There has been considerable uproar on India’s decision to abstain from voting on the imposition of a No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya at the UNSC. Some have suggested that the decision to abstain doesn’t bode well for a nation seeking a place at the high altar in the congress of nations. India’s non-vote however, has short- and long-term implications, which need further consideration and analysis.
UNSC’s resolution No. 1973 on Libya reads as follows:
[T]he Council authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory — requesting them to immediately inform the Secretary-General of such measures. [UN]
India, in its explanation for abstaining from the vote indicated that its reservations were based partly on “far reaching” measures adopted by the UNSC. Indeed, there is now indication that the inclusion of the phrase “all necessary measures” went beyond what the Arab League initially envisaged when it first appealed to the UNSC for an NFZ in Libya. The resolution, for instance, did not rule out airstrikes against Col. Qaddafi’s land forces advancing towards Benghazi. It also empowered a collection of states (e.g., Britain and France, the Arab League) to act unilaterally against the Libyan army as it saw fit.
There now appear to be considerable gaps in perception on approach and objectives among the primary actors, U.S., Britain and France, and the Arab League. The question that India must answer is whether or not it is in India’s interests to see a change in regime in Libya. To be sure, Muammar Qaddafi has been a thorn in India’s flesh for many years — on clandestine nuclear co-operation with Pakistan, on Kashmir — but how certain is India that the alternative to Col. Qaddafi couldn’t be as bad, if not worse?
For many reasons, India’s economic interests in Libya are minimal. Bilateral trade has steadily declined over the past several years. Libya just about figures among India’s top 50 import partners*, right below the People’s Republic of Congo (we also export less to Libya than we do to any other Arab country*). India’s energy interests in Libya are not substantial when compared to other countries in the region, and recent reports indicate that ONGC Videsh and OIL had, or were in the process of relinquishing their stakes in at least four exploration blocks in Libya.
On security issues, Libya has had a history of cooperation with Pakistan on financing and acquiring nuclear technology. However, under agreement with the U.S. and in an apparent bid to end its international isolation, Tripoli surrendered its nuclear weapons components — including centrifuges, uranium and sensitive documentation — in 2004. Though, to be fair, Col. Qaddafi’s calculations on the utility of nuclear weapons may change, should he survive the uprising. As for Col. Qaddafi’s periodic rants about Kashmir at international forums, they are about as likely to have an impact on the status of J&K as OIC’s time-honored traditions have had of routinely issuing statements of concern at the behest of Pakistan about J&K all these years.
Taking these arguments as a whole, India’s decision to abstain from the vote may not have been imprudent. However, the issue of whether and to what extent the ruling coalition’s stance was influenced by what it considers “domestic political compulsions” requires discussion. In the long-term, it raises troubling questions on what sort of a role India will likely play in shaping the world’s security.
If the ruling government abstained from the Libyan vote because of domestic sensitivities, then what is to stop it from doing likewise on any future UNSC votes against nations that may happen to be Arab? To be candid, it is not Saudi Arabia that is going to favorably influence the UNSC to grant India permanent membership, even if a UNSC expansion were remotely likely. Secondly, if India is going to abstain from every vote on contentious issues, they why even ask for a permanent seat at the high altar? Contentious issues will always be put to vote at the UNSC, by the very nature of the Council. The UNSC is hardly going to sit around debating whether India should be playing an extra bowler vs. Australia in the quarter finals of the World Cup.
It is no use saying India deserves a permanent seat at the UNSC because it represents 1/6th of humanity, if that 1/6th of humanity seldom expresses an opinion. UNSC membership is not granted based on entitlement — if it were, there would be no place in it for either Britain or France. While it would be impractical to expect domestic political compulsions not to play a role in how India conducts itself in international affairs, it must also recognize that its aspirations to be regarded as a global actor are untenable if it is not willing to pursue those hard choices that promote its national interests, but impact international or domestic political considerations.
* Department of Commerce, April 2010 — September 2010 figures