As global power has shifted away from the West, the emerging order has come to be identified with the BRICS -- an unofficial geopolitical bloc consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. But the BRICS are equally divided between autocratic and democratic states. The growing reach of powerful autocracies is nothing to celebrate, but the rise of stable and increasingly prosperous democracies in the developing world -- India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia, among others -- has been the single most encouraging phenomenon in the world over the last generation. Those first three countries, in fact, have established an informal bloc known as IBSA. This, too, should be a profoundly welcome development. But it hasn't been, at least in Western capitals. In global affairs, it turns out, emerging democracies often behave a lot like Third World autocracies. And IBSA is turning out to be not so very different from the BRICS.
In a fascinating real-world laboratory experiment, all three IBSA countries served on the United Nations Security Council in 2011; India and South Africa remain on the council this year. All three were thus forced to take a position during the hugely contentious debates on military intervention in Libya and political intervention in Syria. The result has not been edifying, at least from the viewpoint of Arab and Western publics. India and Brazil abstained from Resolution 1973 authorizing the NATO operation in Libya, and all three refused to vote for a draft resolution last October condemning the "grave and systematic human rights violations" committed by Syrian security forces against civilians. India and South Africa did, however, vote for a similar resolution this February, which Russia and China -- the other BRICS members on the council this year -- vetoed.
This week, I met with Hardeep Singh Puri, India's ambassador to the United Nations. For those who knew his predecessor, Nirupam Sen, a hard-left Bengali Brahmin prone to delivering windy and condescending lectures before gumming up the works of the day's debate, Puri, a blunt and hard-headed Sikh, constitutes a very welcome change in the diplomatic weather. But diplomats and human rights experts say that, throughout 2011, India sought to block efforts by the United States, France, and Britain to raise Syria's growing assault on civilians in the Security Council, provoking some very ill will. "They were," says a diplomat from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, "obstructive and not helpful."
When I asked Puri why he had declined to endorse the resolution last October, he pointed out that as president of the Security Council a few months earlier, he had written a "presidential statement" with almost identical language. He was making an active effort to stop the violence, he said. But the October resolution was unacceptable because it referred to Article 41 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of sanctions and other coercive measures. It sounded like a flimsy rationale because the measure made only passing reference to Article 41. More to the point, India, like Russia, took the position that the council had no business trying to coerce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by any means at all to stop the killing. In the official explanation of his vote, Puri said, "While the right of people to protest peacefully is to be respected, states cannot but take appropriate action when militant groups, heavily armed, resort to violence against state authority and infrastructure."
I was aghast when I ran across this statement, which parroted Damascus's own grossly cynical line. I asked Puri whether he still believed that, to which he said, "If the protests are peaceful, why would you want to use weapons against them?" Syrian forces would never fire on unarmed protesters. This was the kind of language Chinese diplomats used to deploy to explain their defense of Khartoum during Security Council debates over Darfur. Had India adopted China's skewed view of international human rights law?