How the crisis in Libya broke the fragile consensus among the permanent members of the UNSC
This slim, highly substantive, handsomely-produced book draws on the experience of Hardeep Singh Puri as India’s representative at the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2011-2012. It details the unravelling of mutual accommodation among the five permanent members of the Council (P5: France, Russia, China, the UK and the USA), each with veto power, on issues of forcible intervention in the Middle East, in the wake of regime change in Libya in 2011. With a bird’s eye view on this significant geo-strategic train-wreck, and a role in the action, albeit, a frustrating one, as the little-heeded representative of a major emerging power, Puri pulls the reader into the plot from the very outset of this fast-moving drama.
Puri, whose term in New York marked the culmination of a long and distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service, is unsentimental as a chronicler of great power follies but angry over the wreckage produced. His distress, palpable on every page, derives from the inability of non-permanent members of the Council elected for two-year terms to make much of a difference during the drift to disaster. India, in his telling, at least “played a key role in trying to warn against the consequences of… attempts at regime change in Libya and Syria”. Had India been a permanent member, it could well have made a major difference, along with other, at least somewhat like-minded, permanent membership aspirants Brazil and South Africa, with which it overlapped in the Council.
For those inclined to cast him as all bluster and outrage, during his career, Puri displayed multifaceted leanings. For example, during his time leading India’s representation at the UN in Geneva, 2002-2005, he made himself actively helpful to the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Indeed, his various chapters consistently translate into visceral contempt for dictators prepared to sacrifice every last one of their compatriots to secure their own power.
The book provides important reading for policymakers and scholars in the field of international relations. Its considerable value falls under the category of “first draft of history”, somewhat handicapped as it is by what we do not yet know relative to the continuing crises in Syria and Libya and disputes over Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
It is now clear that the post-Cold War dividend to international diplomacy ended rapidly, with tensions over Iraq escalating only three years after the consensus achieved in 1990-91 over Iraq’s UNSC-authorised expulsion from Kuwait, which Saddam Hussein had rashly annexed. Nevertheless, the P5 were, by and large, able to maintain unity on most major international crises until 2011-2012 — Iraq and briefly Kosovo being the major exceptions — in part, through careful wordsmithing, and, in part, because they shared an overall appreciation of most of these situations. But Libya broke the increasingly fragile vessel of consensus. Why?
All Council members, to varying degrees, saw the erratic, and often murderous, Libyan dictator since 1969, Muammar Gaddafi, as dangerous and likely to act on his threat to physically annihilate his opponents in Benghazi. Thus, they were, with some difficulty, able to agree (assertively or by abstaining on the key vote, as did India along with Brazil, China, Germany and Russia) on air power measures to protect the civilian population there.
But NATO capitals, picking up this mandate and having effectively protected Benghazi, then developed or simply revealed the objective of forcing Gaddafi from power through sustained air attacks of the capital, Tripoli, and other strongholds of the regime, and through the presence of a still unknown number of ground advisors. This situation drifted until Gaddafi, who had weeks earlier fled Tripoli, was killed on October 20, 2011, by Libyans after the convoy in which he was attempting to escape Sirte was immobilised by NATO aircraft. It was this killing of a recent, arguably still legitimate, head of state that shocked China and Russia and sobered up Washington, Paris and London. Within days, the Council’s authorisation of the use of force in Libya was ended.
The NATO overreach in implementing the limited mandate the Council had granted for protection of Libyan civilians represented a mistake pregnant with consequence. The ability of the P5 to cobble together common positions on Syria, which, meanwhile, had exploded into violence against its own dictatorial regime, was now destroyed, with catastrophic consequences for that country and nearly all of its citizens.
Puri’s lucid narrative, driven by his conviction that the introduction of international force into internal political crises mostly produces horrendous results, may underplay the continuing interest of the P5 in papering over their differences beyond the Syria file. They united on the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, seem to be edging towards a modus vivendi on the Ukraine crisis, and, generally, agree on Africa’s multiple security challenges, in dialogue with the African Union.
They share an interest in maintaining their exclusive condominium in the Council, much to the frustration of India, which has emerged as the most geo-strategically and economically compelling of the candidates for a permanent seat. Will a closer relationship with Washington yield active American help in securing that prize, somehow winning over China, soon? Few would bet on it.
While mildly embarrassed by the UN’s incapacity to do more to assist Syrians than provide inadequately funded humanitarian relief to some within the country and many beyond it, the global diplomatic dance, to the tune of a dissonant score, will likely continue to hobble along for some time while China adjusts to its precipitous rise, Washington to its still preeminent but eroding geo-strategic weight, Russia to the tensions between its increasingly assertive foreign policy and its feeble economic base and European powers to domestic political upheavals triggered by fears over refugee flows exacerbated by widespread economic stagnation.
Thus, India may need to compromise in order to improve its access to the Council, likely at first by securing a formula for longer terms as an increasingly present and hence un-ignorable elected member, with its long-range objective of a permanent seat still intact.
David M Malone is a former Canadian envoy to India and the UN. He is Rector of the UN University, Tokyo, and Under-Secretary General of the UN. He remains a keen student of the UN Security Council and Indian foreign policy