27 Aug India at the UNSC: Will the Country be Able to Leave its Footprints?
[Jyoti Singh previously worked as a legal consultant with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. She is currently a practising advocate based out of New Delhi.]
India began its two-year term on 1 January 2021 as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, its eighth time in this role in the 75 years of existence of both the United Nations and Security Council. With almost the entire world in the clutch of the COVID-19 pandemic, this podium may prove to be a much-required opportunity for the country to revive and strengthen its policy of multilateralism with the UN, being the world’s premier multilateral institution.
India assumed the monthly presidency of the UNSC on 1 August for the first time in a decade, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired the meeting of the heads of the government of the UNSC member states on 9 August. The UNSC monthly presidency is high on symbolism. Still, it provides a unique opportunity to showcase India as a ‘different’ power as well as to make a difference to the functioning of the UNSC and to international peace and security. In the matter of world peace and security, India must express its position and, if possible, it may even offer a solution.
India’s UNSC History
India was one of the 51 original members of the UN when the organization came into existence in 1945. India’s first major brush with the UNSC occurred over Kashmir in 1948, following an invasion by tribal forces backed by the Pakistani military. The matter was referred to the UNSC by then Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, only to be left disillusioned as the matter was seen more as a conflict between two States. Nonetheless, in 1950-51, India got its first term in the UNSC, and for the first time it presided over the issue of adoption of resolutions. India called for cessation of hostilities during the Korean War and for assistance to the Republic of Korea. Again in 1967-68, India presided and co-sponsored Resolution 238 extending the mandate of the UN mission in Cyprus. In 1972-73, India pushed strongly for the inclusion of Bangladesh into the UN. Resolution 238 was not adopted, however, because of a veto by a permanent member. In 1977-78, then External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke to the UNSC regarding Namibia’s independence in 1978. In 1984-85, India was a leading voice at the UNSC for the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East, especially Palestine and Lebanon. In 1991-92, Indian Prime Minister 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. India again joined the UNSC after a gap of 19 years as a non-permanent member in 2011-12, and became a strong voice for the developing world, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and Africa. It did not, however, show its inclination towards humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect (R2P) this time and attempted to subdue the over-enthusiasm of the western countries on humanitarian intervention. Further, the first major statement on Syria was made only during India’s presidency in 2011-12.
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 not stand in the way of major resolutions. This is what is expected from non-permanent members when they serve their terms at the UNSC. However, India as a country has drastically transformed in the last couple of years. The country has come a long way since it first presided over the UNSC. It can now identify how and which allies are to be affianced with and what are the cards to be played while using its position at the UNSC for two years.
India’s Current Disposition at UNSC
India is set to focus its attention on three major areas—maritime security, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism. Prime Minister Modi, while presiding over the UNSC debate on “Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation”, stressed that prosperity depends on the active flow of maritime trade and barriers in this path can pose a challenge to the entire global economy. India’s open debate on maritime security only makes this notion stronger, that though India is in an embryonic stage of maritime security, it will soon make itself known as a maritime nation in the international arena. This was manifested from the fact that for the first time, maritime security was discussed in the agenda item of international peace and security. The same was also an extension of India’s policy of SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region), which was proposed by the government in 2015 to enhance the maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.
One of the most outstanding accomplishments of the meeting was, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) being accepted by the UNSC as the legal framework applicable to ocean endeavours, including countering illicit activities at sea. It was emphasised that international disputes should be determined peacefully and in accordance with international law, as was done by India in its maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh. This reaffirmed the primacy of international law, which was adopted and endorsed by member states of the UNSC. The primacy of international law augments in what India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishanakar said earlier, this month, that India would be a “voice of moderation, an advocate of dialogue and a proponent of international law”. The customary practice is that the Presidential Statement (PRST) is accepted unanimously by all the member states. However, this process was not so smooth for India as one of the permanent member states (China) held out until the very end. This was due to the language related to UNCLOS. It was India’s diplomatic conquest that eventually led to all the five permanent members accepted the PRST.
Emphasis on Two Other Priority Areas Next
After the noteworthy opening debate on maritime security, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism are the other two signature areas to be addressed by India during the next UNSC meetings later this month. India is one of the top troop contributors to the UN’s peacekeeping missions and is looking for ways to use technology to better protect peacekeeping forces. India also is the first nation to deploy an all-women contingent to a UN peacekeeping mission. However, India has also been correspondingly vocal in showing its criticism towards the merits of humanitarian intervention. During the crisis of Cote d’Ivoire in March 2011, India warned all the other member states that UN peacekeepers cannot be made instruments of change. After almost a decade, India’s approach to peacekeeping will be seen. India will unquestionably try to streamline UN peacekeeping with greater emphasis on clarity, direction and professionalism. India has always raised issues with UNSC mandates for peacekeeping operations, on the basis that they lack clarity or focus, which in turn puts peacekeepers at risk and makes it difficult for them to achieve the missions’ goals.
Counter terrorism is the third agenda item to be discussed at UNSC. Long before the acceptance of Resolution 1373 adopted by the UNSC in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, India took the initiative to pilot the draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in 1996, with the objective to provide a comprehensive legal framework to combating terrorism. The CCIT aims to ensure all signatories deny funds and safe havens to terrorist groups. After two decades since the draft was initiated, the CCIT is yet to be concluded. Even in 2021, India highlights the importance and requirement of an early conclusion of the draft CCIT, which reflects India’s commitment towards combating terrorism. All the major conventions and protocols on terrorism adopted by the UN have been either signed, ratified or accessed by India and India is part of all the major global initiatives in the area of counter terrorism. During its tenure at the UNSC, India is also going to be the chair of the Counter Terrorism Committee, which is an important pillar of the global fight against terrorism. The External Affairs Minister of India, in January 2021, while addressing the UNSC open debate on Threats to International Peace and Security Caused by Terrorist Attacks, proposed an eight-point action plan, for the United Nations to be able to “credibly address the menace of terrorism”. He stressed that the link between terrorism and transnational organised crime must be fully recognised and “addressed vigorously”. The foreign minister emphasised that the international community must not “countenance double standards”. “Terrorists are terrorists; there are no good and bad ones,” he said. “Those who propagate this distinction have an agenda. And those who cover up for them are just as culpable.”.
Many other countries who are victims of terrorism will certainly expect India to push for an effective response to counter global terrorism at the UNSC, to raise the issue of abuse of information technology by terrorists, to encourage disruption of their nexus with their sponsors, and to curtail the flow of terror financing along with effective and stronger collaboration with other multilateral forums. India’s approach towards counter terrorism will be clear once India presides over the next UNSC meeting on counter terrorism, as will its method of convincing the other member States to comply with its suggestions.
India’s Demand for a Permanent Seat at the UNSC
By 1992, India, Brazil, Germany, and Japan (referred as the G4) had put up their claims and logic for demanding inclusion as permanent members. India has been part of the UN since itsinception, has the world’s second-largest population, is a fast-growing economy and is the world’s largest democracy. This makes it suited to represent South Asia, India also having contributed maximum peacekeepers to the UN so far,. India’s Prime Minister also said in 2019 that the UNSC is being used as a tool rather than an institution to resolve global conflicts and also called upon all like-minded nations to push for an overhaul of the UN structure. His criticism holds ground to a much larger extent, as the UNSC is slowly losing its purpose and relevance. If contemporary geopolitical realities are to be taken into account, then the UNSC absolutely needs to go through a serious reform process, which may include the induction of new members in the body to make it more dynamic and make it a harbinger of multilateralism.
In today’s rapidly changing global world order, when multilateralism and global governance are facing some of the most serious challenges since World War II, it is important that India intensifies and contributes to meeting these challenges. The UNSC can be a strong platform for India to voice its concerns for a reformed multilateralism. The country can also benefit by increasing its influence and footprint in the international system by utilizing this opportunity. Through this avenue, India will have the chance to put some of its core concerns on the global agenda, reflected in three priority areas outlined in this post.
As a country, India, has always been a strong proponent of international law and the same was shown in its advocacy for acceptance of UNCLOS, the concept of SAGAR and its vision of the Indo-Pacific region in its presidential lecture. Warm reception of India’s encouragement for international law is a great start for the country in its tenure at the UNSC. Now is the time for India to make the best of its two-year tenure at the UNSC and by its contribution, it can definitely show that it deserves a seat as a permanent member.