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Failing to take the lead

India’s probable abstention from UN negotiations for nuclear disarmament would be a lost chance

oped-759 India, with its stork-like neck buried firmly in the ground, failed to participate in any of the sessions of the OEWG. (Illustration by C R  Sasikumar)

Late tonight or in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly is going to take a vote on a resolution, numbered L.41, co-sponsored by some 60 countries worldwide, seeking UN approval to start negotiations early next year on the prohibition on nuclear weapons.

Indications are that India will abstain, thus denying itself an historic opportunity to resume a leadership position in the campaign for disarmament that was the raison d’etre of the UN, which is why the First Committee was established to deal exclusively with disarmament affairs.

Moreover, the first resolution passed at the first session of the General Assembly in January 1946, months after the first use of nuclear weapons, and moved — ironically enough — by the US delegation, seeking negotiations on nuclear disarmament, remains since its inception the main “unfinished business” of the world organisation.

To pursue disarmament on a continuous basis, instead of sporadically at annual sessions of the General Assembly, and principally at India’s initiative, several decades ago the UN set up the permanent Conference on Disarmament (CD) at its European headquarters in Geneva. The CD is now deadlocked over Pakistan’s refusal to allow negotiations to commence on a Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT).

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The US has been hoist on its own petard for it was the US that got the CD to agree that no subject could be taken up for discussion or negotiation without the unanimous agreement of all CD members (including, of course, itself). This was a procedural trick to prevent negotiation, or even discussion, on the first UNGA resolution relating to the elimination of nuclear weapons that the US itself had moved. Pakistan has availed of the same rule of procedure to block any movement on the FMCT. The US refuses to discuss anything else. Thus, the CD has been paralysed.

In these circumstances, the UNGA took the hitherto unprecedented step of setting up an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG), in which even civil society organisations could and did participate. With the participation of an overwhelming number of member-states, the OEWG put up a draft resolution to the First Committee to authorise negotiations among a coalition of the willing to negotiate such a convention.

India, with its stork-like neck buried firmly in the ground, failed to participate in any of the sessions of the OEWG, thus isolating itself from all states and civil society that would like to save humankind and the planet from the danger of virtually instant nuclear annihilation.


We seem to think that as a self-declared nuclear weapons state, it is necessary to hypocritically proclaim our continuing commitment to a world without nuclear weapons without pro-actively participating in any international effort to nudge the world towards that end. So, we end up denying ourselves the opportunity of intervening in the negotiations to safeguard our national interests and perspectives while still championing a goal to which we have, in principle, been dedicated since Mahatma Gandhi’s earliest pronouncements in the wake of Hiroshima.

The reasons for our denying ourselves the opportunity of voting for the resolution, and thus restoring ourselves to the vanguard of the global disarmament movement, are petty and technical in the extreme. First, we say that the only forum in which we can countenance disarmament negotiations is in the CD, knowing full well that the CD is jammed and no negotiations are feasible there till the US resolves its difference with Pakistan on the FMCT — a distant, and possibly, unattainable objective.

We seem to forget that Indira and later Rajiv Gandhi, were very much part of the Five-Continent, Six-Nation Initiative that led eventually to the 1988 Action Plan for a Nuclear Weapons-Free and Nonviolent World Order that remains after three decades the only detailed practical path to nuclear disarmament ever tabled by a head of government in the UN.


All successive Indian governments, including the present one (which invoked the action plan in its defence when arguing against the prosecuting Marshall Islanders in the International Court at the Hague), have asserted their continued commitment to the principles of the action plan even if the passage of time has eroded some of the details of the plan. (Such erosion of the details was taken care of when the 2006 delegation led by then external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, circulated a working paper to carry the process forward). The point to note in the context of the resolution being put to vote tonight is that the initiative was taken entirely outside the CD even when the CD was functional.

The second technical point holding up our participation in this historic new initiative is that the draft resolution refers to the NPT. Of course, we cannot modify or change that reference without being active participants in the negotiations. But that apart, the draft does not call for the universalisation of the NPT, it merely refers to the fact of its existence. Our objection, therefore, assumes the aspect of theological fundamentalism.

From a purely practical point of view, our abstention on this resolution is only likely to weaken our argument for admission to the NSG — a key Modi government foreign policy objective. Among the most avid sponsors and supporters of tonight’s resolution is New Zealand. No wonder the visiting New Zealand PM has refused to fall in with Modi’s most ardent desire.

Equally, almost all the remaining hold-outs on our admission to the NSG are among the key sponsors of this resolution — New Zealand, of course, but also Austria, Ireland, Switzerland, Mexico (all of whom were specially wooed by Modi) and our two BRICS partners, Brazil and South Africa, and most SAARC states and all BIMSTEC nations but us. Besides, the parliaments of Norway and the Netherlands have voted to demand their government’s support to the resolution. And of course, almost the entire membership of the Non-Aligned Movement is enthusiastically in favour.

India is missing this opportunity of leadership. Is this sound statesmanship? Is this the way to win friends and influence people?


The writer, a Congress leader, was chairman of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Expert Group on Nuclear Disarmament, 2010-11


First published on: 27-10-2016 at 12:05:51 am
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