Insights into Editorial: India’s UNSC Bid: Is it different this time?
During the 71 year history of the UN, Security Council reform has been a much demanded and debated subject. The recently concluded United Nations General Assembly meeting has further revived this topic.
Why UNSC reforms are required?
- Global politics has changed a lot – as regards its power, structure, rules, and norms since the formation of the UN. The world has witnessed a redistribution of power and emergence of new power centres, along with a transformation from the era of colonialism to that of post-colonial independent states. Existing membership and functioning of the UNSC reflects the realities of a bygone era.
- As a global institution to promote international peace and security, the UNSC is not responding to changes taking place in the world. The only change hitherto has been an increase in the number of non-permanent members in the UNSC from six to ten, that too as far back as 1965.
- Another criticism is that that the permanent panel in UNSC lacks representation from Africa and Latin America.
In 1992, a promising reform move was initiated in the form of a General Assembly Resolution, which highlighted the three major criticisms raised as regards the Council — lack of equitable representation, unresponsiveness towards new political realities and domination of Western states.
- In 1993, a General Assembly resolution established an Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) to discuss SC reform. Most reform proposals revolved around the five core issues of “membership categories, the question of the veto held by the five permanent members, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council, and Council working methods.
- However, even after negotiations for more than two decades, there exists a huge difference of opinion among members on these issues.
Demands by various groups across the world:
Groups have formed to lobby for permanent positions on the UNSC or at least to make the council more representative.
- The G4—Brazil, Germany, India and Japan—want to expand the Security Council to 25 members, which would comprise an extra six permanent and four non-permanent members. The new permanent seats would guarantee two places for Africa, two for Asia, one for Latin America and the Caribbean (GULAC), and one for western Europe and other states.
- The L.69 (Group of 42 developing countries) comprises 42 countries from Africa, Asia, Caribbean, South America and Pacific — and includes three of the four G-4 members (Brazil, India and South Africa). Similar to the G-4, L.69 also argues for reform as a way towards greater accountability, transparency, representation and legitimacy.
- The African Group, comprising 54 states from five regions of the continent, is another prominent advocate of reform. The coalition reflects the Ezulwini Consensus, the official position of the African Union, which demands two permanent seats with veto power for the African continent.
- The Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group led by Argentina, Mexico, Italy, Pakistan, and South Korea, the Arab Group comprised of members of the Arab League and 10 countries from Africa, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT), a cross-regional grouping of 27 countries, are the other leading constellations that have proposed reforms consistent with their particular interests and preferences.
Why it is difficult to reform UNSC?
- The UN’s rules state that changing the composition of the P5 involves changing the UN’s charter—making this, and other similar moves, difficult. To succeed, it would also require the backing of two-thirds of the General Assembly – including the current P5 and, as we have seen, this in itself is a huge hurdle.
- The organisation has, in terms of participation, been a huge success and its involvement in international affairs does carry significant weight. But the divide between the General Assembly and the Security Council is marked. GA delegates complain of a lack of transparency in the Security Council and even the non-permanent members can find themselves literally locked out when the P5 wishes to discuss matters alone.
- Political will among the more senior states is also delaying the advancement of any of these plans and problems unrelated to UN reform continue to cause friction among the rest of the UN’s members.
- Three among the five permanent members of the Security Council are still against Council reform that would entail a change in their present status. The possibility of changes in the positions of the US and Russia are unlikely since they are in a state of relative decline. Since it is their current status in the Council that provides them pre-eminence on issues related to international peace and security, they are not expected to support any move that reduces their say in global politics.
- It is also unrealistic to think that China would give up its present privileged status in the UN, even as it seeks greater influence and presence in global politics as a rising power.
In 2004 at the behest of the then UN secretary general, Kofi Anan, the 16-member High Level Panel On Threats, Challenges, and Change convened to produce a blueprint for Security Council reform. Two options were proposed by the panel: one suggested adding six new permanent members without veto power, with a further three non-permanent seats; the second would add eight seats, renewable every four years, also without veto power and with one new non-permanent seat.
- Another plan along similar lines, although bureaucratically more complex, came from a group within the organisation known as Uniting for Consensus (formerly known as the Coffee Club). This includes Italy, Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Mexico and Argentina and it has put forward proposals which again seek a more representative UNSC.
- In 2005, the group called for expansion of the non-permanent membership while retaining the current permanent composition; there would also be no expansion of the veto. The additional members would be elected by the General Assembly, with due regard to ‘the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization, and also to equitable geographical distribution’.
- Within that, there would be six from African states, five from Asia, four from Latin American and the Caribbean, three from western European and ‘other’ states and two from eastern Europe. The non-permanent members would be elected for two-year terms by their regions and there would be the possibility of immediate re-election. This plan was refined in 2009, suggesting further seats which could be occupied for an extended term of three to five years.
- The benefit of this system would be that the new seats would be allocated by region, with the actual state occupying the position decided by the regional group. Again while not reforming the P5 it would give more security to the rotating group, providing longer terms in office, building up confidence and institutional memory and therefore providing a better service regionally and globally.
India and the UNSC:
The UNSC, created in the post-War context, doesn’t actually reflect the changes that have occurred in the international system after the end of the Cold War. In a quarter century, the global economic architecture has undergone massive changes. The developing nations, including India, now play a bigger role in international affairs. But within the UN, the five permanent veto-wielding members still effectively take all the crucial decisions.
- The Indian position is that this “democracy deficit in the UN prevents effective multilateralism” in the global arena. The way the UNSC handled — or failed to handle — some of the recent crises would underscore the soundness of the Indian position.
- Take the examples of Libya and Syria. While the western nations are accused of distorting the UNSC mandate in Libya, the Security Council failed to reach a consensus on how the Syrian crisis may be resolved. This clearly points to a worsening institutional crisis within the UNSC.
Why India should be given a permanent seat in the council?
- India’s demand for a permanent seat has to be looked into, duly considering the merits of the case.
- It is the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s third largest economy.
- The Indian Army is the largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping mission since the inception of the mission.
- India’s foreign policy has historically been aligned with world peace, and not with conflicts.
- As a permanent member of the UNSC it will be able to play a larger role concerning pressing international issues.
Way ahead for India:
Given the consistency of the P5’s positions in the past and the minimal progress towards reform during the last two decades, there are three possible scenarios regarding India’s quest for permanent membership in the Security Council.
- First, India takes the leadership of reform calls and actively and relentlessly pushes other countries in that direction. Its latent power, remarkable economic growth, rapidly increasing defence capabilities, status as a nuclear weapons power, and contributions to UN peacekeeping all give it the right and privilege to assume such a responsibility. However, looking at India’s engagements with the UN combined with its growing indifference towards multilateralism in the recent past, such a development is unlikely.
- The second option is to push for Security Council reform without changing the current status of veto power. Since having a seat without veto is almost similar to not having a place in the Council, the likelihood of such a move from India is even less.
- The final possible scenario is for India to accept the fact that, given the current pace and momentum, Security Council reform is never going to happen and to consequently search for alternatives to push the agenda of emerging powers. Given the miserable fate of such alternatives, for example, BRICS and its uncertain future, this option would also be a great gamble.
On too many issues of global concern, the United Nations faces gridlock. The Security Council, embodying as it does the post-war oligopoly in its permanent membership, desperately needs reform to empower the wider world and to improve its effectiveness. But those with their feet under the table are reluctant to give way.
The recent adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution to begin discussions on UN Security Council reform has revived hopes of progress on a long-pending issue. Reform will need to address equitable representation, categories of membership and veto power if the Council is to retain its legitimacy.
Overall global influence is now pivoting towards Asia and away from the West, meaning the composition of the UN Security Council reflects a post-World War II colonial system that is woefully outdated but still powerful. If states do not see their grievances addressed, they may be minded to take their quest for justice to their regional representatives. Should this happen, then the pressure to reform the UNSC may decrease but such an eventuality could arguably diminish the status of the body too. Perhaps this vista is what may herald a change. Meaningful reform of the Council to make it more representative and democratic would strengthen the UN to address the challenges of a changing world more effectively.