An appropriate place to project soft power

In the first part of an interview with Shashi Tharoor, India’s minister of state for external affairs, we discussed Africa, strengthening the foreign service and changing foreign policy planning. In the second and concluding part, he defends India’s continued engagement with the United Nations.

Do we have a sort of a governmental strategy towards what we want to do at the UN as a whole, or do we leave different parts of the government to do different things and hope that things fall in place?

That’s unkind. We do have a vision about the role of the UN and we’ve played a significant role for long. But it is true that different bits of the UN are handled by different people. So the International Civil Aviation Organisation is handled by the Civil Aviation ministry and the UNESCO is handled by the Education or the HRD ministry and so on. But the MEA does play a very crucial central role. It puts all this together. Our two Joint Secretaries—one for UN political and one for UN economic & social—actually do relate to the other ministries as necessary. For example, you can’t really do peacekeeping without the Ministry of Defence being involved, but you do it with the overall political direction coming from the MEA. So, I’d say that an overall vision exists.

It’s a vision of using the UN as a manifest of our desire to be a responsible world citizen. It has always been India’s external orientation from the days of Nehru, and perhaps earlier. Nehru spoke of about our responsibility to the rest of the world in the “tryst with destiny” speech. Today, our strength and capacity has reached a level where one can argue that we are not as influential as we should be.

It’s become a place from which we can also benefit. The UN is a place where there is state-of-the-art thinking on some of the big developmental issues of our time, from urban planning to population and other aspects of development. When we go and participate in these conferences, we contribute to the world’s discussion and come back with an awareness of what these institutions have to offer us. This is very important for us as a country and our own thinking on child welfare, AIDS management, and so on, issues that affect us but have an undeniable global dimension. A lot of recent policy thought in India has been influenced by our engagement with the rest of the world via the UN.

At the same time, it’s a platform for establishing India’s place in the world. It is an appropriate place for projecting ‘soft power’. A part of the projection is the reputation we’ve developed standing for a set of principles that we articulated effectively on the world stage, principles we advocated as a leader of the G-77 group of developing countries and the non-aligned movement. Our articulation is inevitably evolving with time. For example, I have argued within our system that it is not inappropriate that we have been a voice for the developing world because the experience of colonialism and underdevelopment has marked us in many ways. But I also argue that there is no reason why we should be staying away from groups like the Conference on Democracies – the practice of 60 years of democracy has also defined who we are and what we stand for. There is room for expanding the way that we do it, but the country and our diplomats have earned a lot of respect for what they have been able to do with the UN.

Two specific things. First, the Human Rights Council. I can’t understand what India is doing there because without India, it has no legitimacy. And we go in there, give it the legitimacy and yet it come backs and stings us. So what are we doing there? Second, peacekeeping. Indian troops have been in places like the Congo, on and off, for the almost 60 years. But we have been in these conflicts for a long time and it seems that we’re doing it for the hard currency.

The hard currency argument is preposterous. First of all, there isn’t that much hard currency in the UN. The UN pays about a thousand dollars per soldier per country. But the Government of India doesn’t keep anything of that money. It is divided among the soldiers.

It’s just that we don’t give at the rate at which we get it because we are a hierarchical society, I suppose. We reorder the money and give the officers more than the havaldars, and the havaldars more than the jawans. That’s a system everyone accepts in our army but the government doesn’t get any money, apart from the reimbursement for wear and tear on the equipment (which is separate from the per-soldier payment).

But what we get out of peacekeeping is manifold. Number one, we get to make a useful contribution to the international community that enhances our claims to responsible world citizenship, even leadership. For instance, one of the arguments we make for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council is our long record of having contributed to the maintenance of international peace and security through our participation in peacekeeping operations.

Number two, we get actual experience. Our troops go and conduct themselves in difficult situations and come back the better for it. They also leave behind a hugely positive reputation. Indian soldiers have done a lot, like in Lebanon, where they set up hospitals for the local population. Or in Somalia, where Indian army vets even treated the camels of the nomads free of cost. That sort of ability to engage with other societies is very different from what many other armies do. It has vastly enhanced our standing in the world.

And third, it gives a global orientation to our soldiers. A lot of our army—I don’t know what percentage, not a majority, but a good chunk—has come back all the better for having had exposure to other armies, officers and soldiers. It becomes an exercise in international networking as well.  The global orientation is worthwhile.

For these reasons, I would’ve been in favour of India participating in UN peacekeeping even if it were a net loss for us. Instead we come out of it financially even, except for some old operations where UN member governments didn’t pay their dues and we never got fully reimbursed for the money we spent. Otherwise, the idea is that we don’t gain financially and we don’t lose. But the currency argument is one argument I don’t accept.

The currency argument is in the context of the UN tour of duty being seen as a reward for good performance in the army.

Yes, they do enjoy the experience. An individual soldier takes home a lot more. Let’s say you were earning a soldier’s salary in India and you go off to Congo and come back with that salary times four. You can save, send money home, and buy goods at international duty free shops—why shouldn’t you have this perk? And I think, yes that is a perk that our soldiers deserve for all the hard and dangerous work they do for our country.

But does this come at the cost of participating in overseas deployments, unilaterally or in coalition with others? The army chief once said, in his dogmatic style, that we can’t go to Afghanistan because there is no UN mandate?

No, no, wait a minute. You are mixing up two or three very different things. First, our deployment is a minuscule proportion at any one time. Right now, we have 7000 peacekeepers in Africa. Our men in arms are over a million. 7000 is hardly a blip. You don’t notice their absence. It doesn’t prevent us from doing anything else we need to do.

Number two, the question of a UN mandate is a totally different issue. That is a question of the political judgement that we make. We believe that the Indian army is not anybody’s mercenary—we’ll only go where we are doing so in the service of international law. That is the position we have taken. Serving the UN is serving the world. We have done it since the days of Nehruji, and done it well.

Third, there is a political decision that is made when it comes to non-UN and UN operations. We have turned down certain UN operations when the Security Council had authorised something we were not keen on doing. We make the political judgement each time. It is relatively rare, but we do say no.

For a NATO operation somewhere or a coalition operation in Afghanistan, we make very hard political decisions whether it is wise for us to engage with soldiers on the ground. We are extremely active in Afghanistan on the development and humanitarian front, building hospitals, constructing roads, clinics, power transmission lines, etc. Kabul has 24 hours of electricity a day because Indian engineers have put the power lines up there. This means that we are actively engaged, but we are of the view that deploying Indian soldiers in Afghanistan would be counterproductive. They would constitute a provocation to certain factions, something we don’t want. We were invited to join the coalition in Iraq and we declined. With hindsight, it looks like a very smart move, doesn’t it, to have said no?

We are free to do what we want but we make a political judgement each time. So far, it is true that we have not found it appropriate to send Indian soldiers outside for operations other than the UN. The IPKF is the one exception—we know how that went. Let’s wait and see what comes up in the future. We are not ruling out participation in a coalition operation but would decide on the basis of our own political calculations.

The Human Rights Council…?

The Human Rights Council is more complicated. When these decisions were being made, I was inside the UN, and seeing it from a reformist point of view. And as a former UN official, I’ll be among the first to admit that the objectives of Kofi Annan’s reform efforts have not been fully met.  The council in its present form, some would argue, is not much of an improvement on the kind of tendencies that led us to reform the Human Rights Commission, its predecessor body.

Now, you are asking me a question on the Indian government that is difficult for me to answer in an Indian government hat because I have seen this from a UN perspective and not had a chance yet to see it from an Indian perspective.

Governments tend to see the Human Rights Council as a platform for the advancement and promotion of their views on human rights, which is not what most human rights activists—and perhaps many thinking analysts—would like to see. They would like to see a body that exists to protect individual human rights rather than deal with governmental policies and priorities. But this is an intergovernmental body and it functions as such.

In that context, it is difficult for India to apologise for pursuing its political interests in a body where everyone else is doing the same. Hence, you vote on the basis of political calculations and not the kind of thinking you’d apply if you were working for Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. This is a governmental exercise and we have to remember that. The Human Rights Council is a body of governments. It is not Amnesty International.

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