In the spring of 2012, I visited the Indian Ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, at his New York residence that overlooked the 18 acres of the UN. The view from the south-facing windows is spectacular – the buildings of the UN in the foreground, as the East River flows by with a stately dignity. I had come to interview Puri about something less charming – the wars in Libya and Syria, and the role of the UN Security Council in authorising the former and not the latter. We spent several hours over cups of tea talking about the UN, and the unraveling of humanity in West Asia and North Africa.
I went to see Puri because he had already established himself as an astute observer of the limits of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The illegal US war on Iraq – unauthorised by the UN – had dented the pretension of Western humanitarian intervention. The motives of Western interventions seemed less elevated than the rhetoric from the Western capitals suggested. It seemed as if between the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the idea of intervention had become suspect. It was to refurbish the politics of intervention that the West pushed through the doctrine of R2P in the UN in 2005. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had called the US invasion of Iraq ‘illegal’, nonetheless oversaw the construction of the R2P doctrine.
Just a few years after the doctrine had become part of UN architecture, Puri addressed the UN General Assembly to warn about the slide from responsibility to protect civilians to armed action to overthrow governments. “We need to be cognizant,” he said, “that creation of new norms should at the same time completely safeguard against their misuse”. The doctrine was first tested in 2011 in the war on Libya. A few months into the war, Puri said in an informal meeting at the UN, “The Libyan case has already given R2P a bad name”. This was before Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed and long before the country slipped sadly into dangerous chaos. When I met Puri in early 2012, he told me that he worried about the UN authorisation being sought by the West because “it was very clear that many Western capitals were openly espousing regime change to begin with”. The goal was regime change and not responsibility to protect civilians. R2P had become the new fig leaf for regime change.
Puri’s new book – Perilous Interventions: the Security Council and the Politics of Chaos – picks up these themes and develops them. It is a book that every Indian diplomat should read because it models the kind of thoughtful engagement with international affairs necessary for diplomacy. It is also a book that should be read by close observers of international politics, because it removes the varnish off the wood and allows us to see what lies beneath. There is no obfuscation here, particularly in the chapter on Libya. If there were a body to adjudicate bad decisions of the past decade, that body should take Puri’s chapter on Libya and ask the main protagonists of regime change to answer its charges. It is a sharp repudiation of the Western governments who wanted to go into a conflict when other options lay available and where the outcome of the conflict already appeared to be very dangerous. Western leaders brushed aside alternative paths to peace and warning about the dangers of regime change. None of this interested them. They had a messianic sense of their abilities. Even after the fiasco in Iraq, they felt that they could – from the cockpit of their bombers – bring freedom to the world.
The doctrine of humanitarian intervention – R2P – asserts that state sovereignty cannot be a shield to commit crimes against humanity inside the borders of a country. The international community has a say if a government is committing such crimes (including genocide). The UNSC studies the evidence of such crimes and provides the government of the country with a mechanism to either stop the atrocities or forces the government to do so. The most extreme measure is for the UN, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to use armed force to prevent the genocide or crimes against humanity. The key here, as Puri writes in the final chapter of his book, is that the UNSC must determine if there is an “imminent threat of mass atrocities”. How should the UNSC make this determination? It will rely upon various sources – including the media, the UN’s own officers on the ground and intelligence materials provided by governments – to make a comprehensive assessment of what is happening on the ground.
With Libya, there was no such body of information. UN envoy Abdel Elah al-Khatib and Rashid Khalikov of the UN’s Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs visited Libya in March 2011, but returned with inconclusive evidence. By March 14, UN Under-Secretary General Lynn Pascoe said the situation in Libya was deteriorating rapidly. The assessment seemed to be based on media reports more than on UN personnel on the ground. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon spoke of ‘press reports’ when asked how he determined near genocide conditions. Saudi and Qatari media outlets exaggerated the numbers because that was their drum-beat to war. Al-Arabiyya was in the lead. Later, when human rights groups studied the situation, they found that the numbers of dead and the character of the deaths indicated less a genocide situation and more a civil war. This was not properly communicated to the UNSC.
Puri shows that the Western diplomats pilloried anyone who raised skepticism about the situation in Libya. If one raised objections, he writes, they “were simplistically categorized as being on the wrong side of the human rights divide in their own countries”. The Western bloc – particularly France – took cover behind the Arab League, which was eager to overthrow Gaddafi for political and personal reasons. But what they did not consider, as the Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong emphasised at the time, was that the African Union was not happy with armed action. When ambassadors of the South warned that referral of the Libyan leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC) would narrow the door to diplomacy, they were not heard. After all, if there were no opening for negotiation then why would an adversarial leader stop their brutality. The ICC referral seemed an obvious mechanism to increase the chance of crimes against humanity not lessen them. Naysayers were set aside.
One of the failures of the R2P process in the case of Libya is that the government in question should be allowed to answer the charges brought against it. In the UNSC chamber, the members of the council sit at horseshoe table. At both ends of the horseshoe, seats are left vacant for members who have disputes to come and talk to the UNSC. In the case of Libya, the ambassador, Abdel Rahman Shalgham, had defected from the side of the Libyan government. This meant that there was no Libyan delegation to the UN. At no point, as I found when I reported this story, was there concern in the UN Secretariat that the Libyans could not respond to the accusations made against them. The UNSC, in a sense, had conducted diplomatic regime change by not insisting upon Libyan representation from the government at the table. When the Russians did not allow Shalgham to retain his seat (he had after all defected from his post), no Libyan was available to answer the questions. This meant that Libya was a bystander as the UNSC met.
The R2P process, Puri writes, includes a “comprehensive and judicious analysis of all possible consequences so that military action does not fuel instability or cause more harm”. Before the UNSC had even passed resolution 1973, the West had decided to act militarily in Libya. British Special Forces seemed to be on the ground by March and French Ambassador Gerard Arnaud had already told Puri that the war would be conducted by “NATO, led by the United States of America”. Military logic overwhelmed diplomacy. When UNSC resolution 1973 was passed, the caveats towards diplomatic action were not taken seriously. They were there to get the resolution passed, not to be acted upon. “The only aspect of the resolution which was of interest to them,” Puri writes, “was the ‘use of all necessary means’ – to bomb the hell out of Libya”.
One of the important aspects of UNSC oversight is that if it authorises military force, it should have the right to review the action taken in its name. “The Council could have reviewed the evolving situation and asked those undertaking the military operations to halt action once the Gaddafi regime had been degraded,” writes Puri. When the UN did ask for a review, NATO refused to cooperate (as I reported in 2012). It had no interest in revisiting the situation.
Libya remains broken. But so too does the R2P doctrine and the UNSC’s ability to act in times of conflict. The UN cannot act in Syria largely because of the misuse of the R2P doctrine in Libya. Puri’s book shows us the role the West has played in engendering paralysis in the UNSC. China and Russia will not allow any firm (military) action in Syria or elsewhere because they see how their abstention in 2011 over Libya resulted in a catastrophic regime change. A front-row seat at the UNSC provides Puri the perspective to make this compelling – and disturbing – case.
Vijay Prashad is a professor of international studies and the author of The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2016).