Each time an Indian dignitary goes abroad or a foreign one visits India, both sides scramble for a formulation on India’s candidature for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This pleases India, though it doesn’t move us any closer to New Delhi’s diplomatic holy grail. If China or the United States is involved, the excitement is even higher. But the fresh formulations are mostly old wine in a new bottle: the substance is the same, though the presentation is appealing and open to different interpretations. The tantalising horseshoe table of the UNSC remains elusive, except for the occasional two-year rendezvous. The net result of our 35-year campaign is that we are elected to the UNSC less often these days than before, despite our increased geopolitical and economic importance.
US President Barack Obama thought he was giving India the next best thing after the nuclear deal when, in 2010, he declared in Parliament: “In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member”. The US had not said anything similar before. But Obama’s futuristic and conditional formulation had no practical meaning. Worse, news leaked that the US intelligence agencies were keeping a watch on India’s activities on UNSC reform. Unless the US proposes to build consensus on a particular package for expansion, verbal support has no meaning. The reality is that there is no plan that could enjoy the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly, including the permanent members — not even the latest proposal by Kofi Annan and Gro Brundtland.
Obama did not improve the quality of his support during his visit this year. He just repeated the 2010 formulation in a different way. The message was loud and clear: the US is not ready for UNSC reform.
A section of the Indian media portrayed a change for the better in the Chinese position during Sushma Swaraj’s visit. But, in fact, the Chinese line has remained the same — it favours the involvement of developing countries in the UNSC and respects India’s willingness to play a bigger role in the council. This is what its foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said in answer to a question. It was added that China would not support Japan and that a broad consensus was necessary to make reform possible. This has detracted from China’s “respect” for India. Pakistan promptly informed Obama that India was not qualified to be a permanent member so long as the Kashmir issue is unresolved. This appears to have been orchestrated to counter the American and Chinese statements.
The latest in the series of proposals put forward by the “elders”, Annan and Brundtland, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UN doesn’t have a better chance of acceptance than those made by others on the 50th and 60th anniversaries. In fact, it is a modified version of one of the plans contained in Annan’s report, “In Larger Freedom”. The elders steer clear of the quagmire of permanent membership and advocate periodic elections for longer-term non-permanent members. “Instead of new permanent members, let us have a new category of members, serving a much longer term than the non-permanent ones and eligible for immediate re-election. In other words, they would be permanent, provided they retained the confidence of other member states. Surely that is more democratic,” they said.
Would any of the permanent members get re-elected if the same formula were applied to them? The self-discipline being imposed on the permanent members is hazy and not likely to be accepted. A large majority of members would rather have the veto abolished.
Contrary to the general impression, it is not just the permanent members which are unenthusiastic about additional permanent members. Most countries, other than the candidates and aspirants, have nothing to gain from having more permanent members. They would rather the non-permanent membership be expanded so that they could have a chance to serve on the UNSC. Even countries that have pledged to back India or other candidates may not support an expansion. They are hoping that the permanent members will block such moves. There is, of course, the “coffee club”, promoted by Pakistan, Italy etc, which openly oppose any expansion. They will enthusiastically support Annan and Brundtland’s proposal that the council closely consult members that are likely to be affected by UNSC decisions.
While it is widely acknowledged that the present composition of the UNSC is outdated and more developing countries should be represented, there is no support for new permanent members with a veto. The only possible option is to have new permanent members without a veto or non-permanent members with longer terms and provisions for immediate reelection. Intensive efforts will be made during the 70th anniversary of the UN to find a formula. The UK and France are reportedly keen to resolve this issue soon because they are afraid the longer it takes, the greater the pressure on them to step down in favour of an EU representative. For India, the horseshoe table may still prove elusive.
The writer is a retired diplomat
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