Interview with Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s former representative to the UN
Aditi Bhaduri | October 3, 2016
Hardeep Singh Puri, one of India’s ablest and most outstanding diplomats, has served as India’s representative to the UN. His first UN posting came in 1981 when as first secretary he was a member of India’s delegation to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Thereafter, he served as ambassador and India’s permanent representative (PR) to the UN in Geneva from March 2003 to January 2006. In 2009, he assumed office as India’s PR to the UN in New York, till his retirement in 2013. This period also coincided with India’s rotating term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, giving Puri a ‘ringside view’ of how decisions were made at the Council. He also presided over the Council in August 2011 and November 2012. This is significant given that those years saw the Security Council handle the Libyan and Syrian crises – a watershed moment not just for the Middle East but for big power play both internationally and therefore in the UN – which cast the Middle East in the mould we see it now, having serious ramifications for the rest of the world, including India. And this ringside view showed Puri that the Council decisions were actually reached elsewhere, and members were engaged in “shameless pursuit of narrowly defined interests” leading to counterproductive decisions resulting in the “politics of chaos” all of which he reveals in his new book ‘Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos’. In this interview with Aditi Bhaduri, Puri shares some of his views and reflections on the UN system, great power plays, the effectiveness of interventions and India’s role in UN reforms.
During all your years at the UN what struck you the most?
The one thing that struck me the most was that in spite of all its imperfections, if there was no UN, then we would need to invent it. At the very least, what multilateralism does is that it helps keep a check on unilateralism. You can have unilateralism when a country has both economic and political clout. So whoever has this clout would then use it. Multilateralism is also needed to keep in place the rule of law.
Multilateralism also has to be leveraged. In the dispute relating to the South China Sea, the international legal findings have gone against one country which says it does not accept the jurisdiction of The Hague tribunal. That is a worrying sign.
There is a tendency to underestimate the UN or rather the multilateral system. The UN is a place where 193 countries can resolve problems. It has done some fantastic work. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the ideal to strive for. Equally, on climate change, it has done very good work.
The UN may not suit you at certain times but it’s still a platform where countries can pursue issues relating to peace and security, human rights, and development.
But we have seen some frightening instances of unilateralism nevertheless.
As long as human beings exist there will be unilateralism. We have to keep evolving and learn how to keep working out newer mechanisms. But on its 70th anniversary, the UN has to be graded on this question – has the UN prevented a Third World War? After all, the UN was formed after the Second World War, precisely to save future generations from the scourge of war, and it has prevented a Third World War. There is also a counter-argument. A Third World War has been prevented because of the deterrence provided by nuclear weapons. We will never know for sure. The important thing is to be able to avoid an all-out world war. But it is an evolving process.
But in your book you write “If the [Security] Council is allowed to function as it presently does, it will bring further discredit to the cause of peace and security”.
Absolutely. You see all the wars taking place. What has the UN Security Council done? For instance, in the case of Libya, we authorised the use of “all means necessary” which means war. The authorisation included following elements – sanctions, no-fly zones, limited use of force, and to protect civilians as there was a scare that [Muammar] Gaddafi may attack Benghazi and there may be massacres. So, Benghazi could have been cordoned off. But see what happened instead. The US, UK and France used the Security Council resolution to immediately wage war, arm the rebels and topple Gaddafi. There was war and the US handed over [Abdel Hakim] Belhadj to Libya in a rendition case and he went on to become the head of the Tripoli militia.
So, of course, the Security Council has to be ‘effective’ which it is not now. All the permanent members see the world on their own terms and use it for their own purpose, for their narrowly defined interests. The cases of Libya and Syria show the ineffectiveness of the Council and the international community. And it also allowed other types of unilateralism like the war in Yemen, where no one cared to even refer the matter to the UNSC, which constitutes a severe indictment of the Council.
What struck one while reading your book is the nuanced approach you take. You are not against interventions per se but against perilous ones. So which interventions are okay? Who decides?
You cannot be against intervention if you are a civilised country. In Rwanda you had genocide – 8,00,000 people killed and the Clintons have it on their conscience. So intervention is necessary when there is a strong possibility of mass atrocities, not of human rights violations. So, in 1971, Bangladesh was a case of a successful and effective intervention.
However, intervention need not be military in nature. There are many non-military ways to intervene. And military intervention always has to be a last resort. You have to try diplomacy first and when that option is totally exhausted, then resorting to non-pacific means or the use of force can be contemplated. And of course it’s not individual states that decide when or how to intervene. It’s the UN Security Council that decides.
You are critical of both the US and UK but also of president Assad of Syria and Iran and the Libyans themselves in the case of Libya.
Bashar al-Assad has been bad news for Syria – someone who drops barrel bombs on his own people. But you can’t get rid of him in a regime change because that would have led to a massacre of the Alawites in Syria who comprise 12 percent of the population.
Of course in the case of Libya, the Libyan representatives to the UN defected to the other side and there was enormous pressure from the Arab League for intervention. But Arabs have always been divided. Most Arab leaders did not like Gaddafi and wanted his ouster. The Arab League had a demand – no boots on the ground. And the western countries wanted regime change. So a UNSC resolution was reached as a kind of compromise. The no-fly zones were imposed and it was used by NATO to topple Gaddafi.
Of course, many of the Gulf countries have had a long history of getting the Americans to do their dirty work. But because of what happened with Libya, when it came to Syria, both Russia and China took a firm position opposing any kind of action against Assad. Syria has seen massacres and almost four million displaced in the civil war which has been continuing for five years now.
So again the Security Council proved ineffective. It needs to adapt itself to the changing times, it needs to be effective and for that it needs reforms.
So what message lies at the heart of your book?
What lies at the heart of my book is the desire to inform and to mould opinion that such lunacy as we have seen [regarding Libya, and also to some extent Syria] will not be repeated. There was never going to be any kind of genocide in Libya, as the scaremongering suggested, and they should have allowed Gaddafi to run an essentially tribal society, and not arm the rebels. Both Libya and the world would have been safer today than they are now.
But you do agree the UN does need reforms; in fact they are long overdue.
The UN needs to be a more active contemporary organ. It has done a great job on climate change, for instance, but not on peace and security. The road to reforms is slow and tortuous. The only way it can be speeded up is to get some countries to say that enough is enough and actually submit a resolution calling for a vote on expansion.
But the G4 [Brazil, Germany, India, Japan] are not doing it because they are risk aversive. So reforms may perhaps come from the ashes of the present system as people realise it’s completely useless.
My book is not about UN reforms but reform is a central problem that has to be reflected upon.
You have indicted the role of media and think tanks in your book.
It was disgraceful [with regards to Libya]. And I do lash out at the New York Times in particular since it is a very influential publication. When intervention took place in 2011 in Libya it was hailed as a model which could be replicated in other places [like Syria] and now it is singing a different tune. So it had got it all wrong.
Western perceptions about developing countries, including often about India, are characterised by extreme simplicity. And from that flows flawed understanding and strong opinions. But the beauty of the Western press is that it is flexible.
But I also disapprove of the way our media functions – especially the electronic media where prime-time panel discussions are often only shouting matches.
In your book you referred to the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) mission to Syria in the early days of the civil war.
It was a good move. The IBSA grouping actually did a good job. Often, at that time – 2012 – a question that was raised was who could reach out to Syria. So countries that had no history of military interventions, especially in West Asia, could take that responsibility and IBSA was a natural choice. Naturally, the British and French were unhappy.
Deviating from your book, do you see the IBSA grouping having any future or has it been subsumed by the BRICS?
Brazil is pre-occupied with its internal problems. India appears to be showing less enthusiasm for ‘South-South’ relations. What will South Africa do alone?
Coming back to your book, you find India’s intervention in Sri Lanka to be a ‘perilous’ one too.
The IPKF [Indian Peace-Keeping Force] was sent at the request of the Sri Lankan government. The arming of rebels was undertaken by the government of Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi tried to correct it, and he had to pay for this with his life.
A related question regarding the neighbourhood: how do you view prime minister Narendra Modi raising the issue of Balochistan, beginning with his Independence Day speech?
What prime minister Modi is talking about on record is the human rights violations in Balochistan and this new element in India’s relationship with Pakistan comes after a phase of extreme exasperation with what Pakistan has been doing with India. People will say that it’s a tit-for-tat game. But the fact remains that the Indian state that was born in 1947 is a benign state, while Pakistan is not. It uses terror as an instrument of foreign policy which India does not. I believe the Baloch issue will be expensive for Pakistan but we have to see how the follow-up on this issue is carried through.
What do you make of the UNHRC call to India to allow fact-finders in Jammu and Kashmir?
I do not know what made Zeid [Ra’ad Al-Hussein], the high commissioner for human rights, make this statement. People sitting in Geneva or Paris have no idea of ground realities, of what is happening in Kashmir. I do respect Zeid, but he has no idea about Kashmir. Yes, we do have a problem in Kashmir and mistakes have been made. But we have the mechanisms to sit and talk with all the stakeholders and take corrective measures. We have 2,000 policemen lying injured in hospital. Where else in the world would you have such a situation? Zeid should realise this kind of statement actually helps terrorism; terrorists take away the most fundamental right – the right to life.
As someone who has served India abroad for long and helped build its foreign policy – its relations with the US, for instance – how do you assess Modi’s foreign policy?
The leitmotif of India’s foreign policy has always been ‘strategic autonomy’. Good relations with the US are imperative for our foreign policy. But I’m also a realist who knows that our relations will always be shaped by the countries’ own interests. The US is the largest power and seeking better relations with it is in our own interest, but we should not neglect our relations with Russia, which has also been our strategic partner for decades.
Under prime minister Modi the country’s foreign policy has been an active and robust policy but it’s evolving. The foreign policy of a great country like India has to be constantly in a process of evolution. As a big country we need to engage on our own terms with other powers like Russia, China and Iran as well.
After the Uri attack, India is resolutely working to isolate Pakistan diplomatically. How much do you think this can help India stop terror emanating from Pakistan?
The talk about India’s desire to isolate Pakistan seems somewhat misplaced, since Pakistan already stands internationally shamed. What India needs to drive home is that henceforth Pakistan will have to pay a price for irresponsible conduct, which can be extracted politically, economically, and militarily.
How difficult was it for you, as an Indian PR, to preside over the UNSC?
Not difficult at all. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Bhaduri’s Twitter handle is @aditijan