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The centrality of the UN to the world order is in fact more rhetoric than reality. I happened to be present at the Security Council (SC) on ...

The centrality of the UN to the world order is in fact more rhetoric than reality. I happened to be present at the Security Council (SC) on behalf of India on November 8 2002 when the now (in)famous UNSC Resolution 1441 was passed. The draft resolution sponsored by the US and the UK ominously stated that Iraq was to be given a “final opportunity” to comply with its disarmament obligations or face “serious consequences”. Fifteen hands went up in unison from the representatives of permanent and non-permanent members and a gong was sounded to indicate the unanimous passage of the resolution. Even Syria, the only Arab country on the UNSC, supported the resolution.

After the weapons inspectors’ reports were submitted to the UN the apparent consensus dissolved as sharp differences of opinion on the necessity and legitimacy of war emerged. The “coalition of the willing” went on the warpath as the Bush administration dropped even the pretense of taking the UN seriously, even as Tony Blair went on weakly insisting about the desirability of a second UNSC resolution authorising war. This episode is only the latest reminder that any real strengthening of the UN depends on long overdue reforms, especially the restructuring of the SC.

President Kalam has said that he favours the abolition of veto rights. Incidentally, the report of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs titled ‘India’s Role In The United Nations With Particular Reference To Her Claim For Permanent Membership Of The Security Council’, placed before Parliament in August 2000, stated that of the many aspects involved in restructuring the SC “abolition of veto-power” was one of the most important. Veto-wielding permanent membership came about to ensure that no decision was taken against the wishes of a major military power, which might lead to war. The victors in 1945 were the US, the Soviet Union and Britain. France was added as an ally. As President Roosevelt insisted the SC should not be a white man’s club, China got admission as the fifth permanent member.

But the world of 1945 no longer exists. Indians listened with great interest Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efforts in his address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday to put forward India’s claim for permanent membership of the UNSC. It is pertinent to recall that India had, in a sense, missed an opportunity way back in 1955. The US in the ’50s regarded communist China as a threat, and had proposed at the tenth anniversary of the UN in San Francisco that India should have permanent membership of the SC in place of China. China would remain in the UN but not on the Security Council. Prime Minister Nehru declined to accept this “as it means falling out with China”. He wrote in a letter to chief ministers: “India is not anxious to enter the Security Council at this stage even though as a great country she ought to be there.”

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That was a considered position based on both idealism and realpolitik. Fifty years later, India has by any reasonable criterion a strong moral and substantive claim — as the world’s second most populous country, as its largest and most diverse democratic nation and as one of its potentially most dynamic economies. Tony Blair is right. The Security Council of the early 21st century looks both archaic and incomplete without India.

India officially announced its candidature for permanent membership of the UNSC in the 49th General Assembly in 1994. We have reiterated our candidature in subsequent sessions. We have been told repeatedly by all and sundry that India is a “natural choice” for membership. Now we have concrete assurances of support from Russia, France and Britain. Will China remember that we declined the offer in 1955 in their favour? Germany, Japan, India and Brazil have formed a G-4 group and pledged to support each other’s claim for permanent membership. On the other hand, major obstacles remain. It seems that Pakistan has formed a ‘‘coffee club’’ with Indonesia, Malaysia and others with the express purpose of belittling India’s claim. The key factor is once again the US, which is at best lukewarm to our claim and will not do anything to alienate its ally in the “war on terror”.

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes into his own on the international stage, a heavy burden rests on him and on our professional diplomats. India belongs in the SC. But we too need to show audacity and a forward-looking vision to clear the roadblocks, especially Kashmir.


The writer had chaired the standing committee on external affairs from 1999 to 2004

First published on: 25-09-2004 at 12:00:00 am
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