India’s piquant position at the UN

Rohan Mukherjee | Updated on February 11, 2013

India, with its internal troubles, is not wholly supportive of ‘humanitarian’ interventions in other countries, and takes a hard sovereignty line.

On December 31, 2012, India completed its seventh two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the world’s foremost multilateral institution for the maintenance of international peace and security.

At the beginning, many analysts had described this period as an “audition” for a potential permanent seat, much desired by Delhi. By the end, many of the same analysts concluded that India had failed to impress. Contrary to playing a constructive role in making the UNSC a more effective body, India was accused of being a “spectator nation” at best and spoiler at worst.

The question turned on the issue of humanitarian intervention, or the use of military force to save civilians from systematic human rights abuses within states. Critics pointed to New Delhi’s intransigence during severe crises in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria.

That India, a liberal democratic country, should oppose actions that might protect civilians during armed conflict is somewhat of a puzzle.


The explanation for India’s intransigence is two-fold. At the international level, since the end of the Cold War, the UNSC has become a more interventionist organisation, focusing on a greater range of conflicts. For example, almost three-fourths of the UN’s sixty-seven peacekeeping missions as of 2012 were undertaken after 1990.

At the domestic level, the Indian state’s authority has steadily weakened since Independence. Major episodes of systematic and sustained use of violence by organised non-state groups in India increased from two in 1949 to ten in 1991, resulting in pockets of conflict that, in the future, might expose India to internationally legitimated interference.

Contrary to popular perception, India has not always been staunchly opposed to intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries.

Recent work by Manu Bhagavan, for example, emphasises the “post-sovereign” philosophy of modern India’s founding fathers, who evinced considerable faith in the UN and the importance of securing human rights at the expense of state sovereignty.

The UNSC, on the other hand, has not always been actively in favour of humanitarian intervention. Barring a handful of peacekeeping operations, for at least the first four decades of its existence, the organisation, by and large, adhered to the foundational principle of sovereignty.

Sovereignty grants each state the right to exclude external actors from impinging on the authority it enjoys over its citizens. India today is a much stronger supporter of sovereignty as an international norm than it has been in the past; and the UNSC today takes a much more flexible view of sovereignty than it has taken in the past.


What explains this concurrent shift in opposite directions? In India’s case, the answer lies in the changing nature of the state’s domestic authority and legitimacy.

Over time, the Indian state has had to deal with increasing numbers of increasingly sophisticated internal challenges, be it through multiple insurgencies in Kashmir and the North-Eastern States or through widespread militant Leftism.

Violent challenges invite violent state repression, which often leads to human rights violations. Indian diplomacy, therefore, does not speak the language of human rights precisely because the Indian state is often guilty of violating the rights of its own citizens.

Delhi does not endorse humanitarian intervention for fear that the spotlight may someday be turned on India’s own internal conflict zones, especially Kashmir.

The end of the Cold War was a watershed moment for the shift in India’s stance on sovereignty. Between 1947 and 1989, India engaged in nineteen military interventions that compromised the sovereignty of other countries; a rate of 0.44 interventions per year.

These instances include the coercive integration of some of the larger Princely States following India’s Independence, the forcible liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule, Prime Minister Nehru’s Forward Policy deployed during the border conflict with China, India’s intervention in the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, and interventions (by invitation) in Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the 1980s.

Between 1990 and 2005, the rate was only 0.2 interventions per year, which mostly took the form of relatively minor border incidents with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Conversely, during this period, the UNSC, under American leadership, became a far more active and activist institution than it had been during the Cold War when superpower rivalry had rendered it largely ineffective.


Since the beginning of the 1990s, the organisation has involved itself in numerous conflicts around the world. India’s sixth term on the UNSC, in 1991-92, witnessed an explosion of UNSC activity on conflicts in a host of countries, including Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia (and its successor states), Libya, Angola, Somalia, Liberia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Cambodia.

The nature of post-Cold War conflict itself is different, taking place largely within the confines of state boundaries, i.e. more in the form of civil conflicts than inter-state war.

Humanitarian intervention is now a major agenda item at the UN. However, India’s domestic challenges have compelled a shift toward more absolutist conceptions of sovereignty.

What does this mean for the future of India’s engagement with the UNSC?

India is in the historically rather unprecedented position of wielding power in international affairs on the back of an unstable polity with internal challenges to state authority and legitimacy.

The great powers can no longer ignore Delhi’s demands for greater representation in the UNSC, but neither can they expect India to cast aside domestic imperatives and flow with the tide on decisions that threaten to encroach upon sovereignty.


For its part, rather than being a constant naysayer, India could do much more to present an alternative to the growing norm of contingent sovereignty.

By making a case for India’s exceptional position as a rising democratic power with uneven domestic authority, Delhi can begin to chalk out a well-articulated position on sovereignty that falls between the extremes of East (Russia and China) and West (the US, the UK, and France) in the UNSC.

India’s contributions to UNSC debates on intervention over the last two years have centred mostly on matters of procedure.

Unofficially, Indian diplomats and analysts deride the selectivity of Western intervention and the West’s frequent eagerness to appease tyrants such as Muammar Gaddafi.

However, the hypocrisy and unevenness of Western resolve is a weak argument for not engaging with human rights and humanitarian intervention. India must do more to engage with core principles and to offer credible alternatives.

(The author is a doctoral candidate, Department of Politics, Princeton University.)

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on February 11, 2013

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