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- India at the UN security council: a retrospect

After a gap of two decades, India gained temporary membership of the United Nations security council for a two calendar-year term of 2011/12 in an election that was almost a grand slam triumph, joining at the famous horseshoe table other UN security council aspirants like Germany, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa. But the Indian spokesman was the only one who exulted, saying that having stepped through the door, India would never leave again. This was obviously hyperbolic; having left the council at the end of 2012, an examination of the Indian profit and loss account is merited.

The government’s view is that India’s membership bolstered its standing as a major global player and received all-round recognition. It took balanced positions on issues of international peace and security, and furthered progress towards security council reform. As chair of the counter-terrorism committee, India ensured that the link between the Taliban and al Qaida was maintained and raised benchmarks to counter terror and address concerns on maritime piracy. A council statement last November recognized for the first time the problem as a global one rather than region-specific and urged all states to cooperate to suppress piracy and release hostages, and constantly to review the piracy high risk area. India stressed the perspective of troop-contributing countries on peacekeeping mandates and the importance of consultations with those countries, rather than passing decisions based merely on discussions among the permanent five members.

This view is to be given full weight, because our ambassador acts as an instrument of New Delhi’s directives, and if the government feels that India has concluded its term with its reputation enhanced, that is cause for satisfaction. However, the view from outside cannot be so sanguine.

In spite of our membership pro tem of the UN security council and our claim to be there permanently, discussions still continue in many UN overlapping forums on the expansion of permanent and non-permanent members — the intergovernmental negotiations, the G-4 (Brazil, India, Germany, Japan) the L-69 (the ‘South’) and the African C-10. But the obstacles remain the same; each contender is strenuously opposed by other countries in its own region, the United States of America is indifferent, and China enjoys being the only Asian permanent member. No formula is available that can command consensus or even secure the required two-thirds majority at the UN general assembly and the support of all the five permanent members. Meanwhile, non-permanent candidates have been nominated from the regional groups till 2034, hardly a measure of confidence in any early outcome.

On Syria, India’s stand appeared confused and contradictory. In March, 2011, India’s representative echoed the BRICS’s neutral position, tending to support the Bashar al-Assad government’s position, supporting Kofi Annan’s mission, a Syrian-led peace process, the commitment of Damascus to such a process and by implication blaming Turkey and some Gulf states for fanning the flames by supporting the insurgents. Also that month, India abstained on a UN human rights council resolution alleging human rights violations by Damascus. India also supported an impartial observer group for supervision and monitoring, although India was not a part of that group and it is not known if India offered to join.

When the security council, led by the US and Europe, tilted against Assad and towards the insurgents, India broke ranks with the Russian/ Chinese position and aligned itself with the West — as it was to do in the UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka. India backed accusations of Assad failing to live up to Syria’s commitments under UN resolutions, and called on Damascus to cease using heavy weapons, even as it became increasingly clear that human rights violations were perpetrated equally by the insurgents, who were being armed by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states.

By 2012, India’s position was allied increasingly with the US and the Gulf, and parted from Russia and China, who continued to veto draft resolutions equating the Syrian government with the insurgents. India voted for a resolution sponsored by the US and Turkey in the UNHRC. In July 2012, it voted in the security council for a one-sided motion sponsored by the West which Russia and China vetoed. Pakistan abstained as did South Africa. So India broke with all the BRICS states, and did not gain credibility with disingenuous explanations after the event. Supporters of India’s vote assert that to abstain would have been to abdicate responsibility as an aspiring permanent member, but critics dubbed India’s vote “dishonest, unprincipled and opportunistic”.

In August 2012, at the UN general assembly, India reaffirmed our abhorrence of regime change in abstaining to vote on a Saudi-sponsored resolution condemning Syria because it implied that Assad should step down, though Russia and China went further and voted against.

Five days after the Israeli attack on Gaza in November 2012, New Delhi finally took a neutral equidistant position, calling on both sides to show restraint, which actually favoured Israel, which seems to have become our ‘strategic partner’. India will not comment on the disproportionate violence used by Israel and on the blockade of Gaza, the root cause of the problem. While no nation disputes Israel’s right to defend itself, an IBSA statement from New York correctly emphasized the urgent lifting of the blockade and supported Palestine’s observer status at the UN.

From the American standpoint, the Middle East has been an important yardstick in its relationship with India, though India has no common cause with the US and self-styled champions of democracy and human rights like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have their scores to settle with Assad, Iran and the Shias. India is not interested in inciting sectarian strife in the Arab world or elsewhere and no one has the least idea what a regime change in Syria may portend. We cannot surely be complicit in toppling secular authorities by authoritarian Islamist ones. India was buffeted by contradictory considerations. Reluctant to oppose the US, perhaps it had a pragmatic eye on relations with Assad’s successor government, and manpower, remittances and energy from the Gulf, against exiguous economic ties with Syria.

There was little India could do against general support for Annan’s successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, as the UN special envoy to Syria, but the appointment will result in nothing: Brahimi is a busted flush who failed in his previous UN roles as facilitator in Iraq (2004) and Afghanistan (1997-99).

Pakistan joined the UN security council in January 2012, the election being won in the first round by the smallest margin, with 55 countries voting for rival no-hoper Kyrgyzstan as an obvious negative vote. India voted for Pakistan and proclaimed it had done so, resulting in a rare display of Indo-Pak amity at the UN until the political appointee, Hussain Haroon, was replaced by a career diplomat who reverted to Pakistan’s default uncooperative attitude. The Pakistani army does not hold the UN as priority other than for peacekeeping benefits cherished by its soldiery.

From the outset, Washington had indicated that “responsible behaviour” at the security council, in keeping with that of a permanent member, was expected of India. Such criteria may have weighed on India when it voted with the West on Libya and Syria. India regarded its term on the UN security council as a rehearsal for permanent membership, and in seeking to win the confidence of the West, especially the US, and perhaps consolidate ties with the Gulf states, compromised our position as a progressive free-thinking state. It was an opportunity lost. India did not display the independence to carve out a distinctive made-in-India foreign policy. One sixth of humanity deserves creative thinking and an independent opinion.

India was unable to contribute substantially to thematic, macroeconomic and humanitarian issues such as HIV/AIDS, climate change, and empowerment of women, and introduced no new ideas. There was no progress on cross-border terrorism or its financing although India was the chairman of the counter-terrorism committee. We were unable to use this position to put pressure on Pakistan.

We were not able to capitalize on association in the security council with Germany, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa. No resolution on Syria was introduced by this group, and neither Annan nor Brahimi visited India for consultations. Manmohan Singh did not attend the UN general assembly in 2012, although he was at the Tehran non-aligned summit the same month. This displayed scant interest in the security council or permanent membership.

The ministry of external affairs is not to blame. It receives eleventh hour instructions from multiple sources: the national security adviser, the prime minister’s office and even 10 Janpath. There is tension between India’s traditional foreign policy positions and the new demands of international relations, resulting in a lack of any definition of India’s role in the world. What might endure in the memory about India’s latest tenure in the UN security council might be the unlamented former foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, reading out someone else’s speech.