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JOHANNESBURG, Apr 7 2011 (IPS) - Interestingly, the website of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization proudly proclaims “NATO Allies decided on March 27 to take on the whole military operation in Libya under UN Security Council Resolution 1973.” This sole claim of ownership over a UN-sponsored mandate by a military alliance is indeed worrying and begs the question whether international precedents are being established here to conflate a multi-lateral UN force with a NATO force.

When Gaddafi’s military unleashed disproportionate force against what appeared to be hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned pro-democracy supporters, a number of civil society and independent observers urged the international community to step in to prevent further crimes against humanity. What many hoped would be an across-the-board humanitarian intervention by a multi-lateral UN force to protect civilian lives has somehow ended up becoming a military operation run by a “coalition of the willing”, some of whose constituents are themselves blamed for causing large numbers of civilian deaths in military operations elsewhere.

The sad state of current international geo-politics can be seen in a number of ironies: the French air force targeting Libyan jet fighters produced and sold by France; the US government’s selective urgency in taking action to protect civilian lives in Libya and not in Cote d’Ivoire; and the British prime minister’s trip to Kuwait with arms manufacturers just after a successful revolution by largely peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Egypt.

Most notably, the five permanent and veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council whose responsibility under the UN Charter is to maintain international peace and security accounted for three quarters of global arms sales, which fuelled deadly armed conflicts between 2002-2009. Further proof of this moral ambivalence emerges from the fact that three of these major arms suppliers – the US, UK and France- also position themselves as staunch champions of democracy and freedom across the world.

The nature and extent of the support for these values in regional and national contexts is of course tempered by the trade and geopolitical interests of this “pro-democracy” trio within the Security Council. But, despite the conditional championing of these values -and the arms sales- the US, UK, and France do fund and provide substantial technical assistance to myriad civil society initiatives advancing human and democratic rights around the world. This provides a veneer of legitimacy to their moral posturing on human rights as well as a smokescreen for some less charitable actions to further strategic interests.

Given this state of affairs, the need for the emergence of alternate and principled centres of power that own the global human rights agenda, particularly amongst nations of the global south – where most struggles are being waged- is acute.

In the second half of the twentieth century when struggles against colonial domination and the hegemony of the principal power blocks were being waged, initiatives such as the Bandung Conference and the formation of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) provided a ray of hope that some governments even though they were not strong military powers at the time were willing to challenge the domination of a few over many. In fact, key constituents of NAM played a vital role in catalysing diplomatic action at global multi-lateral forums to support Afro-Asian struggles against racial oppression.

Unfortunately, the passage of time has taken its toll on NAM, which has become large and unwieldy. Some of its members have also earned reputations as “human rights spoilers” at the UN in addition to being complicit in large-scale rights violations. The failings of NAM have created a large vacuum for principled and vocal leadership to advance democratic rights in the global south as well as to counterbalance the moral hegemony and selective promotion of human rights abroad by major western powers.

At present, no grouping of major powers is better placed to fill this role than the India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) trilateral. Established in 2003, IBSA prides itself in being a meeting of minds of three multi-ethnic and multi-cultural democracies determined to contribute to the construction of a new international architecture. However, while IBSA has enormous potential to do good in a constantly changing and increasingly multipolar world and to entrench and deepen the protection of human and democratic rights globally, its constituents have some ground to cover to enhance their legitimacy to advance these values. Moreover, IBSA’s potential to do good hinges on a few factors:

First, the political leadership of these three countries needs to be confident in the knowledge that despite the imperfect enjoyment of human rights by their own citizens, substantial progress has been made in their domestic environments. Nevertheless, the need to practice at home what one preaches abroad cannot be overemphasised.

Second, there must be a willingness to discard diplomatic niceties and call a spade a spade at bilateral and multilateral forums when gross abuses of human rights are committed. This will require a spring cleaning of current diplomatic doctrines and relationships. Lest they be accused of the same hypocrisy in international affairs that the established powers have become accustomed to practising, South Africa will need to reassess its relationship with Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe, Brazil will need to reconsider its future support of Iran at the UN, and India will need to speak out against the military junta committing crimes against humanity on its doorstep in Myanmar.

Third, there needs to be an acknowledgement that IBSA has much to offer to in terms of south-south cooperation by helping to put in place democratic institutions and stable structures across the developing world. For this, the governments of India, Brazil and South Africa need to devote far more resources and energy to building up their international development agencies. The three countries already have strong and vibrant civil societies which can lead the way in strengthening people-to-people contacts across the developing world and sharing experiences on building and sustaining a democratic culture.

Finally, there needs to be recognition that the days of absolute dictators and authoritarian heads of government are coming to an end, and it is in a country’s long-term interest to be on the right side of history. The question is whether Messrs Singh, Rousseff and Zuma are willing to play a part in scripting it. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Mandeep S.Tiwana is Policy Manager, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

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