India throws up its hands at UN's irrelevance today
It is one of those seasons when we again hear India staking its claim for a permanent seat in the UNSC. Most educated Indians find it a banal pitch, a waste of time, one of those ego trips which our political leaders take every season. Screaming headlines in media; India trying to punch above its weight on world stage is the general impression. There is more to it though.
India was still under the British yoke when it became one of the 51 original members of the UN at its formation in 1945. Three years later, insurgents backed by Pakistani military had invaded Kashmir. Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru took the matter to the UNSC, confident of a favourable verdict. He was jolted by their response, mostly by western powers, which treated the matter as a dispute between two states rather than an attack on India’s sovereignty.
India was offered a non-permanent seat in the UNSC, the first of its seven such terms, in 1950. The Korean War was the raging issue. India clamoured for a non-military, peaceful resolution to the conflict. UNSC instead voted for an armed intervention. India gracefully aided with field ambulances and after the war, actively helped out prisoners-of-war and refugees. It consistently offered troops, military observers and humanitarian aid to various UN operations in Asia and Africa.
Still, in 1961 when India forcibly wrested Goa from Portugal, a draft resolution was moved by the western powers against India which was thwarted by a veto from Soviet Union. A few years later, Soviet Union was again at the forefront when the India-Pakistan war broke out in 1965, helping India out with a ceasefire and a closure of the conflict.
In 1967, India took its second term in the UNSC. Now Israel-Arabs were fighting a bitter war. India opposed the Israeli aggression. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was also opposed by India on grounds of fairness. In 1971, the East Pakistan crisis broke out. As refugees flooded in from across the border, India intervened militarily. India faced a diplomatic isolation but Soviet Union was again a help, offering a veto on three UNSC resolutions against India.
In 1972, India took its third term as non-permanent member of the UNSC. West Asia conflicts were again dominating the headlines. Africa’s decolonisation was also underway. India opposed Israel for its actions in relation to terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. In 1974, India conducted the first public nuclear test by a non-UNSC permanent (P5) state. On nuclear terms, India became a pariah state even though it had not exported any nuclear weapons-related technology.
Despite this controversy, India returned to the UNSC in 1977. It co-sponsored a resolution on withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory; condemned South Africa’s involvement in Angola’s civil war; and raised three resolutions against the minority white regime in southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). It condemned apartheid in South Africa and was a party to arms embargo on the South African government.
India’s fifth term occurred in 1984. Its stance was again focussed on South Africa and Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Three years later Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had staged a three-year diplomatic and military engagement in Sri Lanka’s civil war which was an unmitigated disaster.
India’s sixth term was in 1991-92. Cold War had ended. There was a rare unity among UNSC five permanent members—US, France, Great Britain, China and Russia. This bonhomie was reflected when Iraq was forcibly evicted from Kuwait in 1991. But soon a series of civil wars broke out around the world, especially in Central America and Africa. In the UNSC, India abstained on two critical votes on Iraq. It also abstained when an arms embargo was slapped on Libya; humanitarian assistance was forwarded in Bosnia; UN peacekeeping force was expanded in Bosnia; membership of Yugoslavia was ended in UN. India clearly at this stage appeared upset by rising US hegemony in the world.
Throughout the 1990s, UNSC authorised use of force in internal conflicts around the world. India always took a moral and conscientious stance, opposing military and humanitarian interventions. It also upset great powers by opposition of the CTBT. In 1998, India shook the world with a series of nuclear tests. The sharp negative international reaction was short –lived though. India’s rapid economic growth after the 1991 economic reforms had suddenly made it lucrative for big powers and corporations.
From this time on, India sought for greater role in UN. In the 2005 UN Summit, India sided with Brazil, Germany and Japan and sought a permanent seat for each in the council. India, Brazil and South Africa also began playing a bigger international role, notably within the G-20 forum. It asked for reallocation of voting rights within the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
India’s seventh non-permanent seat in UNSC came about in 2011 after a wait of 19 years. By this time the world had changed. China and India had risen on global scale. NATO had conducted its misadventure in Afghanistan. In regard to various crises dealt by the Council—in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria—India didn’t take any action which could damage the international order. It asked for restraint on military interventions; it demanded well-planned and sufficiently resourced UN missions. It upheld its role as a guardian of the UN Charter. It asked for UN action on global terrorism and piracy.
Western powers, especially US, were particularly annoyed with India on its role in the UNSC. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, publicly expressed her disappointment with India for not taking a stronger stance on Syria. The New York Times (2012) published a sharp criticism on India, along with China and Russia, terming them as “enablers” of “two dangerous regimes (Libya and Syria).”
India also sought reform in UN peacekeeping missions. In over six decades, it has contributed more than 100,000 peacekeepers to various missions. It questioned the increasingly ambitious UN mandates of UN peacekeeping forces which made excessive use of coercive measures without exhausting diplomatic options.
India has been a traditional leader of developing nations in the UN. It understands that different UNSC permanent members—Britain, France and now US—espouse India’s cause in public but internally they don’t want India to get a permanent seat. This year wouldn’t be different.
What should be India’s options then: should it follow the G-4 approach as it is doing now or should it try to widen its base among small and developing nations? By the looks of it, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to follow both courses. It can’t afford to look like a leader of the Third World trade union and hence its attempt to be part of a rising power cartel—Brazil, Japan and Germany—is pragmatic.
India is also handicapped by its resources. Within the UNSC, India has the smallest mission of all major and middle powers. Its’ 24 officials are below that of Nigeria. The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has less than 100 officers spread over 120 diplomatic missions and 49 consulates, only slightly bigger than Singapore. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) budget is less than $2 billion of which less than 300 million is spent on embassies and missions abroad, according to 2012 figures.
India’s intellectual and institutional infrastructure is also woeful. India has the third largest number of think tanks in the world (behind China and US) but not a single one of them is in world’s top 30. Most of these think-tanks are only keen in pushing agenda of big powers in national newspapers of which English mainstream dailies are particularly gullible. India also gets bogged down on its internal political issues. There are too many domestic issues which take up its time, energy and resources.
It’s a fact that United Nations is still stuck in its 1945 approach and hardly reflects the change realities of the world. According to political analyst Ramesh Thakur, “if there was to be a vote on a new UNSC, (there is) no question but that India would get through, I suspect with the largest majority of all candidate countries.” India sees its interest best served in a rule-based, multilaterally structured and democratically governed international system. Or insurgencies in India could gain wind.
As India’s permanent mission to the UN has stated: “By an objective criteria, such as population, territorial size, GDP, economic potential, civilisational legacy, cultural diversity, political system, and past and ongoing contributions to the activities of the UN—especially to UN peacekeeping operations—India is eminently qualified for permanent membership.” That it wouldn’t happen this year is another matter though.