The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) debated Security Council (SC) reform on November 7, 2016. Reports note that many states favoured India’s candidature for permanent membership and demanded that an updated Security Council reflect the far reaching changes the world has witnessed since the formation of the United Nations in 1945.1 This article examines whether the new debate on reforming the Security Council generates any hope for India’s membership in the world body. The first part of the article discusses issues related to UNSC reforms, demands, proposals, challenges, and prospects. The second part focuses on India’s aspiration, scenarios and possible challenges to India’s bid.
During the 71 year history of the UN, Security Council reform has been a much demanded and debated subject. It is widely accepted that the existing membership and functioning of the UNSC reflects the realities of a bygone era. Global politics has changed a lot – as regards its power, structure, rules, and norms since the formation of the UN. The world has witnessed a redistribution of power and emergence of new power centres, along with a transformation from the era of colonialism to that of post-colonial independent states. However, as a global institution to promote international peace and security, the UNSC has not responded to these changes due to many reasons. The only change hitherto has been an increase in the number of non-permanent members in the UNSC from six to ten, that too as far back as 1965.
In 1992, a promising reform move was initiated in the form of General Assembly Resolution 67/62, which highlighted the three major criticisms raised as regards the Council — lack of equitable representation, unresponsiveness towards new political realities and domination of Western states.2 In 1993, General Assembly resolution 48/26 established an Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) to discuss SC reform.3 Most reform proposals revolved around the five core issues of “membership categories, the question of the veto held by the five permanent members, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council, and Council working methods.4 However, even after negotiations for more than two decades, there exists a huge difference of opinion among members on these issues.
The major coalitions for SC reforms include the G-4 (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan), the L.69 (Group of 42 developing countries), the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) (Group of 12 countries), the African Group (Coalition of 54 African countries) and P5 Countries (Britain, China, France, Russia and United States). G-4 is the leading contender for permanent membership in the Council, as they seek four permanent seats for themselves, and one more seat for the African continent. The coalition demands expansion of both categories of membership — permanent and non-permanent – so as to make the Council more representative of the new realities in the global political landscape.5 The L.69 comprises 42 countries from Africa, Asia, Caribbean, South America and Pacific — and includes three of the four G-4 members (Brazil, India and South Africa). Similar to the G-4, L.69 also argues for reform as a way towards greater accountability, transparency, representation and legitimacy.6
The African Group, comprising 54 states from five regions of the continent, is another prominent advocate of reform. The coalition reflects the Ezulwini Consensus, the official position of the African Union, which demands two permanent seats with veto power for the African continent. In addition to these four constellations, some other coalitions have also proposed reforms in accordance with their own interests and preferences. The Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group led by Argentina, Mexico, Italy, Pakistan, and South Korea, the Arab Group comprised of members of the Arab League and 10 countries from Africa, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT), a cross-regional grouping of 27 countries, are the other leading constellations that have proposed reforms consistent with their particular interests and preferences.
Since the adoption of the two GA resolutions related to Security Council reforms in 1992 and 1993, and the inception of the OEWG in 1993, the question of reform has made little progress. The OEWG, which came out with its report in 1995, the formation of a Working Group to Inter-Governmental Negotiation (IGN) in 2009, and the Group of Friends on Security Council Reform have been some of the developments towards Security Council reform hitherto. However, none of these formal and informal efforts were able to bring in either concrete institutional reform or create a broader consensus regarding the issues under debate.
India’s quest for a permanent seat in the UNSC has a long history stretching back to two and a half decades. India was one of the leading countries of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), which initiated a draft resolution of 1992 in the General Assembly on equitable representation in the Council. Since then, several formal and informal negotiations have been held both within and outside the UN to address the issue. These negotiations indicated the necessity and urgency of Council reform.
A careful reading of the report of the deliberations of the UNGA on November 7, 2016 would suggest that nothing has changed at the ground level; only the rhetoric of member states has been amplified. In a repeat of the scenario of past debates, two of the permanent members — the United States and Russia – inflexibly opposed any alteration to the existing veto system. The other two major powers — France and the United Kingdom -- extended their support to reform that would keep alive the competence of the UN. China, as in the past, took an ambiguous position towards the expansion and reform of the Council.7
The debate witnessed a division of opinion among the P5 members, whose unanimous consent is a pre-requisite for any reform, particularly on the question of veto. For instance, Vladimir K. Safronkov, representing the Russian Federation, observed that Council reform was one of the most complex issues on the UN agenda since the approaches of the major players are highly divergent.8 He also noted that any proposal which would “infringe on the rights of current permanent members, including historic right to veto” was unacceptable.9 While Russia continues to back India’s claim for a permanent seat from among the G-4 countries, its strong opposition to changes in veto has generated an apprehension that it is now inclined to support India as a permanent member only without veto power. The US also opposed an expansion or alteration of the veto and demanded the consideration of aspiring members’ contribution to peace and security as a criterion for granting permanent seats in an expanded Council.10 Since the start of the reform initiatives in 1992, the majority of Chinese statements has contained identical phrasings. A sample of such statements includes the following: “Council reform should be carried out on the basis of broad consensus”; “A proposal that was acceptable to the overwhelming majority of Member States had not yet emerged”; and “No artificial deadline should be set”.11
Three among the five permanent members of the Security Council are still against Council reform that would entail a change in their present status. The possibility of changes in the positions of the US and Russia are unlikely since they are in a state of relative decline. Since it is their current status in the Council that provides them pre-eminence on issues related to international peace and security, they are not expected to support any move that reduces their say in global politics. It is unrealistic to think that China would give up its present privileged status in the UN, even as it seeks greater influence and presence in global politics as a rising power. Moreover, reading the text of the November 7 debate makes it clear that additional permanent seats with veto power is at best a distant possibility. The P5 are unlikely to approve the promotion of any states to permanent status due to the fact that such a change would eventually dilute their power. Therefore, for reform-seekers including India, there is nothing to rejoice in the recent UNGA debate.
Given the consistency of the P5’s positions in the past and the minimal progress towards reform during the last two decades, there are three possible scenarios regarding India’s quest for permanent membership in the Security Council.
First, India takes the leadership of reform calls and actively and relentlessly pushes other countries in that direction. Its latent power, remarkable economic growth, rapidly increasing defence capabilities, status as a nuclear weapons power, and contributions to UN peacekeeping all give it the right and privilege to assume such a responsibility. However, looking at India’s engagements with the UN combined with its growing indifference towards multilateralism in the recent past, such a development is unlikely. Beyond the rhetorical statements of leaders and officials, it is still not clear whether a permanent seat in the Council is a priority for India. Many of the policy makers in the country still entertain doubts about the wisdom of India seeking greater space in an institution that has lost its legitimacy. In this situation, it is unrealistic to think that India would take the responsibility of patching the holes of the UN.
The second option is to push for Security Council reform without changing the current status of veto power. Since having a seat without veto is almost similar to not having a place in the Council, the likelihood of such a move from India is even less.
The final possible scenario is for India to accept the fact that, given the current pace and momentum, Security Council reform is never going to happen and to consequently search for alternatives to push the agenda of emerging powers. Given the miserable fate of such alternatives, for example, BRICS and its uncertain future, this option would also be a great gamble. BRICS was formed as a political and economic alternative to the Western-dominated architecture of global governance and to drive an emerging power agenda in such institutions. Nonetheless, no coherent action has been taken by BRICS countries in this regard. Such inaction raises questions about the ability of the emerging powers to either pilot multilateral institutions or push for reforms in the current global governance system.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.