Three quarters into India’s current 24-month term in the United Nations security council, it is becoming manifest that the country does not deserve to be a permanent member of the council, a goal which has wide support among its people and political leadership. What makes India undeserving of this ambition is not its government or its diplomacy, but a deeper malaise that has been evident from the day the country was overwhelmingly elected to the security council at the end of 2010 after a gap of nearly two decades. Sad to say, it is elements which holistically enable a nation to fulfil the responsibilities accompanying global leadership, such as a permanent seat at the world’s high table, that have failed India.
Membership of the security council does not merely involve making speeches at the council’s horseshoe table in Turtle Bay or casting votes on resolutions. In order for the membership to be truly meaningful, there should be informed debate within the country on the weighty issues that are brought before the UN and a significant appreciation of how national positions on these issues can be translated for the larger good of India, its neighbourhood and for its alliances, which in India’s case, are essentially developing country platforms. India’s strategic community and its fora for public discourse have repeatedly come up short on UN issues in the last 19 months of New Delhi’s participation in the security council. The most recent example of this is an ongoing criticism, at times stinging and forceful, of India’s vote in favour of a resolution on Syria in the council on July 19, a resolution which was vetoed by Russia and China.
The resolution, which was brought forward by France, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, together with the criticism of India’s vote in its favour, deserves a comprehensive review because the episode has become typical of a lack of informed analysis within India on UN issues. In turn, an impression is growing in the world capitals that India, as a nation, is prone to knee-jerk reactions, ill-founded contretemps and an inability to take mature decisions. All of this recalls the famous remark of the former US diplomat, Robin Raphel, in the 1990s at the US state department that it is so easy to create a storm in New Delhi, after which she proceeded to prove her point in a single media briefing.
Unless this tendency is checked, India’s dream of a permanent seat in the council will steadily evaporate into fantasy, and influential members of the country’s strategic community will be equated with some of their counterparts in Washington, who routinely tell Americans that the UN is a threat to the sovereignty of the US and should be expelled from Manhattan.
Critics of the vote, which India cast side by side with the major Western powers, have been apoplectic in making a case that the July 19 resolution, had it not been vetoed by Russia and China, would have paved the way for a military intervention to oust the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, just as a security council resolution was used as a fig leaf for regime change in Libya. These critics have been crying foul that the vetoed resolution was drafted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which was used, for instance, to liberate Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion in 1990. Chapter 7 deals with the UN action in the event of threats to or breach of peace and acts of aggression.
But a careful reading of the resolution would have shown its critics that it was the peace plan for Syria of the UN envoy, Kofi Annan, that was specifically being put under Chapter 7 in the Western resolution. When Annan was mandated several months ago to negotiate peace, he asked Assad and the opposition to walk back from a precipice to which their confrontation had brought Syria. Annan’s appeal and his efforts had a calming effect for a while, but given the nature of Syria’s strife it was soon back to the battlefield. The only way the well-respected former UN secretary-general’s mission can have some teeth is by invoking Chapter 7, so that all parties to the Syrian conflict would know that there would be consequences for inaction. Pious entreaties were not working, so the vetoed resolution was an attempt to enforce peace when preaching peace was no longer found to be effective.
India has supported the Annan plan from the start and continues to do so. It defies logic that New Delhi could have voted against the July 19 resolution, which was an attempt at enforcing Annan’s peace plan after having declared from every possible platform that India wants the envoy to succeed in his efforts to end the conflict. A vote against that resolution would have been a vote against India’s own position from the day Annan’s services were requisitioned. During the week leading up to July 19, there were two draft resolutions that were being circulated among members of the security council: one was the vetoed Western draft, while a second draft was authored by Russia.
If the Russian resolution had been put to vote, India would have voted for that as well because it mandated the extension of the 300-member UN Supervision Mission in Syria, which was created in April to support the implementation of Annan’s peace plan, by 90 days. The Western resolution, which India voted for, sought to extend UNSMIS by 45 days. Eventually, a third resolution extended the term of UNSMIS by a month.
Russia did not put its resolution to vote because it lacked the mandatory backing of nine security council members that was needed for its passage. Even China backed out of supporting the Russian draft because it considered such a resolution to be ritualistic. The fact is that there is no more support in the security council for political correctness with Syria drifting from a crisis into a catastrophe, something critics of India’s nuanced position prefer to ignore partly for ideological reasons and partly because of a reluctance to deal with realpolitik. That neither the Russian draft nor the Western could eventually be passed is a reflection of the absence of a critical meeting ground among the Big Five powers in the security council who ultimately control the outcomes at its horseshoe table. To argue that India should have abstained on Syria is to abdicate its responsibility as an aspiring permanent member of the council. It has shades of the “historic blunder” that prevented the late Jyoti Basu from shouldering responsibilities that were being offered to him.
Contrary to the misinformation in India, the Russian draft was hard on Assad. Some passages bear that out. In one section, the draft referred to “the widespread violations of human rights by the Syrian authorities, as well as any human rights abuses by armed groups” while in another it sought the “release of arbitrarily detained persons and...the need for Syrians to enjoy the freedom to assemble and freedom of movement for journalists throughout the country.” The Russian draft also referred to “necessary conditions for a political transition”. Those who cry foul about the West’s invocation of Chapter 7 have — deliberately, it would seem — ignored that compliance of the council’s demands under this chapter are under its Article 41 and not 42. Article 41 explicitly abjures “the use of armed force… to give effect to its decisions”, while Article 42 provides for military solutions.
Logically, implementation of such a resolution could move from Article 41 to 42, that is, from diplomatic and economic punishments to punitive military measures. But such a progression would require fresh authorization from the council, something Russia and China are certain to veto. This should make Indians consider the central question surrounding its votes on Syria. Is there an appetite for going to war to remove Assad? Certainly not in Washington, at any rate not before the presidential election in November, and perhaps not before the inauguration of the next US president. This allows Indian diplomacy room for some creativity on Syria such as several amendments that New Delhi’s diplomats in New York inserted into the Western draft on July 19 before they voted for the resolution.