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TOP OF THE HIGH TABLE

- India in its second presidency of the Security Council

When the monster hurricane, Sandy, paralysed New York at the end of last month, India became the United Nations security council. On November 1, the day India’s ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, became president of the Security Council for the second time during the country’s ongoing two-year term as an elected member, the iconic UN premises on Manhattan’s Turtle Bay, including the chamber where the members of the Security Council gather for their meetings, had been rendered dysfunctional by the hurricane.

The 15 countries at the world’s diplomatic high table were fretting. Already, the council had lost three critical days, the final days under its Guatemalan presidency in October because the UN was forced to shut down on account of the hurricane. Both by way of custom and work plan, the sunset days of every rotating presidency are usually the busiest days for the council. There was no more time to be lost.

So India’s permanent mission to the UN, as the incoming presidency of the council, resolved to take matters into their hands. Just as the proverbial mountain would not go to Muhammad, and their roles, therefore, had to be reversed, Puri and his colleagues in New York decided that if they could not go to the Security Council, the alternative was to make the Security Council go to them.

Unlike the UN premises alongside the East River, which had been flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, India’s permanent mission, albeit nearby, is on higher ground and was functional. Therefore, the council’s 15 ambassadors went there, instead, for meetings with their new president which traditionally takes place on the first day of a rotating presidency.

In addition, the council’s “political coordination” meeting, which also takes place on the opening day of a new presidency, was held at the Indian Mission. The council, which is presumed to be in continuous session, held its very first meeting at Church House in London’s Westminster on January 17, 1946, but since then the New York has been its permanent home.

It has, of course, met many times at the UN’s temporary headquarters in Hunter College in New York, before the present UN building was completed on August 21, 1950. But this was the very first time in history that the council held its meetings in a member country’s mission in New York.

On such a historic occasion, when India became the temporary home of the Security Council, the country’s diplomats in New York proved to be innovative. Manhattan was still comatose after the hurricane’s fury, but Indian diplomats used their limited resources and abundant imagination to create a replica of the famous horseshoe table, which is emblematic of the Security Council, for the meetings at their permanent mission.

The council’s permanent chamber at the UN is now under renovation and it is not expected that members will go back there before the end of next year. When the UN headquarters reopened after floods from Hurricane Sandy had ebbed and council meetings under the Indian presidency moved back there, some diplomats from member countries could not help remarking that the Indian Mission was actually a better option than the temporary conference room number 7 where they met to approve their work programme for November.

As an aside though, it was not only the Indians who rose to the occasion to facilitate the resumption of the council’s work after the hurricane. When the meeting to approve their work programme under Puri’s presidency took place, the UN building was only barely functional again. That meant there was no simultaneous translation of the council’s proceedings. But the French ambassador, Gérard Araud, waived the requirement and allowed the meeting to proceed. It was the first time in the history of the council that France had made an exception to the mandatory simultaneous translation of the council’s proceedings. The working languages at the UN secretariat are English and French.

India is in a somewhat rare position of having shouldered the presidency of the Security Council twice during its two-year term. Its previous presidency was in August 2011. It came after a long interval of 19 years. This second opportunity is a chance that has come its way because of the alphabetical order of the council’s composition which can change from year to year depending on which countries are elected by the UN general assembly each year.

Although Pakistan joined the council on January 1 this year, it has not yet got an opportunity to preside over the council meetings even once because its turn in alphabetical order will not come until January 2013. And because it is determined by the first letter of a country’s name, Pakistan will get only one presidency during its two-year term. After India, it will be Morocco’s turn to become the Security Council’s president in December because there are no other members in alphabetical order between ‘I’ and ‘M’.

India is using its second presidency to introduce a mix of initiatives that reflects its strengths, its principles and its rich cultural diversity. Next Monday, the Shahi Qawwals from Ajmer will perform at the UN at the invitation of the permanent representative of India and his wife. The concert to celebrate Sufi music has the theme, “Love Towards All, Malice Towards None”.

The highlight of the month, though, will be a special launch of the Aakash-2 tablet computer before a global audience from 193 member countries of the UN, which will be attended by the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. The government’s decision two years ago to bridge India’s digital divide by equipping 220 million students across the country with low-cost Aakash tablets has caught the imagination of the UN.

Suneet Singh Tuli, an Indo-Canadian engineer who designed Aakash, is bringing enough pieces of his tablet to the launch: they will be given away to curious UN ambassadors from every member country of the world body. Puri wanted to do the launch in April, but since India was contesting an election in the General Assembly at that time, it was feared that the distribution of a tablet, howsoever low-priced, might be misunderstood in the midst of a keenly-fought UN election as an unethical inducement to get members to vote for New Delhi’s candidate. The UN has no model code of conduct like the one from India’s Election Commission that goes into force during an election campaign.

India has assumed the chair of the council after the customary lean summer season at the UN. Traditionally, November is the second busiest month for the Security Council after September when more than 100 heads of state or government descend on Turtle Bay for the annual general assembly. It is, therefore, impressive that Indian diplomats in New York have put together a work programme for this month that rivals other similar presidencies.

On Monday, for instance, the council held an open debate on piracy as a threat to international peace and security. Surprisingly, this was the first time that the council had taken a comprehensive look at piracy as a global threat even though the issue has affected many member states and dominated headlines from time to time for several years now. Previous efforts in this direction by the council have been limited to addressing piracy concerns specifically off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea as individual instances.

The long list of issues to be tackled under India’s presidency includes many that are of critical concern in New Delhi, some of them perennial, such as counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and working methods of the Security Council. In the end, the schedule became so overloaded that some plans, including arrangements made for a retrospective on M.F. Husain’s humanism series had to be dropped for want of slots.

Its second presidency, in a sense, is a test case of how India would do when it becomes a permanent member of the Security Council in due course. So far the country has acquitted itself well. But the United Progressive Alliance government, caught up in its web of problems at home, either has no time for making the most of the country’s membership of the world’s diplomatic high table or, less likely, is blissfully unaware of the potential of council membership after being on the margins of the UN for nearly two decades.

Monday’s thematic debate was an opportunity to raise India’s profile around the horseshoe table by bringing to the UN the country’s articulate and personable new external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, for example. Most countries take similar actions during their rotating presidency, but South Block missed the chance. Maybe, as a Latin American diplomat at the UN remarked, New Delhi has so much confidence and trust in its diplomats in New York that it is not necessary to reinforce their strength with any high level visit from headquarters.