Maldives crisis: Given India's adherence to international law, military intervention presents lose-lose scenario

The crisis in the tiny Indian Ocean republic of the Maldives continues to escalate. The latest developments being the declaration of a state of emergency by the country's president Abdulla Yameen which was followed by the arrest of two of the judges of the Supreme Court. The declaration of emergency is unique in the sense that it suspends articles in the Maldivian Constitution that give the Supreme Court its jurisdiction effectively suspending human rights and the rule of law in the country.

While ordinarily, India is not actively concerned about such developments in another country, the Maldives falls under what India ordinarily considers her geopolitical sphere of influence. The Maldivian Opposition Leader and its first democratically elected President tweeted calling for an Indian Envoy to intervene with a physical military presence in the country in order to restore the rule of law:

This is not without precedent because, in 1988, India did send a contingent of paratroopers to help the then Maldivian government survive a coup d'etat. We know it as Operation Cactus.

However, this time the circumstances are quite different. Yameen who is at the centre of this current crisis has been engaged in a long drawn-out courtship with both the Chinese and the Saudi Arabians. In fact, apart from Pakistan, the Maldives is the only other South Asian country to have signed a free trade agreement with the Chinese. An agreement that has been seen by some to be an open snub at India.

Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PIB

Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PIB

This makes the situation in the Maldives complicated. In the midst of the global power struggle between India and China, the recent crisis in the Maldives means the country is in play and therefore, any overtures that the Government of India makes right now will be very crucial in determining not just its future relationship with the Maldives but will also have external ramifications on its broader foreign policy objectives.

Indian foreign policy has been undergirded by a fundamental principle. This principle is that India believes in International Law and a rules-based order when it comes to international relations. Currently, International Law prohibits unilateral military intervention into the affairs of other nations except in self-defence.

There is a certain amount of ambiguity about whether an intervention would be permissible in order to avoid a humanitarian crisis from escalating, but there appears to be no humanitarian crisis right now in the Maldives.

An intervention to remedy a breach of human rights though is something that is not permissible under International Law. If this were the case, then it would become legal to invade countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia as they are notorious for violating the human rights of their citizens. International Law is yet to arrive at the point where "preserving democracy" is grounds for intervening in another country.

This is something India ought to consider before it considers military options in the Maldives. It has already placed its forces on standby, but it has not issued orders yet. India's case against China on the international stage is founded on International Law.

The dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, its right to defend Bhutanese interests in Doka La and the Aksai Chin disputes all hinge on demanding that the Chinese abide by International Law and respect concluded treaties.

India's dispute with Pakistan calls upon them to abide by the terms of the Shimla Agreement and respect the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In fact, India is currently in litigation before the ICJ seeking to enforce International Law when it concerns the case of Kulbushan Jadhav.

India's view of the South China Sea situation also similarly calls upon the Chinese to abide by International Law and to respect the law of the sea. The need to maintain a harmonious stance when it concerns International Law cannot be understated and India should resist overtures to unilaterally intervene in the Maldives.

However, this does not mean that India is out of options when it concerns the Maldives. India always has sanctions at its disposal. India is free to impose unilateral sanctions on the Maldives to favourably resolve the situation.

India may also take the dispute to and lobby the UN Security Council. While China can always exercise the veto, India can take the route the US did with its invasion of Iraq.

Attempting a bypass of the UNSC through a legal justification that involves no longer recognising Yameen's government as the legitimate Government in the Maldives. This can only be done though after India manages to establish a complete failure of diplomacy and manages to build an international consensus or at least a broad diplomatic coalition against Yameen.

Then it may choose to recognise the Opposition as a legitimate Government and provide some form of legal cover for an intervention and term it as restoring Nasheed to power in the Maldives. This may save India's moral high ground in international affairs should a military solution be required to resolve the present crisis. But an outright show of military strength will only weaken India's hand as far as the Chinese and the Pakistanis are concerned. The Government of India needs to approach this situation tactfully and must avoid bowing down to popular sentiment.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 16:32 PM

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