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Explained: India at the United Nations high table

India is back as a non-permanent member on the United Nations Security Council. A look at its seven previous terms, and what its agenda will be amid events concerning China, Pakistan and the US

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: January 14, 2021 12:19:35 pm
Hardeep Singh Puri, then India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, during India's last stint in the UNSC during 2011-12. (Twitter/@MEAIndia)

At a time when the US is going through a chaotic transition in leadership, China is hoping to become the pre-eminent global power, and Pakistan is trying to rake up Kashmir and the human rights situation in India, India has entered the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member this month. It will stay on the council for two years.

India at UNSC

India has served in the UN Security Council seven times previously.

* In 1950-51, India, as President of UNSC, presided over the adoption of resolutions calling for cessation of hostilities during the Korean War and for assistance to Republic of Korea.

* In 1967-68, India co-sponsored Resolution 238 extending mandate of UN mission in Cyprus.

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* In 1972-73, India pushed strongly for admission of Bangladesh into UN. The resolution was not adopted because of a veto by a permanent member.

* In 1977-78, India was a strong voice for Africa in the UNSC and spoke against apartheid. Then External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke in UNSC for Namibia’s independence in 1978.

* In 1984-85, India was a leading voice in UNSC for resolution of conflicts in the Middle East, especially Palestine and Lebanon.

* In 1991-92, PM P V Narasimha Rao participated in the first ever summit-level meeting of the UNSC and spoke on its role in maintenance of peace and security.

* In 2011-2012, India was a strong vice for developing world, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and Africa. First statement on Syria was during India’s Presidency at the UNSC.

During the 2011-12 term, India chaired the UNSC 1373 Committee concerning Counter-Terrorism, the 1566 Working Group concerning threat to international peace and security by terrorist acts, and Security Council 751/1907 Committee concerning Somalia and Eritrea.

India played an active role in discussions on all issues related to international peace and security, including several new challenges which the UNSC was called upon to deal with in Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. In view of the threat posed to international trade and security by piracy off the coast of Somalia, India promoted international cooperation against the pirates.

At India’s initiative, the Security Council mandated international cooperation for release of hostages taken by pirates as well as for prosecution of those taking hostages and those aiding and abetting these acts.

India also worked for enhancing international cooperation in counter-terrorism, prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors, and the strengthening of UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.

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Politics within UNSC

The seven previous terms have given Indian diplomats the experience of how diplomacy is conducted at the multilateral setting.

Chinmaya R Gharekhan, India’s Permanent Representative at the UN during the 1991-1992 UNSC stint, wrote in his book The Horseshoe Table that the five permanent members would like the non-permanent members to be “cooperative”, and no stand in the way of major resolutions.

Most non-permanent members get influenced by the P-5 members, Gharekhan wrote. “They did not wish to irritate the permanent members, and were keen to be perceived by them as ‘cooperative’. This was precisely how the permanent members would like the non-permanent members to behave. The Indians took their work more seriously, and consequently had to fight a lonely battle.”

This was the time when the Gulf War erupted and India voted in favour of the US-sponsored resolution in April 1991.

“India’s vote was dictated by pragmatic considerations. The Americans had made it clear to India, in Washington as well as in New Delhi, that failure to support the resolution would make it very difficult for them to help India in the World Bank and the IMF,” Gharekhan wrote. India was going through a severe balance-of-payment crisis, and needed funds from these organisations. Also, India needed the US on its side, if and when the Kashmir issue came up.

Twenty years later, when India again became a non-permanent member at the UNSC, it was stronger economically but still had to negotiate politics within the Council.

India’s then Permanent Representative, Hardeep Singh Puri (now Union Minister of Civil Aviation and Housing) wrote in Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos: “Most professional diplomats shed their innocence before they arrive at the horse-shoe table around which the Security Council meets. In the real world of foreign and security policy, decision makers are invariably confronted by cruel choices that are equally problematic and come in various shades of lousy. Practitioners are acutely conscious that it is only diplomacy’s outward packaging that is couched in a commitment to a higher moral purpose. The shameless pursuit of narrowly defined interests is most often the motivation and seldom raises eyebrows in the world of multilateral diplomacy.”

Issues before India

UN REFORMS: New Delhi has said it is essential that the Security Council is expanded in both the permanent and non-permanent categories. It says India is eminently suited for permanent UNSC membership by any objective criteria, such as population, territorial size, GDP, economic potential, civilisational legacy, cultural diversity, political system and past and ongoing contributions to UN activities — especially to UN peacekeeping operations.

TERRORISM: The international effort against terrorism is a key priority for India in the UN. With the objective of providing a comprehensive legal framework to combat terrorism, India took the initiative to pilot a draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in 1996. A text of the Convention is being negotiated in the 6th Committee of the UN General Assembly.

India worked closely with its partners in the UNSC to ensure the listing of Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar under the UNSC’s 1267 Sanctions Committee (May 2019) concerning al-Qaida and ISIS and associated individuals and entities, which was pending since 2009.

The China challenge

India is entering the UNSC at a time when Beijing is asserting itself at the global stage much more vigorously than ever. It heads at least six UN organisations — and has challenged the global rules.

China’s aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific as well as the India-China border has been visible in all of 2020, and New Delhi will have to think on its feet to counter Beijing.

At Pakistan’s behest, China has tried to raise the issue of Kashmir at the UNSC — but has not found much support. There is some discussion among the strategic community in New Delhi on raising the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet at the UNSC. New Delhi will weigh the pros and cons with partners on what steps to take in this direction.

But, the polarising politics inside India gives a window of opportunity to its rivals, and opens up the possibility of criticism — especially on human rights issues.

As New Delhi engages with allies and plays its cards at the UNSC, it will be mindful of veteran diplomat Gharekhan’s advice about the Security Council in his book: “Nothing remains secret in this leakiest of all organisations.”

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