Ambassador Asoke K Mukerji has been the Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations from early 2013 to December 31, 2015.
Ambassador Mukerji who has served with distinction the MEA for almost 38 years was widely regarded as a “diplomat with spine”.
In this interview which he had given to Prof. Indrajit S Saluja, Chief Editor of The Indian Panorama just a few days before relinquishing office, Ambassador Mukerji speaks about how well India was articulated at the United Nations during his tenure as Permanent Representative and what have been the significant achievements for India. He also speaks frankly about the need for the United Nations to go forward with reforms to the Security Council.
However, he was appreciative of the role the United Nations has played over the years and taken effective measures to resolve conflicts, even though there are many unresolved ones, and to bring about empowerment of women, just to mention a few.
Here are excerpts from the interview
Prof. Saluja: Remember Sir, in an earlier interview which you had very kindly given to The Indian Panorama on 30 April 2013 you had said that India’s ability to articulate has always been very high. How good has been the articulation at the UN. during the 3 years that you have been at the UN as India’s Permanent representative.?Do you think India has articulated well through you at the UN?
Ambassador Mukerji: I think we have articulated the perspective that we have as a country on the issues which are the major issues facing the world today.And if you look at it in the broad areas, then you can see, for example, in the area of peace & security, we have consistently articulated the need for resolving problems, resolving disputes through negotiations and peaceful means and today even disputes that 3 years ago seemed to be open for military solutions are now moving towards peacefully negotiated solutions. The latest being the Syria dispute after the talks in Vienna. So I think the view that India has consistently articulated in the United Nations which is based on the provisions of the United Nations charter which is to resolve disputes peacefully is a view that enjoys a very vast degree of support.
And including among the permanent members of the UNSC .
In matter of peace and security dealing with peacekeeping we have been among the most articulate of voices.
I think that the views that we have actuated have a resonance within the UN System and as we complete the review of the peace building activities of the United Nations in the coming few months we should be able to see the combining of the pools available to the United Nations for creating conditions for the reconstruction… peaceful reconstruction of conflict regions and societies.
I think that’s a very important point that we have made that it has to be a holistic exercise, that you cannot expect any society or country or region to be able to sustain peace without having the institutions
And in our own country and the reason we articulate this in our own country we have invested in building and nurturing institutions which are there to help the society to reach solutions through peaceful institutional methods
And I think that this is something that has been appreciated .
And the 3rd area of peace and security unfortunately where we have not probably succeeded but where India’s articulation has been consistent is in the need to investigate & prosecute terrorism .We are a country who have been confronting terrorism nationally for a very long time over 30 years… but in the international context… the main tool available to UN is the legal tool – the rule of law to counter and prosecute terrorism . It’s a pity that so far we have not been able to see the effective utilization of these legal tools by the United Nations
The one example we have been putting forward for many years now is the comprehensive convention on International Terrorism (CCIT)
Now the important role that this convention will play is to require member countries of the united nations to either prosecute a terrorist or if they cannot prosecute a terrorist, to extradite the terrorist for prosecution…. So prosecute or extradite .
This is a very well established legal principle but unfortunately there has been no agreement so far on adopting this convention… so this is…..
Prof Saluja: Have all the countries yet agreed for such a convention?
Ambassador Mukerji: You see… all countries have participated in the discussions on the convention and right now the main issue on which the convention is still deadlocked is on the definition of terrorism
There are some countries who are asking for the definition of terrorism to exclude freedom fighters…. this is not acceptable to many countries .So we need to find a way to bridge this issue because while we discuss the definition of terrorism the world is facing the impact of terrorism and when we face the impact of terrorism then we understand what the definition of terrorism is…
So we would argue therefore that this is an area in which initiatives like this convention should be given priority and this is something we are articulating at the United Nations but this is an area where I think more needs to be done. So this is on the peace and security areas.
Now on the second big area of the UN which is economic & social area
I think …our articulation in the last 3 years has been very successful… if you remember in 2013 we started this process of discussing and then developing the goals which would replace the millennium development goals…. And in July last year , 2014… we were able to agree and adopt 17 goals which are known as the sustainable development goals -that was in 2014 July.
So this is to illustrate that all 193 countries can actually work together if they are helped to accommodate each other… and I think India’s role has been really constructive in that context… that we have not tried to polarize this exercise… we have tried to play a constructive role of also building bridges and the fact that we have these 17 goals and… and the 17 goals are now at the heart of this agenda for the next 15 years also known as Agenda 2030 which was adopted when Prime Minister Modi was here in September .…So for the next 15 years what is the economic and social agenda of the world is now set in the UN.. in this document called the Agenda 2030… at the heart of which are these 17 goals.
So this has been a tremendous success and I think recognition of India’s articulation of its experience and perspective as a country which is transitioning… we are in some senses… we have reached the status of an advanced country of putting space crafts into space and going to mars and so on…
But on the other hand we have 300 million who live below $1.25 a day; so we are among the poorest societies in the world… so I think that this diversity -this enables us to actually articulate issues in a more credible manner… because we know both the sides…we know the side of the developed and advanced and cutting edge … as well as the side of the poorest of the poor… so this has been a major achievement & outcome and we are just finishing this week review of the way in which technology can help development and the United Nations General Assembly is adopting this review day after tomorrow in which an area where India is really focused a lot on is how to use technology to accelerate development and this review of what is called the ‘Tunis Agenda’ focuses on the use of Information & communication technology – ICT. Information & communication technology for development and this is an important area. In India we have an initiative called the digital India in which we are trying to use technology for accelerating development, for creating empowerment, for generating information, right to information for example, or empowerment of women. So these issues we are now bringing to the global stage and I think that this area for the next 10 years is going to be an area of immense importance and priority for India so that by the time the next review takes place in 2025 we should be able to demonstrate how important it is for the International community to agree on using this technology for development in an affordable and global manner because the problem with all these issues is of affordability and unless it becomes affordable and accessible it cannot have the full impact that it otherwise contains the potential of having.
This is the second big area of our work in United Nations.
The third area of our work in the United Nations is related to human rights and the rule of law. And here again this year we are beginning the 70th anniversary commemoration of the universal declaration of human rights now for a long time probably because so many years have passed , people have forgotten what were the contributions which India has made in this area and which we are building on for the future so if you look back in time, in 1946 we brought in the issue of racial discrimination when we talked about apartheid and that concluded in 1994 with the emergence of independent South Africa.
In 1948 we co-sponsored the resolution on genocide and today the United Nations has a very vibrant anti-genocide convention on which people are building new ideas such as responsibility to protect.
In 1948 we brought in the idea of gender equality into the universal declaration of human rights where the Indian delegate Hansa Mehta proposed the phrase “all human beings are created equal” . So that was agreed to in 1948 and since then the role that has been played in empowering women has been something that we have been at the forefront of and now we have our own program in India called Beti Bachao Beti Padhao .
So this program is based on the principle that it is through education that you can empower women and also safeguard their rights . So, this is something that we have been advocating and we are one of the strongest and earliest supporters of the UN Womenwhere you will be happy that an eminent Indian diplomat ambassador Lakshmi Puri is the number 2 person in the UN Women.
So in the area of women’s rights we are very much out there.
This year earlier in 2015 we inaugurated and contributed to the memorial in the united nations against slavery… and the reason why apart from being completely involved with the issues relating to slavery… the reason why India is also prominent in this area is because we feel that attention has to be paid to the phenomenon of indentured labor.
If you remember when slavery was abolished in 1832 by the United Kingdom that in a legal way removed the issue of slavery or made slavery illegal but in 1834 the British parliament passed the Indentured Labor Act. Under that act millions of people including from India were transported to various countries around the world and made to work in plantations. Now, the whole issue of indentured labor.. and Mahatma Gandhi himself wrote about it -that indentured labor was another form of slavery and I think this is an issue with the Indian diaspora being so vibrant today and more than 25 million people living in countries across the world… that a lot of this diaspora originally- the older diaspora went as indentured labor whether it was to Fiji, whether it was to South Africa , Canada, the Caribbean . So we need to provide a focus so that if we say never again to slavery then we also do something to recognize the tremendous suffering that was endured by our population when they were transported as indentured labor.
So this is something that we are focusing on but I think in the area of human rights and human dignity one of the most important contributions that we have made in this period is our contribution on yoga… because while yoga is linked with health, and without health you cannot enjoy human dignity and human rights. I think that there is a synergy between the physical activity of yoga and the impact it has on the human character and I think that the fact the 177 countries were able to join us and take ownership on this idea shows that this is an idea which brings people together and as I have kept saying in these 3 years – India’s voice is one of inclusion. We do not believe in exceptionalism. We do not ever say that we are a unique country and that we have an experience which is not relevant or not applicable to other parts of the world. What ever we have experienced we have shared with others and that is something that we have tried to do with the two international days that we celebrate in the United Nations – the day of Yoga which is on June 21st and the day of non-violence which is on October 2nd.
And in these 3 years what we have tried to do with the day of Non-violence is like with the day of yoga which is to bring the message beyond the meeting rooms of the United Nations out into the wider public space. So for Yoga it was easy to see that we were able to reach out to 192 countries. Even in Times Square in NY there were 30000 people but for day of non-violence our involvement is now with the school children and with university students because we have to carry forward this message of non-violence to the next generation and it is only by bringing them into the celebrations that we organize in the United Nations that they are able to appreciate the discussion on the importance of non-violence and apply this discussion to their own lives as school children or university students.. If you teach your child and a conscious child… secondary school or university student the virtues of non-violence and that there are people who have spent their lives weather it is Mahatma Gandhi on whose birthday we celebrate it or Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ramos- you know these are the people who through their own lives are able to show that you can achieve things through non-violent means and I am being very fortunate that for these 3 years that we have done this event in the United Nations we have always had speakers who have talked about how they have applied non-violence in their own lives and this I believe since 1/3rd of the audience is of children and young people… I think that in our own way we have tried to carry forward this important contribution that we make to work in United Nations. So, in all their areas whether it is peace & security whether it is economic & social or whether it is human rights we have been articulate and effective.
Prof Saluja: In-fact you know when you said that the charter of UN says that we have to resolve all the issues peacefully so the very idea of promoting peace comes through non-violence and again through yoga because there you learn to control yourself, discipline yourself… so both the ideas I think they come together; they come together to promote the vision of the UN… can I put it that way?
Ambassador Mukerji: I Think so . I think that is the right way to put it and you yourself- when you practice yoga … I saw you on that yoga day… you can see that eventually there was a harmony between the inner self and the outer world and it is this harmony which we need to focus on because it exists. But I think there are too many pressures on individuals and on countries probably which make them distracted from recognizing that there is a harmony and equilibrium between the inner self and the external world and I think that is something we need to do. It is sometimes a challenge but if you keep going and if you keep collecting more and more people to join you… I think that is something and that’s been one of the biggest and most enjoyable part of the job here — to collect people and bring them together. So, I think this is something that India stands for that . We always try and bring people together… and then together you are stronger.
Prof Saluja: Do you think you have made any progress with regard to the easing of procedures so that the decisions of the UN body are taken a little earlier than they have been taken in the past?
Ambassador Mukerji: I think that when we spoke in 2013, we were the first country to start looking at it in terms of a roadmap and a realistic roadmap which in 2013 we had said 70th anniversary of the United Nations. In April that year I was probably the first delegate to use this idea of 70th anniversary.
Today, the 70th anniversary idea has been endorsed by more than a hundred heads of states and governments in their speeches to the United Nations. So it is an expectation that something will happen in the 70th anniversary year of the United Nations.
Now this 70th anniversary year started in September this year (2015) and concludes on the 14th of September 2016. So how are we able to use this historic opportunity to enable us to achieve this objective that we have of reforming the Security Council?
I think what we saw was the difficulty that the United Nations membership faced with the top down approach. I don’t think people like the idea that somewhere, some people will decide behind closed doors and outside the public domain,. Who are these people /countries who they will bring into the Security Council and do a package solution.?So, the first thing that we started from 2013 was to address this issue and convince people that it is better to do a bottom – up approach and not a drop down approach.
To that extent we have succeeded because after 23 years of discussing this top down approach, in September this year, we adopted the historic decision in the UN General Assembly. We have now got a 121 countries’ views in favor of reforms in a document. So the document is now a negotiating document. We have to negotiate the give and take of positions of different countries on the issues of the how the United Nations Security Council will be reformed. There are 5 sets of issues which you know, so, on each of these 5 sets of issues there are different views but all 121 countries agree that these are the areas which we have to address to reform.
One issue of which I thought we could make progress on was to create a permanent memorial for our UN peace keepers. This has been an area in which I have personally got more involved than probably any other predecessor of mine.
I feel that we need to focus on the human dimensions of the peace keepers. They are not statistics. Each soldier, each troop has a personality, a family a village or a city from where he or she comes. So we need to look at the human dimensions of UN peace keepers and as the numbers of the peace keepers who are dying in UN operations is growing every year, I think apart from looking into the reasons why they are dying which is for the Security Council to look at, we also need to honor the bravery and sacrifice of these peace keepers and for me this issue comes very vividly in that month I came in April 2013, when we lost 5 peace keepers in South Sudan. So One thing that I wanted to do and, I am happy that the General Assembly has agreed with this proposal to build a permanent wall, a memorial wall, which will have the names of all the more than 3000 soldiers from all the countries who have died in peace keeping.
It is the UN peace keepers Memorial wall and this idea was, I thought, we would be able to do it by this year (2015) but it is the only regret I have that the process is so slow in the UN.
Prof Saluja : I remember, something was done there, I was there.
Ambassador Mukerji: We launched a virtual wall, that is the reason I launched a virtual wall. So I could do it for our peace keepers . So, all 161 peace keepers who have died from India -their names are on a virtual wall which is on a website.
The idea was to build a wall like the Vietnam Wall in Washington which will have the names of peacekeepers of all the countries not only Indians but all countries -more than 3300 soldiers who have died and this number goes up every year by 100/150.
So, this proposal moved by India was approved by the United Nations General Assembly and the reason why I am not completely unhappy is that our Prime Minister had in his speech at the Peace Keeping Summit said that India stands ready to contribute to this memorial including financially. So, I think this is something I would very much like to see happen because unless we recognize the value of human life being given for the principles of the UN Charter we do not connect to the real world outside and some of the conditions in which the soldiers have to work are really very , very challenging; very, very difficult; and this is something that like I said is an obsession with me.
Prof. Saluja : How far is the idea to its fruition?
Ambassador Mukerji: Given our previous experience, I would say 5 to 7 years, because, the slavery memorial project took 7 years from the day it was approved by the UNGA. So, I would say 5 years. By the 75th anniversary of the United Nations this wall should be there.
All 193 countries are supporting this.
Prof. Saluja: Give me briefly your view on Diplomacy as it has evolved; there was a time when diplomacy only meant talking about conflicts, talking about peace and now diplomacy involves a very important economic aspect to it.
What is your world view would be my last question.
Ambassador Mukerji:You know the essence of diplomacy has not changed and I don’t think it will change because essentially diplomacy relates to human nature and human beings. It is only the tools that keep changing but without an understanding of human nature and human beings it would not be possible to practice the profession of diplomacy. Now there are different aspects of human behavior which have thrown up challenges. You mentioned the economic activity. The world is today economically globalized and that throws its own challenges. But I think at the heart of even those challenges is the issue of the nature of human beings; what do human beings want from a globalized world? I think this is the key question that any diplomat will have to understand and answer before he or she practices diplomacy. The tools have changed and I think as you rightly said there is a tremendous focus therefore on what is called soft power. Professor Joseph coined the word soft power. India is one of the countries which is fortunate in having a large population, a population which is also focused on the acquisition of knowledge. it is probably a civilizational characterization of India and as a knowledge based society we therefore are well placed to not only understand human nature but also to use various tools (if I may call it that) for the pursuit of our diplomacy in relating with other countries and other negotiators. And, I think this shows in the way we are able to build bridges; this is something which is very important even in economic diplomacy. There is no black and white solution to anything. It is always a give and take.
My worldview is that we are in a multilateral institution like the United Nations. We have managed to avoid a world war – a 3rd world war but we need to be conscious that unless we invest in strengthening these multilateral impulses and these multilateral institutions, we run the risk of fragmenting the world into regional and sub regional units which, in a holistic way , does not contribute to world peace.