The agony of hope: India and its UN Security Council bid
India’s ultimate diplomatic aspiration is about to be revisited as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) pledges to reform the world body in the face of a hostile UN-Trump administration in the US.
India’s growing regional and global weight has placed Delhi in the pole position to obtain a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the world’s chief diplomatic stage.
The country has in António Guterres, the new UN boss, a likely champion of India’s case to join the Council – in early January, Guterres told to Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister that it is natural for the UNSC to be reformed as its composition has been unchanged for half a century.
As the Indian foreign service puts it, the country is eminently suited to join a reformed Council “by any objective criteria such as population [the world’s second], territorial size [the world’s seventh], economic potential [the world’s seventh GDP], civilizational legacy, cultural diversity, political system [the world’s largest liberal democracy] and past and on-going contributions to the activities of the UN, especially to UN peacekeeping operations.“
In fact, India is second only to Ethiopia in the number of police, military experts and troops deployed -currently 7,710 – in UN peace operations. Today the country has almost twice the number of peacekeepers deployed in the ground as do China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States combined – also known as the P5, the five countries that wield veto power at the Council. India also maintains the world’s third largest active armed force – after the United States and China – and is a nuclear weapon state.
Indian diplomats are well-versed in the intricacies of Council work and machinations since the country has already served seven turns as a non-permanent member of the Security Council – only behind Brazil and Argentina. However, to bolster its chances to join the Council, Delhi would have to increase its contribution to the UN regular budget, in particular now that the new US government is threatening to cut off UN funding – with US$20.46 million for 2017, India ranks 23th on the list of contributors.
Of its many bodies, agencies and funds, the UNSC is the organ that can adopt sanctions and authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security – an authority recently questioned following the Council’s inability to stop the killing of civilians in Aleppo. The UN is composed of 193 member states though only 15 make up the Council. However, it is really the P5 countries with their veto power the members that have the capacity to mobilize or block the Council’s machinery. The body’s ten remaining states are elected for a two-year term. Even the P5 recognizes that this system, legacy of the Second World War, does not reflect the power balance of today’s world and must be reformed.
To better push its UNSC bid, India formed, – along with Brazil, Germany and Japan- the G4 Group to jointly lobby for a permanent UNSC seat, which permanent membership they mutually support. Yet India and its G4 allies face firm opposition from the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) – a larger group of countries led by Italy (and of which Pakistan is a key member) that proposes to maintain the status quo of five permanent members while raising the number of non-permanent members to 20. Reflecting the tense nature of the India-Pakistani relations Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, criticized last year India’s UNSC bid saying that the G4 ambition is based in a poor logic since adding more permanent seats “only reflects the self-serving national ambition of a few countries at the expense of the world body’s wider membership.”
Nonetheless, India counts with powerful backers. In late 2015 the UK Government expressed to Narendra Modi its firm support to India’s permanent membership to the Council, as do France and Russia to a large extent. Beijing is less open to back India’s Security Council hopes – allegedly given India’s support, as part of the Group 4, to Japan’s appeal to join the Security Council. Trump is expected to oppose any expansion of the Council membership. Yet the new UN-skeptic US administration may challenge common wisdom and advocate for an expanded UNSC if Washington sees it as a way to erode the Council’s consensus seeking in the future.
However, the big caveat attached to the support of some P5 powers to India’s Council aspirations is Moscow’s and Washington’s opposition – the new US Ambassador to the UN has already voiced it – to the expansion of the veto power to India, or to any other country for that matter.
Enlarging the Council is one of the quintessential UN challenges and involves a degree of consensus that most diplomats and UN observers agree will still take long arduous years to come about, if it is ever to come to pass – reforming the structure of the UNSC requires lengthy text-based negotiations prior to the nod of the P5 and the agreement of at least two-thirds of the UN General Assembly. Council reform “cannot be seen to be an exercise ad infinitum,” moaned the former Indian Ambassador to the UN.
The United Nations Security Council is today overwhelmed trying to prove itself relevant amidst the confusion that is tearing apart the Middle East and the outset of a UN-hostile Trump administration whose fellow Republican Senators have threatened to cut off funding to the institution. Even if India is in pole position to occupy one of the key seats of a modernized UN Council, Delhi finds itself as one of the front runners of a race that, even if announced two and a half decades ago, no one knows whether it will ever take place.