Updated: September 11, 2021 7:32:12 am
India has a history of memorable “August presidencies” of the United Nations Security Council. During its 2011 presidency, events in Libya posed a diplomatic challenge. Exactly 10 years later, in this staycation month a geopolitical earthquake, and the resulting tectonic shifts in Afghanistan challenged the presidency.
India passed the test with flying colours. Maintaining calm, India focused on safeguarding and advancing its national interest and the global public goods of counterterrorism, peace and security. What set our 2021 presidency apart was the highest-level engagement and leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He laid out India’s vision and vowed to give “voice” to the unrepresented in a new multilateralism. He made history by becoming the first PM of India to chair and address the UNSC, and that, too, to mobilise on an urgent matter of global concern — maritime security.
The Indian presidency delivered the highest number of outcomes (14), with five full-fledged resolutions on the situation in Afghanistan, Somalia, the Middle East, Mali and the UN peacekeeping operations, four presidential statements (PRST) including on West Africa and Sudan, and five press statements — three responding in real time to developments in Afghanistan, including the Kabul airport terrorist attack.
India organised events around three signature themes of maritime security, peacekeeping and counterterrorism to build a new international consensus and to update the rules of the game. The August 9 event was pathbreaking in evolving a holistic concept of maritime security, the role of UNCLOS, the freedom of navigation — a sensitive topic given China’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea. The outcome advanced Indian security interests while contributing towards a new international maritime security order.
The event on “Protecting the protectors: technology and peacekeeping” resulted in the first-ever resolution on accountability for crimes against peacekeepers and the first PRST on technology upgradation for peacekeepers. The External Affairs Minister chaired an event on “Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts”, bringing focus on the continued terrorist threats and attacks, the early conclusion of the Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism, and India’s eight-point action plan — all to reinforce the just revised UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy.
India’s consultative power was deployed on issues like Myanmar, Mali and Somalia, Middle East, Ethiopia, Haiti and DPRK. But its diplomatic sagacity and agility were tested most by the developments in Afghanistan.
Significantly, the UNSC Resolution 2593 adopted on August 30 responded to serious concerns about Taliban-ruled Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorist groups and getting a free run to mount attacks on neighbouring countries and the world. It demanded that Afghan territory not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan or finance terrorist acts.
It identified individuals and entities designated by the UNSC resolution 1267 — which, for India, includes the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — and the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan, noting relevant commitments of the Taliban. Contrary to some buzz about the missing “T” words, there are three “T” words – terrorism, terrorist entities and Taliban accountability.
Other major benchmarks included the Taliban allowing safe evacuation of foreigners and abiding by its August 27 statement that Afghans will be able to travel abroad at any time and exit via any border point. It urged all parties to allow full, safe, and unhindered access to the UN and all humanitarian actors for relief activity, donor support to Afghanistan and major Afghan refugee-hosting countries and respect for international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians.
The Taliban was asked to uphold human rights, including those of women, children and minorities — which in India’s case bears on the well-being of Hindu and Sikh Afghans. All parties were asked to seek an inclusive, negotiated political settlement, with equal participation of women, and safeguard the gains of the past 20 years on the rule of law and human rights.
India was thus able to ensure that the UNSC Resolution 2593 laid down some fundamental benchmarks to guide the international community on calibrating its relations with the emerging Taliban regime and setting standards of behaviour and policy for it, if it is to win diplomatic recognition and economic and political support.
The US cite the benchmarking for domestic and strategic purposes. France and the UK have warned that the Taliban government will be judged on the implementation of the resolution. For Russia, it was a moment of sweet revenge to see the US relive its own humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. South Caucasian security concerns remain, but the Taliban threat could bring Central Asian countries closer to Russia. China used the resolution for grandstanding as the new, benign superpower, supporting Afghanistan against “hegemonists”.
Both Russia and China sought to portray themselves as champions of the Taliban, refusing to support a resolution that “turned the tables on Taliban” when the US’s “20 years failed occupation” and “its hasty withdrawal” were the culprits. On counterterrorism, they wanted a balanced approach to include their terrorists of concern, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Given these objections, that India was able to persuade them not to veto the resolution and only abstain, was a diplomatic win. All UNSC members praised India’s presidency and acknowledged the value added by India in building bridges in the midst of polarised UNSC dynamics, strengthening its claim for permanent membership.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 10, 2021 under the title ‘A win at UN high table’. The writer is former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of UN Women.
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