Feature Article

Sri Lanka crisis reveals India not ready for global security role

[TamilNet, Friday, 30 January 2009, 20:41 GMT]
The present humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, which has been completely transparent to international scrutiny for several years, is proving the limits of India's ability to move decisively on 'transnational' security issues, despite its ambitions for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, writes a reader from Tamil Nadu. Delhi's inability to prevail on Sri Lanka's Sinhala government has long been recognised by the region, the reader writes.

Full text of the article follows:

Sri Lanka crisis reveals India not ready for global security role

The United Nations’ Security Council, though initially formed to keep the peace between the post WW2 Great Powers, is today the hub of global peace and security in wider terms. The UNSC’s permanent members are the world’s most powerful states – those capable of decisive leadership and robust action on international peace and security issues. India, along with other rising great powers, has declared its ambitions for a permanent seat in a reformed UNSC. However, the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is revealing the limits of Delhi’s ability to both be decisive and to act on matters at the core of the UNSC’s agenda.

The UNSC is the decision making body par excellence. The General Assembly can make collective resolutions, but these are not binding: only the Security Council can make declarations binding on UN member states.

The initial purpose of the UNSC was to prevent the recurrence of war between the world’s most powerful states. The five permanent members, now all nuclear-armed, are those recognized in the aftermath of WW2 as ‘Great Powers’: the United State, Britain, France, Russia (taking over the seat of the Soviet Union) and China.

Ten other seats are available on rotating 2-year terms for the world’s other states, as a way of sharing both responsibility and power over ‘global’ matters.

Each Great Power has a veto on any collective UNSC decision. In other words, even if completely outnumbered by other Great Powers (and/or other states), no action inimical to the interests of a P5 member can be undertaken.

The UNSC is ultimately responsible for keeping the peace around the world, especially when states attack each other – for example when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

However, the ‘rise’ of other states in the past half-century has led to calls for reform of the UNSC, on the basis countries like Germany, Japan, India (also nuclear armed), and Brazil must have a say in global security issues. It is these states (near) great power status that justifies the call for expansion of the UNSC and their seat on it.

However, global security today is not just about inter-Great Power conflict. It is also about the security of humanity. Matters like humanitarian crises, genocide, the HIV/AID global pandemic, and so on are at the centre of UNSC concerns, even if these are, as in any mult-lateral forum, mired in self-interests of individual Great Powers and other states.

Sri Lanka’s long running conflict is a quintessential example of international security concerns.

Though dubbed an ‘internal’ conflict, there has been long and heavy involvement – through inflows of development aid, military assistance, attempts at political re-engineering, and so on - of many powerful states including US, UK, China, Japan and of course Pakistan and India.

The exploding humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka is not new. It is the culmination of Sri Lanka’s industrialized violence against the Tamil population (predominantly) of the Northeast.

Indeed, the Northeast Tamils have always – since at least the 1980s - been subject by the Sri Lankan state to starvation by embargo, mass killing by aerial and artillery bombardment, mass forced displacement (often ahead of Sinhala colonization of their villages) and son.

The Sri Lankan state’s industrialized killing and destructive power led the Tamil Diaspora to mushroom rapidly and by the time of the Norwegian peace process began in 2002, to the internal displacement of 800,000 people, predominantly Tamils.

It was said that many such large-scale humanitarian crises and suffering were ignored by the global security establishment before 1990 because of the Cold War stand off between the West an the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was therefore supposed to free up the UNSC to deal with such ‘internal’ matters.

Indeed, throughout the nineties, humanitarian issues within states increasingly came to be seen – via more emphasis on International Humanitarian Law, for example – as matters for international action.

After the impotent inaction during the massacres in Bosnia (Sebrenica, for example), Rwanda, and so on, the logic of “humanitarian intervention” – international military action to protect civilians from “their” own governments became more common. The logic was crystallized in 2001 in the “Responsibility to Protect”.

In other words, if states did not protect their population – and often states are responsible for brutalizing peoples – the international community would intervene forcefully – if not always by force – to protect peoples.

However, by narrowing global security after 2001 to ‘terrorism’, the Bush administration in the US paved the way for the relegation of humanitarian security concerns – mass forced displacement, mass killings, genocide, and so on – to the distant background.

Yet the eruptions within simmering crises like Sudan and Sri Lanka have increasingly forced humanitarian issues to back to the foreground.

At the same time, in a world where Great Powers are held to have their particular “spheres of influence”, South Asia is seen as India’s preserve.

In other words, when there are crisis here, it is Delhi that is expected to provide leadership and lead international action. This is especially so given India is an aspirant permanent member of the UNSC.

However, the present humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka – which has been completely transparent to international scrutiny for several years, is proving the limits of India’s ability to move decisively on ‘transnational’ security issues.

Even as Sri Lanka’s societal cohesiveness has disintegrated and the state has transformed into what some academics label an “ethnocracy”, India has proven unable to cope.

By clinging to the easy US-led paradigm which reduced regional or global security merely to ‘fighting terrorism’ Delhi’s inability to influence events in India’s “backyard” has been concealed.

However, as the ‘Global’ ‘War on Terror’ disintegrates and ceases to be the cornerstone for global security, Delhi’s inability to uphold International Humanitarian Law in the region, impose peace and security and, above all, ensure the protection of populations, minorities and peoples is being exposed.

This week, amid expressions of alarm and concern by several members of the international community, India’s hesitant and timid response is hardly what might be expected of an aspirant custodian of global security.

Domestic considerations are hardly a consideration, if anything the impassioned appeals from Tamil Nadu, the Indian state with the greatest authority within the Indian federation to speak on Sri Lanka’s Tamil question, has for several months been demanding decisive action by Delhi.

Delhi’s inability to prevail on Sri Lanka’s Sinhala government has long been recognized by the region. It was demonstrated even in 2007 the Rajapakse administration humiliated the Singh administration by pointedly tearing up the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces enacted in 1987 by the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.

That Sri Lanka could confidently tear up an international treaty with neighbouring India was underlined by the Indian response. Whilst the conflict in the island has escalated and the humanitarian suffering has deepened inexorably, India has been able to do little more than alternate between entreaties for a solution and expression of concern.

The unfolding disaster in Sri Lanka says much about the Sinhala-Tamil divide, the fiction of the ‘lasting peace’ claimed and promised by the international community from 2002 to 2006.

But it also reveals the limits of Indian power and leadership vis-à-vis the main issues of international security in the 21st century.


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