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Insights into Editorial: India’s UN journey, from outlier to the high table



The 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN) is an opportunity to look at the major trends, patterns and future challenges as far as India is concerned in terms of safeguarding its interests and promoting common good.

That the UN is indispensable is uncontested despite the clamour for reforms to strengthen its role.

As Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once observed in his address to the UN General Assembly on December 20, 1956, “Of course, even if the United Nations did not do anything wonderful, the mere fact of the United Nations itself has been of great significance to the world.”

India at the UN: Membership and phases

  1. Seven and a half decades of India at the UN may be viewed with reference to roughly three distinct phases.
  2. In the first phase until the end of the Cold War in 1989, India had learnt the ropes of exploring and enhancing its diplomatic influence as a moderating force in easing armed conflicts in Asia and Africa by disentangling them from the superpower rivalry.
  3. In parallel, the Indian leadership learned the hard way that the UN could not be relied upon to impartially resolve vital security disputes such as Jammu and Kashmir.
  4. As such, it strove to utilise the UN only to focus on common causes such as anti-colonialism, anti-racism, nuclear disarmament, environment conservation and equitable economic development.
  5. India, in a clever way, seemed to claim the moral high ground by proposing, in 1988, a bold, but obviously impractical, three-phase plan to eliminate nuclear weapons from the surface of earth. But it resisted attempts by neighbouring countries to raise bilateral problems. This was reflected during the Bangladesh liberation war and after.
  6. In essence, a loss of face for India in the 1962 border war against China meant a definitive redesign of the country’s diplomatic style to privilege bilateral contacts over the third-party role by the UN.

At present, need for UN reforms:

Since 1993, the UN General Assembly has hotly debated Council reform but has not been able to reach agreement.

  1. The membership of the Security Council has changed very little since its inception in 1945, even though the number of UN member states has almost quadrupled.
  2. The UNSC does not include a permanent member from the African, Australian and South American continents, the G-4 group of Brazil, India, Germany and Japan.
  3. The differences between permanent and non-permanent seats produce a highly unequal and inefficient Security Council.
  4. The five permanent members (P5) – Britain, France, United States, Russia and China – possess permanent seats and have the privilege of the veto whilst the status of non-permanent members is low.
  5. The performance of the Security Council in maintaining international peace and security has been poor. It failed in its actions in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.
  6. The UN’s reform process, held through IGN has not made progress over decades, despite commitments.
  7. Intergovernmental Negotiations framework (IGN) is a group within the United Nations that looks into UNSC reforms but it has made no progress since 2009 when it was formed. The group’s conversation is considered ‘informal’ in nature.

Winds of change: 21st century opened new avenues for India to shine at the UN:

  1. The impressive economic performance in the first decade, thanks to economic liberalisation and globalisation policies, helped a great deal in strengthening its profile.
  2. This is only aided by its reliable and substantial troop contributions to several peacekeeping operations in African conflict theatres.
  3. India has emerged as a responsible stakeholder in non-traditional security issue areas such as the spread of small and light weapons, the threat of non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and the impact of climate change.
  4. In a related dimension, India has scaled up its contributions to development and humanitarian agencies, while India’s share to the UN assessed budget has registered a hike from 0.34% to 0.83%.
  5. Finally, India’s growing popularity is evident in the successful electoral contests for various prestigious slots in the UNSC, the Human Rights Council, the World Court, and functional commissions of the Economic and Social Council, at times defeating the nominees of China and the United Kingdom.

However, two major initiatives India has heavily invested in are stuck without much hope of a timely outcome.

  1. The first relates to the draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism it drafted and revised with the hope of helping consensus.
  2. But it encountered reservations from among Islamic and other countries on provisions regarding definition of terrorist and the convention’s application to state armed forces.

Security Council expansion:

  1. Equally important is the question of equitable expansion of the UNSC to enable India to attain permanent membership along with other claimants from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
  2. The move has been stuck for more than 25 years because of a lack of unity among the regional formations.
  3. It also includes stout opposition from some 30 middle powers such as Italy and Pakistan which fear losing out to regional rivals in the event of an addition of permanent seats, and the intrigues masterminded by one or two permanent members.
  4. Although India enjoys by far the greatest support, the only realistic possibility seems to settle for a compromise, i.e. a new category of members elected for a longer duration than the present non-permanent members without veto power.


India’s future role will probably depend on its ability to weather the impact of the multiple crises it now faces on account of an unabated economic slowdown and a troubled relationship with China.

This is pertinent as India will soon begin its two-year term as a non-permanent UNSC member (January 1, 2021).

Its areas of priority will continue to be the upholding of Charter principles, mounting effective punitive measures against those who support, finance and sponsor terrorists, besides striving for securing due say to the troop contributing countries in the management of peace operations.

While the UNSC was dysfunctional, India developed a multilateral agenda of its own from decolonisation and disarmament to a new international economic order and mobilised considerable political support for it.

This underlines the possibilities for shaping the global discourse in the present.

It is reasonable to assume that India will work for and join in consensus on key questions wherever possible.