Middle East

UN Security Council middle powers' Arab Spring dilemma

South Africa's Jacob Zuma (centre) with Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a summit in Pretoria, 18 October 2011
Image caption Brazil, South Africa and India were uneasy about Nato intervention in Libya

The Arab revolts have led to highly publicised battles on the UN Security Council between Western nations, which broadly support policies of outside pressure, and Russia and China, which resist them in the name of defending a country's sovereignty.

But the split has also thrown a spotlight on the emerging middle powers known as Ibsa - India, Brazil and South Africa - all of which have seats on the Council this year and harbour ambitions to become permanent members.

As vibrant democracies with a declared commitment to championing human rights, they could have been expected to back the West's support for selective intervention.

In practice, though, they've mostly lined up with Russia and China in key debates over Libya and Syria, strengthening dismay about the Security Council's inability to respond in a unified way to the deepening crisis in Syria.

It is difficult to argue that Ibsa take a clear lead on any matter of foreign policy - they operate as an issues-based coalition rather than a formal alliance. But in the Council tumult over the past seven months, their positions have converged into a common opposition to outside interference in the Arab Spring.

Outside interference

That is no surprise to one long-time observer of the UN, who notes that the three have a history of strongly supporting human rights on generic issues, much less so when it comes to criticism of individual countries.

And, say diplomats, due to their own histories of resisting outside interference - whether the United States in Latin America, Britain in India, or European colonial ventures in Africa - Ibsa are wary of Western-led interventions.

This opposition was reinforced by what happened in Libya.

All three were uneasy about the use of international military operations to protect civilians there, arguing it would make a bad situation worse. Only South Africa voted for the UN resolution that authorised force as Muammar Gaddafi's troops massed outside the rebel-held city of Benghazi, saying it was needed to stop "another genocide" in Africa.

But Ibsa soon became convinced that Nato was abusing its mandate in Libya by backing the rebel campaign to pursue thinly disguised policies of regime change.

"Nato military operations played right into the tribal animosities which exist in Libya," says India's UN ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, calling NATO the "armed wing" of the Security Council. "I think in retrospect, we were right to have abstained."

Council rift

Mistrust of Western intentions became the prism through which the three countries approached negotiations on a resolution condemning the Syrian government's suppression of largely civilian protests.

Trying to win them over, Western nations watered down a strongly worded draft on sanctions until the text barely contained the threat of punitive measures, and declared that in this case a Libya-like intervention was not being considered.

Ibsa envoys, however, remained unconvinced, and all three abstained.

"The trajectory, the template for the solution (in Syria) was very clear, it was along similar lines to Libya," says South Africa's UN envoy, Baso Sangqu, who saw the resolution as a prelude to future action. The fact that Western capitals refused to rule out military intervention in Syria and were calling for President Bashar al-Assad to go, only deepened suspicion, he added.

Given the extent of concessions on the Syria draft, however, Western nations saw Ibsa's focus on regime change as an excuse.

"The rift on the Council is national sovereignty versus interference," says one Western diplomat.

Image caption India, Brazil and South Africa have abstained in the UN on Syria

"No, we do provide a third option," counters Brazil's ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti. "It's not a matter of protecting national sovereignty, it's a conviction that we should develop efforts to promote political solutions rather than going immediately into coercive measures."

By that she means diplomatic pressure for talks between the government and opposition, and support for regional peace initiatives.

That's why Ibsa were able to vote for a recent Security Council resolution on ending the violence in Yemen which backed a regional peace plan agreed between the government and some elements of the opposition.

And doubtless Ibsa would see the Arab League initiative to end violence and promote political negotiations - accepted by Damascus last week - as a vindication of their approach, if it works.

But if it does not, Ibsa will again face the dilemma of how to protect the human rights it claims to champion while opposing any form of intervention to defend them.

Whatever the legitimacy of concerns about Western-style interference, groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) say simply pressing for internal political solutions cannot work in situations of escalating violence.

"By abstaining on the UN resolution, Ibsa not only failed the Syrian people, but it also failed to offer a credible alternative path to end the bloodshed," Philippe Bolopion, HRW's United Nations director, told the BBC.

And for civilian Syrian protesters, Ibsa's approach has in practice meant supporting a repressive regime rather than those calling for democratic change. It has meant not a new voice on the Security Council speaking on their behalf, but the absence of one.

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