How Africa outflanked India at the UN

India’s traditional ambivalence and failure to table fresh ideas on UN peacekeeping has left it marginalised in the UN.

Over the last six months, two visions of peacekeeping have been pitted against one another at the United Nations (UN). The debate has centered on the terms on which troops under UN command can and should use force. African governments have pushed for the peacekeepers to get tougher, using the mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a test case. India has taken a conservative view, arguing that the UN should not abandon its principles. The Africans have largely won the debate so far.

The fact that they have done so highlights India’s failure to establish a decisive voice in arguments about peace operations, despite providing nearly one-tenth of all UN troops and 4,000 of the 17,000 based in the DRC. I have previously argued in Pragati that India does not get sufficient public relations “pay-off” from its UN deployments. It looks like it hasn’t built up very much strategic influence at the UN either.

There have long been questions about the division between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. They came into sharp focus last November, when a militia force overran the city of Goma in the eastern DRC despite the presence of Indian and other UN troops. The peacekeepers continued to patrol Goma and took numerous civilians into protection, and the militiamen eventually quit town. But the UN’s failure to ward off the offensive sparked outrage in the Security Council. Some southern African countries had previously tabled the idea of a new peace enforcement mission to operate alongside the UN in the eastern DRC. They now pressed their case again, and began to find a receptive audience in the Council.

This was doubly irritating for India. Not only had its troops been criticised for their performance in and around Goma, but the incident came after its diplomats had just used a two-year stint on the Security Council to promote their country’s contribution to UN operations. In August 2011, India organised a Security Council debate on peacekeeping, but it was insubstantial, arguably highlighting a lack of a clear strategic vision in this field.

“For a nation that has demonstrated impressive credentials with regard to peacekeeping,” two analysts at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses grumbled, “India’s stand lacked teeth when compared to Guatemala’s statement.” Perhaps this should not have been a surprise. As my co-author and I argue in a chapter in a book on India and multilateralism to be published by the Brookings Press later this year, India has long been ambivalent about UN operations. While offering many troops, it has focused on the financing and governance of these personnel rather than the strategies guiding them.

In the past this has led to friction between Western governments – especially Britain, France and the US on the Security Council – and New Delhi. The Westerners, pointing to their own kinetic operations in Afghanistan, have pushed for UN forces to be more robust. Sometimes Indian units have obliged, pursuing rebels in the DRC with attack helicopters. But UN officials have frequently had to work hard to cajole them into action. Indian diplomats in New York have consistently argued that the UN should uphold the principles of impartiality, respect for state sovereignty and tight limits to the use of force. Peacekeeping analysts ensconced in think tanks at a safe distance from war zones (such as this author) have often complained about this lack of bravado. Yet it has arguably been a sensible strategy for India.

By maintaining a degree of ambiguity over its preferred peacekeeping strategies, New Delhi keeps its options open. If it took a firm doctrinal line in favour of peace enforcement in theory, it would find that it had to put more troops in harm’s way in practice. By taking a more reserved approach diplomatically, but sometimes permitting robust action on the ground, India has gained some extra diplomatic leverage. Members of the Security Council and UN secretariat do not take Indian participation in missions for granted. But India’s public commitment to principles such as sovereignty has won it points with fellow members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), many of which are major suppliers of peacekeepers.

That was at least the case until the recent debates over peacekeeping and the limits of peacekeeping in the DRC began to hot up. As noted, the major advocates of a new enforcement mission in the eastern DRC were African countries, including South Africa and Tanzania, both members of the NAM. Their advocacy for an aggressive approach was motivated by anger with Rwanda, accused of backing the militia that took Goma. But they also implicitly rejected India’s claim to lead on peacekeeping issues.

India left the Security Council in December, but the Council continued to debate options for the eastern DRC until March. It eventually decided to mandate a new “intervention brigade” within the existing UN peacekeeping force, explicitly tasked with neutralising the militias. While South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi offered troops for the brigade, this set-up creates additional headaches for the Indian forces already in DRC. Will they have to offer the new brigade logistical or technical aid, potentially drawing them into firefights? Or might they have to reinforce the brigade if its stumbles into an emergency?

India is reported to have lobbied against the brigade concept on both practical and principled grounds. It was not the only player to have doubts about the intervention brigade, which it slated to get to work in July. Other major contributors of blue helmets like Pakistan expressed discomfort.  Even France, which shepherded the resolution authorising the brigade through the Security Council, is rumoured to have had qualms. But the Council could not resist the aftershocks from the Goma crisis and African lobbying.

Thus the 3,000-strong intervention brigade is on its way to becoming a reality – and changing the terms of trade for UN peacekeepers elsewhere.  The mandate for the new force actually stipulates that it does not create any precedents or change the norms of peacekeeping, but this is a legal nicety rather than a political reality.  If the new formation routs its militia foes, there will be calls for UN troops elsewhere to take the offensive. If instead the intervention brigade is routed, the UN as a whole will take the blame.

In the negative scenario, Indian officials may claim that their worries have been justified.  Either way, they face a basic question: why were they unable to offer any better ideas? With its experience of peacekeeping, India should not have ended up having to resist new proposals for the DRC. It should have been generating them. India’s failure to table fresh ideas on peacekeeping has left it marginalised.

Photo: United Nations Photo