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Syria-na

Say it ain’t so, India.

Another “inconvenient vote” at the UNSC and another instance of India wiggling out of its responsibilities as a member of the Council.  On Tuesday, India chose to abstain from a vote in the UNSC condemning the brutal suppression of human rights by the al-Assad regime.  As an explanation of its vote (or lack thereof) the External Affairs Ministry released the following statement:

India’s traditional position on country specific resolutions is well known. We do not regard spotlighting and finger -pointing at a country for human right violations as helpful. We believe that engaging the country concerned in collaborative and constructive dialogue and partnership is a more pragmatic and productive way forward.  This is what India along with its partners in IBSA, Brazil and South Africa has done.

However, since some members of this Council have found it necessary to propose a country specific resolution, it would have been desirable had this been done by consensus, without resorting to a vote, to reflect the shared perspective and unanimous views of the council. This has regrettably not happened.

We hope that our position on the vote is not misconstrued as condoning violations of human rights in any country, including Syria. On the contrary, we believe that it is imperative for every society to have the means of addressing human rights violations through robust mechanisms within themselves. International scrutiny should be resorted to, only when such mechanisms are non-existent or have consistently failed.

For the aforementioned reasons, India will be abstaining on the vote. [MEA]

India rationalizing its decision by pointing to Brazil and South Africa, its fellow-abstainees, is a nonstarter.  For one, while Brazil and South Africa are also permanent seat aspirants, neither one of them has made as much progress as India in garnering support for a permanent seat, should the necessary structural changes be implemented in the UN.

And if India abstaining from the vote wasn’t bad enough, this is what VP Haran, India’s ambassador to Syria had to say about the brutality of the al-Assad regime (per Ms Suhasini Haider, Senior Editor, CNN-IBN):

Indian Ambassador to Syria tells CNN-IBN: some of the reports of HR violations are ‘highly exaggerated’.Of 1950 killed, 600 are security

He would later add that President al-Assad had responded to pressure and had announced a timetable for elections.  Apparently, our ambassadors are turning into spokespersons for countries of their posting.  It is a morally reprehensible position for India to take.  Further, any ambiguity that India sought to create over its position on Syria should be effectively discarded, given the ambassador’s statements.  And this is after the very responsible statement put out by the External Affairs Ministry in response to the Syrian Vice Foreign Minister’s visit to New Delhi seeking India’s support, earlier this month.

For the record, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicates that the 1,900 killed in Syria excluded the approximately 400 military and police fatalities (August 18).  So much for the ambassador’s “clarification.”  And India’s absence of leadership at the Security Council, or its ambassadors’ shadow fighting on behalf of oppressive regimes cannot be blamed on New Delhi’s preoccupation with l’affaire Anna Hazare.

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In Pragati: Bringing our citizens home

A very belated blogpost: in this month’s Pragati, I review India’s evacuation efforts as uprisings raged in Egypt and Libya.  While the government can indeed be pleased about the overall effectiveness of its response, there are lessons to be learned from the experience:

India is no stranger to security uncertainties in the Middle East. At the time of the first Gulf War, India had about 180,000 citizens living in Kuwait and 20,000 in Iraq. Over the course of the war, India dispatched ferries to Dubai and chartered Air India flights to Amman, Jordan to evacuate citizens from the region. Direct evacuation from Kuwait was impossible because of air and sea blockades by the US-led coalition, a point that drew repeated protests from Inder Kumar Gujral, then foreign minister. India incurred costs exceeding $1 billion, having evacuated over 100,000 citizens via 500 flights from Amman to Mumbai. Again, in 2006, when conflict broke out between Israel and Hizbullah in South Lebanon, India dispatched four warships of Task Force 54 (INS Mumbai, INS Brahmaputra, INS Betwa and INS Shakti) to rescue not only the 2,000 Indian citizens but also Sri Lankans and Nepalis, as part of Operation Sukoon.

[T]he bulk of India’s evacuation efforts were concentrated on Libya, where over 18,000 Indian citizens lived and worked. As anti-Gaddafi forces gained momentum in Benghazi, the MEA launched Operation Safe Homecoming on February 28, its largest evacuation exercise since the Gulf War. The initial focus of New Delhi’s efforts was Scotia Prince, a passenger ferry with a capacity of 1,200, chartered to evacuate its citizens from Benghazi and Eastern Libya to Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, four special flights (including one Indian Air Force IL-76 transporter) operated to fly evacuees back to India. The Indian government also chartered MV Red Star One, which evacuated citizens to Malta, from where they were flown back to India via flights operated by Kingfisher and Jet Airways. [Pragati]

Read the article in its entirety in April 2011’s Pragati (webpage, pdf).

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The Khaleej and India

How will the instability in the Gulf impact India’s economy?

Political instability in the Middle East will likely have an impact on India.  We have already seen how the uprisings in Egypt and Libya have affected the lives of the over 18,000 Indians living in that part of the world.  The potential impact of the deteriorating situation in Bahrain will be far greater, where about 300,000 Indian expatriates live.  GCC countries today are home to about 4.3 million Indians.  This, of course, does not include the many undocumented (mostly blue collar) Indian workers in the region.  In some cases (as in Dubai, which experienced an influx of workers in the last decade), the number of undocumented workers as a percentage of the total population of expatriate Indians will be considerable.

But beyond the potential effects to the lives of Indian citizens, political disturbances in the region will also have an impact on India’s economy.  Today, remittances account for about 4% of India’s GDP (considerable, but not as high as other countries in the subcontinent).  Remittances to India as a percentage of GDP have also (somewhat interestingly) increased over time, and with the liberalization of India’s economy (from 1.1% in 1985, 2.8% in 2000 to about 4% in 2008).  As of 2008, the Gulf was the largest source of remittances to India at about 40%:

(Source of data: Reserve Bank of India)

Two important points need to be made here: first, while we already know that India leads other nations in terms of total dollar remittances ($46 billion, 2008), it does not include remittances made via hawala transactions.  Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. has worked with Gulf countries to strengthen their finance and banking regulations to ensure control over hawala transactions (which, by their very nature, have been helpful to terrorists to finance attacks against the U.S. and India).  However, according to some estimates, hawala remittances to India from the Gulf are still pegged at about 30-40% of legal remittances.  That would effectively put total remittances from the Gulf to India at at least $60 billion.

Second, when one considers remittances as a percentage of net state domestic product (NSDP), some states will likely be far more vulnerable to political uncertainties in the Gulf than others.  According to a study published by the Centre for Development Studies, remittances to Kerala as a percentage of the state’s economy was at 30%.  Further, per data published in the same report, it can be inferred that remittances from the Gulf alone can be pegged at about 28% of the Kerala’s economy.

While the most immediate impact of the repatriation of Indian citizens from a worsening situation in Bahrain could result in a momentary spike in remittances, as some suggest was the case during the first Gulf War, it will undoubtedly have a medium- to long-term impact on the economies of states in India that depend heavily on them.

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India at the UNSC on Libya

India’s 50-50.

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

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