Permanent UNSC membership for India — mirage or achievable?

The composition of the United Nations Security Council was established in 1945 Photo / AP/PTI
By Prabhu Dayal
  • PM Narendra Modi advocated India‘s inclusion among the permanent members of the UNSC during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly
  • The only increase in the membership of the Security Council came in 1965, when the number of non-permanent members was increased from six to 10
  • Any reform to the Security Council would require an amendment to the UN Charter

There have been expressions of support for India’s candidature from four out of the five permanent members–USA, UK, Russia and France. But what about China? Given the nature of Sino-Indian relations, it is not surprising that Beijing does not support India’s case. China’s close friendship with Pakistan is a compounding factor in this regard.

On September 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a virtual address during the General Debate of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in which he made an impassioned and forceful plea for India’s candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. His speech was brilliant, but when he had finished I was still asking myself this question: Is India’s quest heading anywhere, or is it just a pipe dream?

The composition of the Security Council was established in 1945. The victors of the Second World War shaped the UN Charter in their national interests, giving to themselves the veto power in the Security Council. Since then the geopolitical realities have changed drastically, but the Council has changed very little. The Prime Minister did well to stress this when he said that the world of 1945 was significantly different from today’s world; the global situation, sources-resources, problems-solutions; all were quite different. Keeping this in mind, he urged that “Reform in the responses, in the processes, and in the very character of the UN is the need of the hour”.

This was not the first time in recent months that PM Modi had urged the need for UN reforms. It would be recalled that while speaking at the high-level dialogue of the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on July 17 this year, he had said that “Only reformed multilateralism with a reformed United Nations at its center can meet the aspirations of humanity.”

PM Modi put forward several arguments that make India’s case for permanent membership appear quite strong. Highlighting India’s achievements and role in 75 years of the United Nations, he called for reforms with “changing times” and India’s inclusion in the decision-making process within the global body. He mentioned that India is the largest democracy of the world, with more than 18% of the world population; it had sent its soldiers for about 50 peacekeeping missions; it is also the country that has lost the maximum number of soldiers in the course of establishing peace; even during these very difficult times of the Covid 19 pandemic, the pharma industry of India has sent essential medicines to more than 150 countries. In this context, PM Modi assured that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will help all humanity in fighting the COVID-19 crisis.

Thus, articulating the role being played by India for lending a helping hand to other nations, and putting forward cogent arguments for India to be given a permanent membership of the UN, he asked the General Assembly a very pointed question: “For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?”

It may be recalled that the only increase in the membership of the Security Council occurred in 1965 when the non-permanent membership was increased from six to 10 members, thus increasing the total strength from 11 to 15 members; fifty-five years have elapsed since then. Thus, PM Modi was right on target when he pointed out that the United Nations in its present form is out of date: “The international community today is faced with a very important question: Whether the character of the institution, constituted in the prevailing circumstances of 1945, is relevant even today”?

However, the challenges which lie in India’s path should not be underestimated. Any reform of the Security Council would require an amendment to the UN Charter. In this regard, it is useful to remember that Article 108 of the UN Charter states:

‘Amendments to the present Charter shall come into force for all Members of the United Nations when they have been adopted by a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council’.

Thus, any reform of the Security Council not only requires the support of at least two-thirds of UN member states, but also all the permanent members of the UN Security Council must also agree to this as they have veto powers. Assuming that India can get the support of two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly, the question which arises is simply this: Will all the Security Council’s permanent members give their nod for adding India as a permanent member?

India’s quest has to be viewed in a broader perspective. The need for Security Council reform has been actively discussed among the UN member states for quite some time. By 1992, Japan and Germany had become the second and third-largest financial contributors to the United Nations , and they started to demand a permanent seat; so too did Brazil (the world’s fifth largest country in terms of territory) and India (the largest democracy and the second largest country in terms of population) which had emerged not only as the most important countries within their regional groups but also key players in the emerging global scenario. These four countries formed an interest group which came to be known as the G-4.

On the other hand, their regional rivals opposed the idea of G4 countries becoming permanent members. Italy, Pakistan, Argentina and South Korea formed an interest group, known as the ‘Uniting for Consensus’ (also nicknamed the ‘Coffee Club’) which later grew to around 40 members. The Coffee Club members are opposed to increasing the number of the Security Council’s permanent members while wanting an increase in the non-permanent members category.

Simultaneously, the African countries also started to demand two permanent seats for themselves, arguing that historical injustices had been done to them, and also that much of the Council’s agenda related to their continent. All these developments have further complicated the situation.

On their part, the G-4 countries have shown flexibility on the veto issue in their bid to get the United Nations reform process moving. In a joint statement on their behalf delivered by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin at an inter-governmental negotiations meeting in March 2017, the G4 nations– India, Brazil, Germany and Japan–stated that while the new permanent members would in principle have the same responsibilities and obligations as the current permanent members, they shall not exercise the veto until a decision on the matter has been taken during a review. Despite this flexibility, there has not been any progress in regard to the G4 demands.

There have been expressions of support for India’s candidature from four out of the five permanent members–USA, UK, Russia and France. But what about China? Given the nature of Sino-Indian relations, it is not surprising that Beijing does not support India’s case. China’s close friendship with Pakistan is a compounding factor in this regard.

There are many who believe that in actual fact, all the P-5 countries have reservations about adding any other country including India to their privileged group. The support extended to India by the US, UK, Russia and France has to be viewed against the background of their being fully aware that in any case, the process of Security Council reform is making no headway whatsoever. Many analysts think that they only render lip service by way of support to India in order to derive political mileage as they are fully aware of the Chinese position. In other words, whether their support is genuine is a matter of debate, for it is extended whilst knowing full well that the Chinese will oppose India anyway.

Meanwhile, China, the world’s biggest dictatorship sits on the high table as a permanent member of the UN Security Council while India, the world’s largest democracy has to be content with getting a seat on that table from time to time as a non-permanent member. We can raise our voice against this injustice, as Prime Minister Modi has done. However, one cannot say when the winds of change will actually reach the UN Security Council, for diplomacy, like politics is only the art of the possible.

Prime Minister Modi said in his address: “Today, people of India are concerned whether this reform-process will ever reach its logical conclusion”. He asked:” How long would a country have to wait particularly when the transformational changes happening in that country affect a large part of the world?” His words had a ring of anguish as well as disappointment.

As I reflect on Prime Minister Modi’s address at the UN, I cannot help reminding myself of a verse from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“Could thou and I with fate conspire,

To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,

Would we not shatter it to bits–and then

Remold it nearer to the heart’s desire.”

(The author is a career diplomat. He can be reached at [email protected])

(Courtesy OPOYI)

 

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