IDSA COMMENT

India’s Past Year at the UN Security Council

February 7, 2012

When India garnered overwhelming support from the United Nations General Assembly for its election as a non-permanent member to the Security Council, it was a victory that acknowledged India’s growing importance in global governance, both in economic and security terms.1 The election was also significant as India returned to the Council after a long gap of almost 20 years. Recognizing it as an achievement that was hard-won, India determined to make full use of its stay in the Council and push for the expansion of Council membership, both in the permanent and non-permanent categories.

The year 2011 at the Council will stand out in terms of the diplomatic successes that India gained. Right from the discretion it displayed on delicate issues such as Libya and Syria to the local canvassing that secured it positions in various UN bodies, India was able to gain a strong foothold in the Council. The concepts that stemmed from the Arab Awakening guided and dominated the Council’s proceedings, be it the debates on protection of civilians or conflict resolution or the debate on working methods in the Council. On these occasions, the Indian delegation espoused the fundamental principles of Indian foreign policy such as respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states, peaceful settlement of disputes and last resort to the use of force. Highlighted below are some of the issues that dominated the Council’s deliberations during the past year.

The Year That Was

2011 began with the Arab Awakening and two countries, Libya and Syria, grabbed much of the Security Council’s attention during the year with member states disagreeing on the approaches to be adopted to address these issues. On the issue of Libya, right from the initial days, India supported a ‘calibrated and gradual’ approach. It also took a stand against the enforcement of a no-fly zone or the use of force to end the civil war. India eventually abstained from the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973 and expressed dissent over the military intervention into Libya. Though, during the initial stages, its stance was condemned by the Western powers, the collateral damage caused by their intervention made the Indian stand appear prudent.

India’s stand on Syria was in tandem with its position on Libya, calling as it did for respect of state sovereignty and non-intervention. India stressed on engagement with the Syrian government through a ‘collaborative and constructive’ dialogue and not complicating the situation through threats of sanctions or regime change. Seeking to address the burning concerns of violation of human rights, India set Syria as a priority on its agenda during its presidency month and permitted a discussion on the issue.

During the 2011 debates on protection of civilians and the high level meeting on conflict prevention, the Indian stance was clear, staunch and resonated with its positions on Libya and Syria. In the debate on protection of civilians held in May against the backdrop of the Western intervention in Libya, India reiterated its unwavering position for respect of state sovereignty, the responsibility of the state to protect civilians and the use of force as a last resort. India also called for facilitation of talks between warring groups in a conflict situation in lieu of threats of sanctions and regime change. It emphasized that any international decision to intervene in a country in conflict should be based on protecting civilians and not be distracted by political motives.

Elections and Appointments

In 2011, India got itself elected to various UN bodies which will increase its visibility within the international organization over the next few years. When India won its election to the UNSC, it also assumed the chairmanship of the Counter-Terrorism Committee for a period of two years. With India at the helm, the Committee came out with a document on its 10th anniversary asking member states to ensure ‘zero tolerance’ towards terrorism by denying safe havens to terrorists and bringing the perpetrators of terrorism to justice.

India was also elected to the 15-member Human Rights Council, the Economic and Social Council, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, took charge of the UN Secretary-General’s Change Management Team and will also chair the panel of external auditors of the UN. The high note in India’s electoral achievements was its election, after 35 years, to the UN’s only external oversight body, the Joint Inspection Unit, traditionally considered to be the pocket-borough of the P5 members.

Other Issues

Given its security concerns with piracy off the coast of Somalia, India was actively engaged in deliberations on Somalia within the Council. India called for a comprehensive response to the scourge of piracy under the multilateral umbrella of the UN. It emphasized on setting up adequate judicial systems to prosecute and punish those involved in piracy. With regard to Iran, India argued in support of its right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes which is consistent with India’s traditional stand. It noted the need to address the Iranian nuclear issue by peaceful means through dialogue and negotiation and called for a diplomatic solution to any international concern over Tehran’s nuclear programme. India also extended support to Palestine’s bid for UN membership at the General Assembly and, during debates on the Middle East, condemned Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of Palestine.

UNSC Reforms/ UN Working Methods

When India got elected to the UNSC, it not only hoped to cement its key role in global politics but also utilize these two years in garnering support for its permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Right from the moment India became a non-permanent member last year, the agenda towards UNSC reform was unambiguous. India was clear that she wanted an expanded Security Council that would reflect ‘contemporary reality’ with no provision for an ‘interim or intermediate’ model.

As part of the G4 and L.69 groups, 2 India is pressing for a reformed Council that would accommodate around 25 members, with six new members in the permanent category to include two seats from Africa, two from Asia, one each from Latin America and the Caribbean, one from West Europe and one from the Others Group. The non-permanent seats would be expanded from 10 to 14 or 15 members with the addition of one new non-permanent seat each for Asia, East Europe, GRULAC (Latin American and Caribbean Group) and one or two non-permanent seats for the African states. Such an expansion would also need to be comprehensively reviewed after a period of 15 years to revisit the entire structure of the UNSC. India is also striving for Council reforms in terms of a veto restraint agreement whereby the permanent members would limit the usage of veto power and abstain from using it under certain circumstances.

On various occasions in the last year, India got to voice her opinion and strengthen her stand in pushing for UNSC reforms. Featuring prominently were the efforts made towards reforming the working methods of the UNSC. In the UNSC’s Open Debate on Working Methods of the Security Council, India placed on the table some propositions for reform of the working methods of the Council which, in turn, would require a comprehensive reform in the membership of the Council with expansion in both the permanent and non-permanent categories. In this debate, India put forward recommendations in an effort to deal with the anachronistic system that jeopardizes the effective functioning of the Council. Among other issues, India questioned the monopoly of the P5 members in drafting resolutions and underscored the need to make it more democratic. India also proposed making serious efforts for the pacific settlement of disputes under Chapter VI before mandating measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In addition, the appointment of an Indian in the UN Secretary General’s Change Management Team has provided India with an additional platform for a forward-looking reform agenda for the UN that will work to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the international body. India’s certainty about the uncertainty of its return to the Council any time in the near future has propelled it to make an impact while in the Council and put forth as many reform proposals as it can during its term.

2012 – What’s on the cards?

2012 brings in an altered Council composition, amongst them being the entry of Pakistan and the exit of Brazil. In 2012, India will serve alongside Pakistan for the fourth time after having shared earlier stints in 1968, 1977 and 1984. Given their similar positions on crucial issues such as peacekeeping and disarmament, the two nations are not likely to clash head-on in this regard. However, the progress made towards UN Security Council expansion may take a beating owing to Pakistan’s membership in the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group, which is against the addition of any new permanent member in the Council. Another source of dispute between the countries could be over counter-terrorism. The Counter-Terrorism Committee which under India’s chairmanship had introduced the concept of ‘zero tolerance towards terrorism’ is likely to be challenged by Pakistan. 3 Differences aside, the probable and perhaps the only expectation from the Indian side towards Pakistan’s entry into the Council would be that the latter should not rake up bilateral issues in the Council and avoid resorting to India-bashing.

On the other hand, Brazil’s exit from the Council could also prove to be decisive for the execution of India’s agenda this year. The end of Brazil’s tenure would imply that the G4, BRICS and IBSA would be short of one member within the Council. The absence of Brazil would also mean that India would lose out on an ally in the non-permanent member category that had held similar positions on the issue of protection of civilians and situations like Libya and Syria. Moreover, India and Germany would be the only nations in the Council shepherding the G4 proposal for reform. However, despite Brazil being out of the Council, the momentum towards UNSC reforms remains unabated. The joint statement made by the G4 nations in the General Assembly4 calling for early UNSC reforms through a short resolution stands testimony to this.

India’s overall approach in the past year has been focused on projecting and representing the opinion of the developing world, addressing problems through regional solutions and achieving as much progress as possible through diplomacy and dialogue. This approach continues in 2012 as well, as was witnessed in the case of Syria last week. India’s position on the UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria marked a shift from the traditional anti-Western stance, yet, at the same time, did not compromise on or deviate from its long-held advocacy of peaceful engagement, constructive dialogue and respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Issues that dominated the Council in 2011 will be prominent this year as well. The next eleven months will witness India lending its expertise to a host of themes that include UNSC reforms, peacekeeping operations, anti-piracy policies, continuation of its stand on Palestine, Afghanistan, pacific settlement of disputes and the like. India will continue to uphold its long-established principles during Council deliberations seeking peaceful and multilateral solutions. Though its priority, the expansion of the Security Council, seems unlikely to bear fruition in the next eleven months before India completes its tenure, the consistent support5 that India has been gathering for its permanent membership from the larger international community brings in some optimism. Since India’s commitment to the UN does not end with the Council membership, it is but obvious that sustained efforts with increased visibility in the UN at large beyond the 2012 deadline is essential.

  1. 1. Changavalli Siva Rama Murthy, ‘India as a Non-permanent Member of the UN Security Council in 2011-12’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, May 2011, p. 2.
  2. 2. “L.69” refers to the countries that supported draft resolution, A/61/L.69 which was submitted by 27 Member States on 11 September 2007. It was drafted by India and some of its more prominent co-sponsors were Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria. Source: http://www.centerforunreform.org/node/435
  3. 3. “Pakistan at the UN Security Council”, Livemint.com, October 30, 2011 at http://www.livemint.com/2011/10/30224502/Pakistan-at-the-UN-Security-Co.html
  4. 4. “Informal Plenary: Joint Statement by Brazil, Germany, India and Japan on Security Council Reform”, January 26, 2012 at http://www.new-york-un.diplo.de/Vertretung/newyorkvn/en/__pr/Speeches/PM__2012/20120126-Wittig-on-Security-Council-Reform.html
  5. 5. The short resolution passed by the G4 received an encouraging support in the form of 85 signatures, 53 other expressions of support and another 14-15 in the pipeline from the General Assembly.