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Embattled Sovereignty: India, the UN, and Humanitarian Intervention

Rohan Mukherjee
February 11, 2013

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 Delhi’s intransigence during severe crises in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria. 

That India, a liberal democratic country with a long tradition of cosmopolitanism among its leaders, should oppose actions that might protect civilians during armed conflict is somewhat of a puzzle. After all, Indian statesmen and the Indian public are not impervious to the loss of human life or blind to the suffering of citizens in other countries. The explanation for India’s intransigence is twofold. At the international level, since the end of the Cold War, the UNSC has become a more interventionist organization, focusing on a greater range of conflicts. By one metric, 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 organized 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, emphasizes 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 favor of humanitarian intervention. Barring a handful of peacekeeping operations, for at least the first four decades of its existence, the organization, by and large, adhered to the foundational principal of sovereignty that has undergirded the international system since the seventeenth century. Sovereignty, as a recognized principle, 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 northeastern states or through widespread militant leftism known as the Naxalite movement. Violent challenges invite violent state repression, which often leads to human rights violations. Human rights violations open the door to external intervention, thus endangering the already shaky foundation of state authority. 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. In the words of Prem Shankar Jha, “Whatever conventions [India] allows or helps the West establish on the [Responsibility] to Protect or Intervene may well come back to haunt it in the years that lie ahead.”

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 non-humanitarian 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 organization 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, and support for intervention and human rights has become a yardstick by which states are measured. The balance of public and state opinion in the industrialized world has shifted markedly in favor of greater intervention to protect civilians in conflict situations. This means that as the international consensus on sovereignty has moved toward what has come to be known as “contingent sovereignty” – the notion that state sovereignty entails certain obligations, including the protection of citizens – 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 considerable power in international affairs on the back of an unstable polity with multiple 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 state sovereignty. Those in the international community who misunderstand the policy implications of this reality are likely to mislabel India’s absolutist stance on sovereignty as anti-Western dogma or culturally rooted intransigence. 

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 (US, UK, and France) in the UNSC. India’s contributions to UNSC debates on intervention over the last two years have centered mostly on matters of procedure and operations, largely skirting the core principles of sovereignty that are at stake. 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 writ large. If India wants to create sufficient time and space for its state-building to continue in parallel with its rising power, it must do more to engage with core principles and to offer credible alternatives to established norms.

Rohan Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He can be reached at

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

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