The Arab yearning for democracy that burst forth last spring has not only toppled entrenched autocratic rulers, but also presented democracies with an embarrassing dilemma. Arab Spring has held up a discomforting mirror especially to developing countries that pride themselves for being democracies. Three major democracies - India, Brazil and South Africa, known as IBSA - by abstaining on a censure-Syria motion last week have yet again shown in practice that they do not side with aspiring democrats in the developing world. The stronger a country becomes the less disposed it may be to support principles it does not need for protection any more - and some of its oppressed citizens may invoke.
Exactly one year ago, in his UN General Assembly address, President Barack Obama pointedly appealed to newly democratic countries "don't stand idly by, don't be silent." He reminded them that "When dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten, recall your own history, because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others."
India, Brazil and South Africa had almost the opposite reaction. With Muammar Gaddafi's forces about to launch a massacre in Ben Ghazi, the UN Security Council, passed a resolution authorizing all necessary measures to protect Libyan civilians. India and Brazil joined authoritarian China and Russia to abstain. South Africa voted for it, only to reverse itself.
While Syrian demonstrators were victims of ferocious crackdowns, the BRICS refused any resolution. In August, while India was presiding over the UN Security Council, a delegation comprising of three officials from Brazil, South Africa and India went to Damascus and literally endorsed the official stand of Bassar al-Assad, as presented by the Syrian deputy foreign minister in New Delhi a few weeks earlier, urging India not to be misled by "Western propaganda."
In a recent public lecture the Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon justified his country's policy: "Do we not have a responsibility to spread democracy and fight for our values abroad? Yes and no." He offered caveats: "Yes, if we have the means to actually ensure that we are able to spread them. And yes if having democrats as our neighbours contributes to the peaceful periphery that we need." But he argued that "a people cannot be forced to be free or to practice democracy." He then took an ill-disguised shot at the West "We have seen how high sounding phrases like the "right to protect" are selectively invoked and brutally applied in the pursuit of self-interest, giving humanitarian and international intervention a bad name."
While the insensitivity to struggles for human rights is understandable from China and Russia, it is puzzling in the case of democracies like South Africa, which gained freedom from oppression in part due to external interventions. The foreign-affairs ministers of India, Brazil and South Africa meet every year since 2003, and claim to represent the largest democracies of the three largest continents. And they justify their coming together by the need to "democratize" the international system by giving a voice to those who've been excluded so far.
Much at stake here because if these three countries join hands with Russia and China against democracy promotion, the future of value systems, the most widely admitted terms of reference since 1945, may be in jeopardy.
The situation may not be so tragic for three reasons:
First, cynicism in international politics is nothing new. The West has supported autocratic regimes when it suited its interests. The list is huge, from Pinochet's Chile to Zia's Pakistan. The emerging countries are doing the same. They promote democracy when it suits them. India refrains from helping Aung San Suu Kyi to access Burmese gas, but helps the Afghan democracy against Pakistan. South Africa does not support Mugabe's unionist opponents, probably lest victory in Zimbabwe could lead to its own trade unions splitting from an alliance with the African National Congress; but Pretoria is prepared to intervene in Ivory Coast to lessen French influence. Brazil does not recognize the government that emerged from free elections in Honduras and abstains from raising issues of democracy and human rights in Nicaragua. But western countries have behaved similarly before.