Syria, India and the world order

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gsr-969The frequency with which violent deaths from a country are reported and the concern it generates from the international community are inversely proportional. Syria is a very good example of this apathy. It makes for poor commentary on the UN Security Council (UNSC), the world’s most powerful multilateral body entrusted with maintaining global peace, those who control it and those who aspire to its permanent membership, India in particular.

The tragedy of Syria

The United Nations (UN) estimates more than 130,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011 when the civil war broke out in that country. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday reported that an average of 236 people have been killed every day since the Geneva II peace talks began in late January. Basically, more people have been killed in the three weeks since the talks started than at any other time in the war.

These are staggering numbers that seem to evoke nothing but inconsequential rhetoric from those countries that could have put an end to the war a long time back.

In a report published in November, the Oxford Research Group said 11,420 children had been recorded killed in the conflict. Amid the shooting, bombing, displacement and torture, Syrian children have become increasingly vulnerable to polio. While there seems to be little clarity on the number of confirmed polio cases, it is certain that the country is witnessing a polio outbreak and the devastating conditions that are persistent will only facilitate its spread.

What is striking is the absolute absence of any urgency to put an end to a worsening situation. Syrians, in power and those aspiring to it, seem oblivious to the suffering of their countrymen. The US is stunted by political expediency after Afghanistan and Iraq; Russia and China by their relationship with Bashar al Assad and a general proclivity for opposing the US.

India’s convenient silence

Two days ago, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh raised the issue of Security Council reforms once again. In a lecture delivered at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, she said the current structure of the Council—with five permanent members and 10 rotating non-permanent members—was one of “the most troubling anachronisms of our times”.

Anachronism or not, India’s ambitions for greater prominence in powerful multilateral institutions is well-known. The country has hankered for a permanent membership of the Security Council—complete with the veto power—for a long time. It has engaged in a wide-ranging diplomatic effort to gather support for its ambitions that, at times, has proved to be embarrassing. It has courted countries as diverse as the US to Burkina Faso to further this dream Similarly, India has wanted more rights at the International Monetary Fund.

There is, however, a troubling question: Is India ready, intellectually and politically, to exercise responsibility that comes with power?

India has not answered basic questions as to why it wants to join this club: Is it because it thinks its intervention in global affairs will be better for the world? What new ideas does it bring to the table? or does it want to join the group of “big guys” merely for prestige?

It has stuck to its script of “resolving the conflict through dialogue” while carefully not choosing sides. The Indian belief that as long as there is some form of government in a country its sovereignty should be respected is unviable when the government is wantonly killing its own people.

If India wants to make a difference to how the world is run, it should try and answer questions such as the limits of sovereignty when a country’s government goes about killing its citizens on a scale as seen in Syria.

The talk about “respecting another country’s sovereignty” is a sad excuse to shirk responsibility of taking decisive action in Syria.

The world is a much more difficult place than it was on the eve of the First World War. Sovereignty as an idea was respected and was absolute. A century later, with large-scale human rights violations bordering on genocide in countries such as Rwanda (1994), Iraq (against its Kurdish, Shia and Marsh Arab citizens—1980-1990), Syria (from 2011) and Libya (2011) expose the limits of what is acceptable under the garb of sovereignty. India should have clear answers for these difficult questions.