Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 November 2011
Issue No. 1071
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The bloc that dare not speak its name

Many hoped the so-called IBSA countries would bring a new voice to the Security Council. They haven't, writes Graham Usher at the United Nations

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"The silence of lambs" reads an anti-Syrian regime poster during a demonstration following Friday prayers in Cairo

The Arab Spring united its peoples around the slogan of democracy but it has split the United Nations Security Council on the issue of sovereignty. Whenever the Libya or Syria crises came before the world body, a rift opened between those states which sought intervention to "protect civilians" and those which opposed it to "protect states".

The divide in many ways was a holdover from the cold war. Russia and China historically viewed any outside interference as a violation of sovereignty. The US and other Western states -- particularly since the end of the Soviet Union -- have invoked "humanitarian" intervention to oust regimes they disliked.

Policy was always selective, by both sides. There were no US-led calls to protect civilians or even Russian-led cries to defend sovereignty when Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain or Israel bombarded Gaza. Still -- says a senior UN diplomat -- the basic Council cleavage regarding the Arab uprisings remains "sovereignty versus interference".

There had been hope this grim dichotomy could have been overcome by the so-called Middle Powers: regional democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) that forged their foreign policies in struggles against colonialism, neo-colonialism and apartheid. All three said they would bring a distinct "voice of the south" during their time on the council, particularly on issues to do with democracy and human rights.

In fact IBSA has been a "force for inertia", says the UN diplomat. If the three countries do have a common voice it is a shared fear that Western calls for intervention, especially when cloaked as a responsibility to protect civilians, mask neo-colonial agendas for the Arab region, say analysts.

IBSA is not an alliance, but a loose coalition that comes together on certain issues. Even on the Security Council it doesn't always vote as a bloc. On the UN resolution in March authorising military action in Libya, for instance, South Africa voted in favour while Brazil and India abstained. "We believed there was an imminent threat, and wanted to be on the side of stopping another genocide on the African continent," South Africa's UN Ambassador Baso Sangqu told the BBC.

But Pretoria made it clear that the mandate should be used only to protect civilians in Benghazi, he said. In the event the resolution was hijacked by NATO to bombard the Gaddafi regime, arm the rebels and effectively allow Western powers to weigh in on one side in a civil war.

Suspicion of Western motives -- born of the Libya experience -- lay behind IBSA's decision to abstain on a council's resolution in October condemning Syria's violent suppression of mass protest. Russia and China vetoed the resolution and the text carried no calls for intervention or sanctions. Yet IBSA sat on its hands convinced the West's real goal was regime change in Damascus no less than it had been in Tripoli.

It "was not in the resolution but in the intention", said Sangqu. The US and European Union countries had already agreed national policies to remove Bashar Al-Assad. So "there was already a strong indication that if [Syria] doesn't do this, then we'll have sanctions“ê¶ And we're going to see an escalation along the trajectory or template of the resolution of the Libyan issue," he told the BBC.

The only time IBSA has voted positively on an Arab issue has been on a resolution calling for an end to the violence in Yemen. But it was an exception that proved the rule. IBSA voted in favour because the text had government-opposition approval; was based on a Gulf Cooperation Council plan; and carried no threat of outside force. "There was a clear understanding that the only solution to the Yemeni crisis is through a political process," Brazil's UN Ambassador Maria Luisa Viotti told the BBC.

IBSA's diplomatic reserve has dismayed Arab opposition movements fighting dictatorships. It has piqued human rights groups. While understanding IBSA's scepticism of Western agendas in the Arab Spring, its case has been compromised by the failure to "provide a credible alternative to the dominance of the North", especially on the issues of human rights, says Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

IBSA's position of advocating human rights in theory while backing sovereignty in practice may not be sustainable much longer, as the mass civil protests that began the Arab uprisings mutate increasingly into armed insurgencies.

Take Syria. Turkey is currently hosting mutinous brigades of the Syrian army; the Arab League has called on Damascus to "take the necessary measures" to protect civilians; and the opposition is openly calling for international intervention, including via a no-fly zone. Against this Bashar Al-Assad is warning that any foreign interference would create not another Libya but "another Afghanistan".

The space is fast vanishing that would allow IBSA to become a "third way, third option, third path" between such scenarios. Rather, if it is to be the "voice of the south", it will have to say where it stands.

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