfare, ethnic cleansing, kill-and-dump or counter-insurgency. It is perhaps because there are individual names for these crimes that we are missing the possibility that they might amount to a bigger one — genocide.

This is not a word to be used loosely. Genocide specifically means “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It includes killing people on account of belonging to a group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions to destroy the group in whole or in part; preventing births and transferring children by force. The situation in Pakistan today satisfies many of these criteria, and to varying degrees.

How many people have died? The blackout, censorship and violent intimidation of journalists makes it hard to estimate even the order of magnitude. Baloch nationalist groups, for instance, have criticised the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for reporting 35 disappearances and 173 dumped bodies in 2011. They claim over over 14,000 disappearances since 2005 and 400 dumped bodies since July 2010. It would be wrong, though, to wait for the body counts to rise to some arbitrary level for the world to take action.

A genocide takes place in stages. These can be rapid or drawn out in time. Gregory Stanton, an American human rights scholar and president of Genocide Watch, has identified eight stages, starting from classification of people into “us and them” and ending in extermination followed by denial. Pakistan is already through many of the early stages. Instead of waiting until it is too late for too many, the proper thing to do now is to squarely place Pakistan in a genocide watchlist and bring the intense focus of international public opinion to bear. It is understandable that the governments of the United States and India are unwilling to take up the violence against minorities for reasons of realpolitik. It is understandable that China and Saudi Arabia don’t care. It is therefore understandable that the UN Security Council doesn’t care. What is not understandable is that international media and human rights groups appear oblivious to this ongoing tragedy.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) and the International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) — two prominent international NGOs that champion the Responsibility to Protect populations against mass atrocities as an international norm — do not even list Pakistan in the crises they are tracking. Organisations like Human Rights Watch are bravely reporting events on the ground, but their wide mandate precludes them from focusing on this one issue.

The UN Human Rights Council is more interested in outlawing giving offence to religion than killing in its name. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), always ready to talk about the world’s oppressed Muslims, can be trusted to maintain a resolute silence in this case.

Closer home, the Indian media stands indicted too. So completely are our television channels beholden to the narrative of the peace process that they are, literally, overlooking mass murder.

The white stripe on Pakistan’s flag is being eaten up. The geopolitical implications come later. At this time it is already a human tragedy that is unconscionable for Indians to ignore. In Bob Dylan’s sublime words, “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?”

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved

The 1971 Bangladesh Genocide Archive


Rezwan of the 3rd World View, a good friend and one of the pioneers of blogging in Bangladesh, is the moving force behind the Bangladesh Genocide Archive project. Last week, on the occasion of the 37th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Victory Day, he dedicates the project “to the hundreds and thousands of people who have died in the war and those brave souls who has fought for the country with firearms, support and stood in solidarity with the Bangladeshis.”

The essay that Kissinger wants to write

…has already been written

Speaking to Shekhar Gupta in the Indian Express, Henry Kissinger said, “Some day, I’ll write about (1971) from one point of view: how two countries, each pursuing absolutely logical policies from their point of view, each pursuing the national interest and perceiving it correctly, can come to a clash, that in the terms of the period was unavoidable.”

That essay has already been written. Here.

…the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. [The Acorn]

Just how callous can governments be?

And why the option of airdropping relief supplies to Burma’s disaster victims should not be dismissed

The numbers the Burmese junta killed while suppressing pro-democracy protests last year fade in comparison to the numbers they’ve killed in the last two weeks.

India’s state-run Meteorological Department said it had alerted Burma two days before the cyclone struck. The department’s spokesman, B P Yadav told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday: “Forty-eight hours in advance we informed the Burma weather department about the likely area of landfall as well as time and intensity of the cyclone.” [The Irrawaddy]

“I’ve never seen an emergency situation such as this before,” said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone.” [WP]

Burma has deported the few aid workers in the country after declaring it is “not ready” for foreign search and rescue teams following a devastating cyclone. [Herald Sun]

Update:Dozens of aid experts are reported to be waiting for visas in neighbouring Thailand – but the Burmese embassy there has now closed for a public holiday until next Tuesday. [‘BBC’]

The larger point is that there are few instruments to hold the junta’s leaders criminally liable for these deaths. Sins of omission are seldom punished.

Frustrated by the junta’s refusal to open its doors to international humanitarian relief, the US state department proposed airdropping relief supplies without their permission. It was shot down by the US defence secretary on the grounds that it would violate Burma’s sovereignty. Similarly, the French foreign minister proposed an international humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. The usual UN logjam stopped that. (China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia argued against the UN Security Council getting involved. “China’s envoy compared the crisis to a deadly heat wave in France in 2003, questioning why the Security Council should step in now when it did not do so in the French case”)

At times like this it is useful to recall Operation Poomalai (Eagle Mission 4).

Pragati May 2008: Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents


Liberals, culture and nationalism Ravikiran S Rao
An opportunity exists for a new politics

Changing the broken wheel Raj Cherubal
The secular-right must champion economic freedom

Towards “that heaven of freedom” Gautam Bastian
A free nation of free citizens

Out of court Rohit Pradhan, Shashi Shekhar & Mukul Asher
Carry on the battle, but respect the court’s verdict


India as a rising great power; climate change and national security; India-Iran relations; to the brink; and trade across the Line of Control


The new currency of power Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs
A discussion on strategic affairs with K Subrahmanyam


Use the Tibet card Zorawar Daulet Singh
To settle the India-China dispute

Consensus must endure Dinesh Wagle
Maoists have the upper hand in the construction of the republic

Bottom-up dynamics Sushant K Singh
What attracts Africa to India and how it can be strengthened

Pressed by inflation Gulzar Natarajan
Easing supply bottlenecks is the right way to go


Memories of 1971 Amardeep Singh
A review of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Read excerpts | Download

Guns for Mugabe

China sends some help

The An Yue Jiang, a ship belonging to China’s state-owned shipping company, has docked in the South African port city of Durban. It is carrying a cargo of “77 tonnes of small arms, including more than 3m rounds of ammunition, AK47 assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades”.

The cargo is bound for Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is insisting on remaining president despite not winning the election. Violence has already broken out, and could get worse.

The Chinese foreign ministry has ducked for cover. The South African authorities have thrown up their hands saying—quite reasonably—that they can’t legally stop the shipment over land into Zimbabwe. But the South African transport workers union has refused to unload or move the containers.

Now Chinese soldiers have been reportedly been spotted in Zimbabwe (well, they were spotted in New Delhi too this week). It remains to be seen whether the next ship from China will arrive with enough trucks, truck-drivers and porters to deliver the arms shipment to Mr Mugabe.

Now there’s probably nothing illegitimate about selling arms to the Zimbabwean government. Just like there was probably nothing illegitimate in China selling the Rwandan government US$750,000 worth of machetes in 1993. Machetes, of course, didn’t carry out the subsequent genocide. Extremist Hutus did.

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)

A burg of spiel

Darfur, according to China

This week’s issue of Beijing Review, China’s ‘national English weekly’, has an article on how China is playing a positive role in Sudan’s Darfur region. Headlined ‘Relief and recovery’, the article tells us that China is delivering “real economic and social benefits to the people of Darfur”. This, the article explains, is done through a Chinese-initiated dual-track approach that gives “equal importance to the peacekeeping operation and the political process in Darfur”. But here’s how it frames the issue:

Darfur is an arid, underdeveloped region in western Sudan. Fighting flared up there in February 2003 after rebels took up arms against the Sudanese Government, accusing it of marginalizing the region. A humanitarian crisis has since emerged. Western countries, particularly the Unites States, have ratcheted up pressure and imposed sanctions on Khartoum because of the Darfur issue. [Beijing Review]

The humanitarian crisis, it turns out, simply emerged when rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. According to the Beijing Review neither the activities of the armed government-backed janjaweed militia nor those of the Sudanese armed forces have anything to do with the humanitarian crisis.

The article also quotes Wang Hongyi, an African affairs expert at the China Institute of International Studies, is quoted as saying “Over the past years, the Darfur issue has developed from conflicts between tribes to a hot-spot political issue. As a result, it is unlikely to be resolved in a few years’ time, though armed conflicts have greatly diminished in the region.”

He’s right. The conflict is unlikely to be resolved quickly. But not because it’s become a “hot” political issue. Because even after so much heat, China doesn’t even acknowledge the real issue.