UNSC: Misreading an opportunity


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Recent news reports would have us believe that India’s chances for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have been scuppered even before they began by the very countries that promised to support its case when the reality is the other way around. This is tantamount to reading a peace proposal as a declaration of war.

Writing on the release of the framework document text based on inputs of the majority of UN member states, which will form the basis of the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on the reform of the Security Council, the reports make three assertions. First, that the U.S. has joined hands with Russia and China and, by not submitting inputs to the framework document text, was blocking the IGN process. Second, that the three permanent members – China, Russia and the U.S. – were all opposed to UNSC reform in general and enlarging the permanent membership of the Council in particular. Third, that these three members, particularly China, could somehow veto the outcome of the IGN process. The actuality is somewhat different.

While the U.S. along with China and Russia did not provide direct inputs into the framework document text but submitted letters outlining their positions, they were not working together. Nor do they hold identical positions on the IGN process. This is evident from a close reading of their letters.

Of the three, the U.S. is the most supportive of the IGN process to reform the UNSC, while China is the least and Russia is in the middle. The U.S. letter, for instance, backs “a modest expansion of permanent members, though any consideration of an expansion of permanent members must take into account the ability and willingness of countries to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security and to other purposes of the United Nations.” The U.S. letter also underlines its preference that “consideration of new permanent members must be country-specific in nature” rather than on a regional basis. While the U.S. does not identify any single country in this letter, it is evident that Washington is supportive of the candidacy of the G-4 countries (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan) in general and India in particular.

One clear indication of this is the near identical wording of the U.S. letter and the input of the aspirant G-4 countries in the framework document text, which asserts that in the election of new permanent members “due regard shall be paid, in the first instance to the maintenance of international peace and security and to the other purposes of the Organization”. Given India’s impeccable peacekeeping credentials and increasing role within the UN system, along with the public endorsement for a permanent Indian seat by President Barack Obama, it is evident that New Delhi has a strong case and equally reliable support.

Even Russia, which was initially opposed to any additional permanent members (its promise to India notwithstanding), appears to have shifted its position and is now prepared to consider “any reasonable option of expanding the Security Council including the so-called “intermediate solution”, which is actually a compromise”. Moreover, Russia also “supports broader representation” from Africa, Asia and Latin America. This is also consistent with the BRICS position, most recently asserted at the Ufa summit, “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN”.

In contrast China’s hard line objection in its letter to “not populate the framework document” is in keeping with its opposition to any new permanent members on the UNSC. This is also in contradiction of its commitment at the BRICS summit. Nonetheless, China’s position on UNSC reform should not discourage India entirely. China claims that reforms should “give top priority to increasing representation of developing countries” and “representation of different civilizations and cultures”; clearly, India qualifies on both counts.

However, even if China and other permanent members are opposed to UNSC reforms there is very little they can do to stop the IGN process, which is located within the UN General Assembly where no country has a veto. As long as India and other aspirant countries can get the requisite two-third support from the UN membership for a negotiated text, the process will move forward regardless of opposition from the UNSC permanent members.

Despite this opportunity the way forward will be both contentious and inordinately long drawn out, as most intergovernmental processes inevitably are. This is why some think tanks are now proposing greater engagement of civil society to pressure their governments to move ahead with UNSC reforms. One such initiative is titled Elect The Council and is a potential way to support the official negotiations.

For India the only question is whether it should remain within the G-4 or make a solo bid. In this instance, India’s chances are better if its stands apart rather than together with the G-4. As long as it does not mistake opportunities for hurdles.

A shorter version of this column first appeared in The Mint, on August 17, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.