Saturday, 4 June 2022

Staking out space for India in the UN’s New Agenda for Peace

India is an emerging great power. The Narendra Modi government in decisively reshaping it as New India hopes to position so as to finally take up its ‘rightful’ place in the comity of nations. That India has always had a mind of its own is well-regarded. Even in the Cold War, when international maneuver space was rather limited for post-colonial nations, it had carved out a role for itself. Its continuing strategic autonomy was on show at the Security Council in its voting pattern on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The conflict is a potentially era-defining one, but what emerges cannot be allowed to become a ‘post-Charter’ era. The United Nations (UN) Charter has been the leitmotif since the UN’s formation in wake of the World War II. While historians can debate whether it was the concept of deterrence that kept the ‘long peace’ or if it was the embedding of Charter principles is moot. The Charter definitively came into its own with the ending of the Cold War. Though it has been buffeted since by international crises involving powers sidelining the UN as they went about asserting their power, be it at Kosovo, Iraq War II, Libya and Syria, the Charter provided a yardstick to judge matters by. That the Ukraine War has jolted the yardstick requires that it be steadied again by heavyweights as India to step up.

India can play a vital role, leveraging its fortuitous presence as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. While strategic voting has its utility for defending national interest, it is Indian national interest that the UN stands strengthened as the primary custodian of the legitimacy of and as a leading shaper of the world order. As a rising power, India needs a degree of stability in the world order. If a new order is to shape up, the leading powers would be its authors. India, tagging along, would have its interests given a short shrift. Therefore, lending a hand to the UN to maintain its preeminence in what promises to be an uncertain world ahead, gripped by great power contestation, is in Indian national interest.

An area in which India can leverage its capacities is in forwarding the precepts of the UN’s ‘agenda for peace’. The Ukraine War demonstrates that the Security Council’s role of preserving peace and security has taken a hit. Thankfully, it has not been a fatal impact, but has revealed its inefficacy yet again when the Council is a divided house – which it promises to remain over the foreseeable future. India, having proved that it is of neither camp, can create space for itself by recreating the space lost by the UN in dispute settlement and conflict resolution.

Towards this end, India’s tenure in the Security Council must not merely be as a ‘presence’ but to count as a ‘heavyweight’. It will continue its tryst with power politics in the Security Council over the balance of its tenure and in General Assembly, now and later. Alongside, an area where India can make a positive difference is in a proactive showing on its forte: UN Peace Operations.

Thus far, India has been known for its peacekeeping contributions. It needs to up its financial contribution to the UN’s peacebuilding effort, besides taking a greater interest in and playing a supportive political role in the several peace-making initiatives of the UN. In light of its military’s prowess, it could go further in shouldering troop-intensive UN engagement in conflict zones in support of conflict diplomacy, both conflict prevention and peacemaking. The former might involve preventive deployment and the latter, peace enforcement. In making itself available for addressing all dimensions of the heuristic made famous by Boutros-Ghali’s, An Agenda for Peace - conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacebuilding (to Boutros-Ghali, post-conflict) and peace enforcement - India will be acting a great power in anticipation of recognition as one.

Peacebuilding and peacemaking

Its economy on the mend after Covid should see India’s response to the UN’s humanitarian calls go up, besides an increase in channeling finances through the UN’s agencies, funds and programs chasing Sustainable Development Goals. It must break out of its developing country syndrome and view itself as an economic power in its own right, its highest growth figures for bigger economies in a post-Covid world suggesting as much. For that it has to put its money where its mouth is. India should slowly begin to lay aside the yardstick of .7 per cent of gross domestic product for overseas’ development assistance. It has an extensive network of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and a trove of intellectual resources on non-violent conflict resolution. It can supplement governmental activity by supporting NGOs wanting to acquire an international footprint. It has conflict resolution programs in universities that can be usefully geared to turning out practitioners in the field, internationally.

Importantly, given its political heft in multiple groupings, practice of plurilateralism and support of multilateralism, India must weigh-in on UN peacemaking initiatives, joining groups of ‘friends’ of concerned peace processes. Having upped its political and economic engagement with Africa, it must be increasingly visible in assisting ‘African solutions for African wars’. It must exploit the exponential growth in diplomatic ties with South West Asia over the last eight years to engaging with the endless wars (Yemen, Syria) and conflicts (Israel-Palestine) there.

Though its diplomats are enviably proficient, they are too few. An increase in interest in borrowing talent from outside the government can help. It could also rely on Foreign Service veterans for Special Envoy duty, with academics as consultants. Special envoy activity is now a common adjunct to mediation and facilitation processes. Indians are mostly missing in action, ambassadors otherwise busy. Researchers with regional and thematic expertise gained in Indian universities, can work out of headquarters, embassies and consulates, enabling inform and build consistency in India’s engagements. The foreign ministry is already recruiting consultants; such activity only needs broadening. The International Council on World Affairs has acquired a pride of place among think tanks at the national capital can spearhead the uptick. It can lead thinking on non-military aspects in the numerous faculties of international relations and defence studies, and the fledgling departments offering peace studies. Graduates can form the workhorses for India’s expanded assistance on sustainable development, humanitarian relief, other complex emergencies and peacebuilding and reconciliation.

Peace enforcement

India has been consistently averse to peace enforcement, and with good reason. However, that it has a world-class military makes this a potential thrust line of renewed UN engagement. This complements the proposal for an increased Indian tryst with peacebuilding and peacemaking. The latter two cannot be done in isolation of a return of peace to a conflict zone. In instances, peace may have to be enforced on recalcitrant parties or spoilers. Insuring a peace process and that benefits of peacebuilding are not washed away may compel going beyond robust peacekeeping to peace enforcement. India’s military has the capability to mid-wife peace in such instances and can be at the call of the UN for the purpose. Increased peacemaking effort on part of India will keep it abreast of where the shoe pinches and where its military capability can make a mark. In fact, increasing its military footprint would necessitate peacemaking visibility.

India is making the changes in its higher defence structures. It has a chief of defence staff system in place and has expanded the military-foreign affairs interface, not only in terms of additional military officers in the foreign ministry, but also military officers as part of the relevant sections on defence cooperation in the defence ministry. The National Security Council system has come into its own, with close proximity to the prime minister’s office. This should lend confidence in spotting and using opportunities for upping military contribution abroad, jointly with diplomatic action.

The usual caveats must apply, such as use of force in the national interest; in line with UN principles and the ‘Do no harm’ criterion; and informed by just war principles as right authority, last resort, proportionality and probability of success. Since the aim-plus is strengthening of the UN, such excursions must be under UN Security Council authority, even if the command and control arrangements are of a coalition. Though Chapter VII would be the cover, consent of the host state is preferable, which heightened diplomacy should be able to deliver prior.

India is no stranger to the use of force under the UN flag. It contributed a para-field ambulance in the Korean War. An Indian brigade was instrumental in ensuring the territorial integrity of the Congo in the early sixties. In its region, it has exercised force, most significantly in 1971 with humanitarian concerns uppermost. At Sri Lankan request it undertook peace enforcement in the north and east of the island. Alongside, it assisted the Maldives repel a terrorist coup. Be it in Somalia, furthering humanitarian access, or stabilizing the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it has not been shy of robust peacekeeping. It has taken on rebels in Sierra Leone during Operation Khukri. However, it has been chary of going down the peace enforcement route, particularly if there is peacekeeping going on alongside as has been the case both in Somali (the UN Task Force under the United States) and the DRC, where there is a Force Intervention Brigade operating alongside.

The lesson from the DRC however is that spoilers may require a tougher approach, political instruments falling short. India could consider also assaying enforcement roles in future. The Indian peacekeeper contingent in DRC has only recently had to discipline the M23 group with the use of force. If and since the security environment is not going to ease up, the Indian approach to peace operations should keep up with the challenges. It’s increased military capability and the UN’s ongoing-for-some-two-decades now professionalization of peacekeeping provides an enabling environment. The UN’s inclusion of the term ‘intelligence’ in its vocabulary and force protection-focus since 2017 show the difference in the UN’s approach. India could also provide force multipliers as surveillance and Special Forces capabilities, to join the club of member states that offers niche capabilities for UN use. India has numbered among the highest boots-on-ground provider, but that places it with others as Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a circle it could choose to break-out of.

Preventive deployment

The second area of expanding scope for a benign Indian intervention is conflict prevention. The UN has cried hoarse over the past two decades that this is a long-standing deficit in its peace repertoire. This has been ingloriously been brought to fore with the Ukraine War. It’s futile to hold that had UN’s conflict prevention faculties been up to speed, the War’s outbreak might have been stalled. However, notwithstanding the showing of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in eastern Ukraine, there is no denying that had the Minsk Accords been taken forward with promptitude, there would have been little reason for war. With a political settlement forthcoming, the threat of the advance of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s to Russia’s frontier could have receded.

It is a truism in international diplomacy that peacemaking stands enhanced in case there is military backing to peace efforts. While true for an inter-State context, it is arguably also pertinent for international peacemaking. Two counter-factual illustrations are hazarded to make the point.

The first is a counter-factual from 2011. Gaddafi was at the gates of Benghazi and threatening to annihilate his foes, by then melted into the populace. This led to ‘Responsibility to Protect’ concerns, which - as it turned out - were appropriated by the West to advance their strategic goals. The rest, as they say, is history. However, consider if the UN had the benefit of a member state offering it military muscle for preventive deployment in Benghazi - with Gaddafi’s consent or otherwise - blue helmets could have occupied a buffer position between the two belligerents. Precluding Gaddafi’s attack and provocation by the rebels, the subsequent regime change would have been staved-off. Not only would the Arab Spring not have been derailed, but the Sahel would not have melted into instability as it is today.

A second hypothetical case for preventive deployment is the Ukraine War. One prospective juncture was prior to the outbreak of the Ukraine War. UN monitors and troops could have complemented the SMM, with the consent of Ukraine. Russia could have been brought on board by upping peacemaking for getting the Minsk processes back on track. It being a European conflict, for neutrality sake, the military muscle could have been provided at a short notice by parties outside the region, such as India and China.

Conflict prevention is not only about preventing violence outbreak but is also meant to stop conflict from escalating, spreading and re-erupting. The second juncture was after the initial phase of the war, when Russia paused, its coup-de-main operations stalling. A way-out could have been an offer by the international community of ceasefire monitoring around Kiev, in eastern Ukraine and along the Donbass frontline and the frontlines inland seas. This would have meant a larger force, more ‘blue helmet’ than ‘blue beret’. Ceasefire negotiations that began around then could have acquired traction.

Even now, when both sides are at the cusp of ending the conflict, they are unable to do so though the War is past its 100th day. Conflict prevention includes containing a conflict and its spillover effects. Given the amount of armaments inserted into Ukraine from the West, there is every possibility that, like in Libya and Syria whence armaments proliferated into the region, the ending of the Ukraine War will see a spike in contiguous conflicts. Containing this requires more proactive measures than theory currently envisages. While a peacekeeping force can be visualized on ceasefire coming into effect, there is no preexisting conceptual handle for quick-insertion preventive deployment that can help peacemaking to bring about such a ceasefire. The UN timelines for whistling up a peacekeeping force necessitate the force acting outside of the UN’s routine processes. Such a force could then metamorphose into a peacekeeping force once the ceasefire gets going.

India has the surplus standing military capacity to undertake such rapid deployment tasks. It need not undertake these alone, but in tandem with likeminded troop contributors. The idea is not new, going back as it does to the mid-nineties when the stand-by arrangements’ system was much discussed, as well as enforcement. Sovereignty sensitivities precluded the ideas getting any headway. These need to be dusted. India can provide the doctrinal ballast. Though a votary of traditional peacekeeping and a reluctant subscriber to robust peacekeeping, it must flexibly switch gears to lead the doctrinal thinking on operational challenges ahead.

India must seize the moment

The Ukraine War has shaken up the Charter order. What cannot be countenanced is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. India, as a founding member and an aspirant Permanent member of the Security Council, can use the opportunity of a Council in disarray to lend credibility to the Charter-based world order. Reinforcing stability and continuity, it can markedly strengthen its case for the high table. In strategic terms, since both sides in the geopolitical face-off want India alongside, or do not want India lining up on the other side, India has scope of increasing its footprint. For this it needs to expect more of itself and to ‘do more’. This is in line with the foreign minister’s articulation of the government’s priorities for a ‘confident, caring country’.

A beginning can be in substantive input into the UN’s under-preparation document, A New Agenda for Peace. Its military capacity has received a boost lately in better national security coordination stemming from higher defence reforms and personality factors. While no doubt there are national security threats closer home, these are not of an existential order, allowing India to project surplus military energy away from its shores. A combined civil-military approach - necessitated by civilian-heavy peacebuilding and peacemaking and military-led enforcement and preventive deployment - can boost India’s UN profile, while keeping the UN relevant to the new age.