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How Syria is Splitting Russia and China From the Developing World
Ted Piccone and Emily Alinikoff
The Atlantic
20 February 2012
 
The Security Council's recent failure to condemn Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown in Syria after months of attacks against unarmed civilians would suggest the case is hopeless. (…) The stalemate raises perennial questions about the international community's ability to respond to crises, the legitimacy of the veto power and the doctrine of responsibility to protect that underpinned intervention in Libya. The Syria vote, however, may have strengthened what appears to be an increasingly common view among the world’s emerging democracies: dictators determined to stay in power at any cost are no longer tolerable.
 
The double veto has made international action in Syria all the more difficult. But it also shows that Russia and China are increasingly isolating themselves from a widening consensus that human-rights violations demand an international response. In one corner, established and newer democracies, more attuned to their voters at home, are under pressure to support movements for universal rights. In the opposite corner, China and Russia are silencing domestic dissent at home while trying to prop up comparable autocrats abroad. This divide became abundantly clear when India and South Africa disassociated themselves from their usual affiliates (BRICS) to support the Security Council resolution on Syria. Brazil likely would have joined its democratic cohorts if it were still on the council.
 
Rising Great Powers?
 
Rising democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa, along with their counterparts Turkey and Indonesia, are beginning to stand up for human rights in ways that may reshape the international system. India, Brazil and South Africa already self-identify as IBSA, explicitly invoking their democratic identity to differentiate themselves from Russia and China. Adding Turkey and Indonesia--large Muslim-majority democracies--to the group we call IBSATI would further distinguish these states as examples of developing democracies that, unlike Russia and China, have made remarkable economic progress while also expanding the rights of their citizens.
 
Cooperation with IBSATI and other like-minded democracies, however, requires some skillful diplomacy. We know from their response to the Arab Spring and other democratic transitions that the IBSATI powers share several characteristics when it comes to supporting political reforms in their respective regions and beyond. All five have made unequivocal commitments to democratic and human-rights standards both as a goal of national development and as a principle of their foreign policies. This shared starting point offers an opportunity to find common ground with each other and with more established democracies.
 
A wide gap exists, however, regarding the preferred methods of international action in this arena. The IBSATI states have a strong preference for softer tools of international intervention: what they call constructive engagement, mediation, quiet diplomacy and dialogue. In contrast, the established democracies are quicker to pursue condemnation, sanctions and even military action in extreme cases such as Libya and Cote d'Ivoire.
 
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All five of these states are intensely focused on carving out influence in their own regions and on playing influential roles in regional organizations. They also increasingly insist on deference to regional institutions as the gatekeepers to wider international intervention in political crises, a position that has the dual benefit, in their view, of limiting Western involvement and reinforcing their own roles as leaders in their respective regions. In a surprising twist, the Arab League endorsed NATO intervention in Libya and is leading the call for UN action on Syria, thereby helping to persuade IBSATI states to go along with a more muscular intervention to protect civilians. In the most recent Syria vote, India and South Africa both cited the Arab League's sponsorship of the resolution as important to their support. Turkey has also made its mark by loudly condemning Assad's barbarous acts and thus burnished its own leadership in the Arab world.
 
Human Rights Resurgent
 
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Rising and established democracies will consistently and publicly clash over preferred methods for protecting human rights. As displayed at the Security Council vote on Syria, however, there is room for cooperation--especially if the relevant regional powers are on board and respect for territorial integrity is explicit.
 
Russia and China's veto of the Syria resolution made them look like heartless autocrats, under siege at home and fearful of establishing any further role for the international community acting against internal repression. India and South Africa, on the other hand, used the language of human rights: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the restoration of individual dignity.
 
Though the international community so far has failed to act in Syria, the popularity of democratic norms among rising democratic powers signals a potentially powerful geopolitical shift in favor of human rights. Western powers would be wise to bring these emerging democratic powers into the fold by incorporating their concerns and getting serious about UN reform. Cooperation with them will not be easy, given their historical skepticism of Western powers and preference for mediated compromises and regional authority. But their common commitment to democratic behavior suggests that they may become close partners with the West, particularly when it comes to defending human rights.
 
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