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India snubs UN on peace troops’ pay

New Delhi, Feb. 22: India, the world’s third largest supplier of United Nations peacekeepers, has boycotted a key meet of the global body in protest against developed nations that have blocked a move to lift a two-decade freeze on hikes in allowances for peace troops.

The country’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, Asoke Kumar Mukherji, pointedly stayed away from a February 19 meeting opened by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon after warning the UN Security Council a week earlier, top government officials have told The Telegraph.

The boycott --- rare in the recent history of India’s diplomatic engagement with the UN --- comes just two months after two Indian peacekeepers were killed while defending a compound full of citizens in South Sudan.

The protest, officials said, is a direct message India wants to send to the UN that it is unwilling to accept that nations sending most troops to the world’s most troubled hotspots should be overruled by countries that finance the global body but aren’t risking soldiers.

It was also aimed at reminding the Security Council of how little its attitude to emerging economies seeking a permanent seat had changed in over half a century. In 1961, India’s then top diplomat to the UN, C.S. Jha, had articulated similar concerns, only to be ignored.

India is currently contributing 7,837 peacekeepers to the UN force, according to January 2014 UN figures. Only Pakistan and Bangladesh top India’s contribution.

“The troop contributing countries put at risk the lives of their soldiers in the service of the United Nations,” Mukherji told the Security Council at a discussion on February 12, according to recorded minutes of the meet, before threatening to boycott the February 19 meet. “We do not know if we will participate.”

A January meeting between countries contributing most peacekeepers and major funders of UN peacekeeping efforts was the flashpoint for the Indian protest, officials said.

India and other developing nations demanded a raise in the daily allowance of peacekeepers --- stagnant at US $1.28 (Rs. 80) --- and in another allowance for rest and recuperation that has stood at US $10 (Rs 630) a day for the past decade.

But the major financial contributors to peacekeeping operations --- the US, Japan, France, Germany, UK, China, Italy, Russia, Canada and Spain are the 10 biggest funders --- agreed only to a nominal 0.75 per cent hike in reimbursements of equipment, and refused to raise allowances.

“It is most embarrassing for us to recount the approach taken towards reimbursement of contingent-owned equipment by the finance contributing countries, many of whom are present around the horse-shoe table,” Mukherji told the Security Council at the February 12 meet. “To not do so would, however, be shirking a responsibility that we owe to this organisation as one of its most important troop contributing countries.”

Though India is not a part of the current Security Council, it was invited along with several other nations for both the February 12 and February 19 discussions by Lithuania’s Linas Antanas Linkevics who is chairing the Council this month.

Ban was joined by representatives from 66 countries --- including Pakistan and Bangladesh --- at the February 19 meeting that India boycotted, records of that meeting show.

At the February 12 meeting, Mukherji outlined to the Security Council the often fatal challenges Indian peacekeepers face, referring to the December 19 death of warrant officers Kumar Pal Singh and Dharmesh Sangwan --- and the difficulties their nations have to confront.

The two soldiers were a part of a 40-member strong Indian peacekeeping contingent that was guarding a compound full of refugees from the Dinka ethnic group in Akobo, South Sudan, when they were attacked by over 2000 armed youth. The peacekeepers, despite holding superior firepower, were restrained in their defence, Mukherji said, and Singh and Sangwan “paid for it with the supreme sacrifice”.

But India’s protest also comes at a time New Delhi is increasingly hinting that it is frustrated with the slow progress in Security Council reforms under which Brazil, Germany, Japan and India are seeking permanent seats on the top panel of the global body.

Democracies like India need to take account of public opinion, Mukherji said, recalling the words of Jha, India’s permanent representative to the UN in 1961, had said when New Delhi contributed 6,000 of the 16,000 peacekeepers deployed at the time in the conflict-torn Congo.

“We cannot forget, nor should the Council forget, that we have involved ourselves in the Congo at very great sacrifice, and that involvement does not mean merely the discomfort, the inconveniences and sometimes the loss of life to our young men serving in the Congo,” Jha had famously said then.

But Jha’s words, Mukherji told the Security Council, were ignored, and the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo almost broke up with 12 nations withdrawing troops, upset with New York.

“When we spoke in the Council on November 24, 1961, our voice was not heeded. We fear that the same may happen today,” Mukherji said on February 12. “The consequences we, however, hope will not be the same.”