India is among the four nations that the French envoy to the United Nations said, are “absolutely needed” as permanent members of the Security Council.
Nations like Germany, Brazil, and Japan are also part of this list, which seeks to reform and enlarge the UNSC, for it to ‘reflect contemporary realities better’, France’s Permanent Representative to the UN François Delattre told reporters last week. He also mentioned that the addition of these key members to the historical pentagon of the permanent five (P5) is among France’s “strategic” priorities.
A backdrop to UN reforms
Demands for reform of the UNSC, however, are not new. According to a paper by JE Guzzardi and MJ Mullenbach, the UNSC was restructured only once in its 70-something-year history.
The reform of the Council became an international agenda in 1992, with the adoption of Resolution 47/62 entitled “The Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council.” Nearly 113 member nations supported the submission to expand the Council and increase permanent membership for equitable representation today, according to reports.
The process has been a long and winding one, according to India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, who described the UN’s inertia to overcome reformatory challenges as peerless.
“While the world is not what it was when we began the process, the objections to moving forward remain the same. While the global challenges of the 21st century have multiplied, we remain divided even about the process to adopt in order to move forward,” Akbaruddin said at the informal meeting of the Plenary earlier this year.
With India at the forefront of reformation efforts once again, and with permanent member France stressing the need to make the UN more representative of the current balances in the world, we may soon enter a new stage of intergovernmental (IGN) or text-based negotiations (TBN) on the matter.
India’s associations and interests vis-a-vis UNSC
The UN organ for the maintenance of international peace and security was created as a strictly limited membership body with a rigid representation system, to ensure prompt and effective action. It comprised five member states—China, France, Russia, the UK and the US—as permanent members with veto powers, and 10 non-permanent members who can be elected by member states for a tenure of two years serving as a “microcosm of world opinion.“
India has served seven two-year terms as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, once holding the seat on behalf of the Commonwealth Group, and other times representing the Asian group.
The opportunity to join the high table did present itself twice during the Cold War, but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru turned the US and USSR’s offers down fearing trouble. But India has traditionally played a very constructive role in passing key UN resolutions, while also deploying the highest number of peacekeeping troops since the 1950s.
Noteworthy are its historical leadership of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), participation in Millennium Development Goals, role in establishing the G77 and UNICEF, and in numerous peace-keeping missions across Africa.
But with escalating tensions in Kashmir, a permanent seat at the Council right now would ensure the prevalence of Indian interests over Pakistani ones in the disputed region. Most importantly, it will stall any possible intervention by China, a permanent member, at the behest of its ally Pakistan, and enable the Asian subcontinent to better tackle security and strategic concerns in its highly volatile neighbourhood.
With the backdrop of Pulwama, once can safely say that having greater power to execute diplomatic moves like sanctioning Pakistan and blacklisting militant mastermind Masood Azhar, is better than calling for air strikes and nuclear war.
A quick look at India’s pursuit of UNSC reforms
Indian attempts at reforming the Council started as far back as 1979 when NAM countries submitted a draft resolution calling for an increase in the non-permanent membership from 10 to 14, which was successful due to preoccupations with the Cold War.
India urged expediency in 2013 after 85% of the submissions, including those by 2 permanent members France and UK, supported expansion in both permament and non-permament memberships. India’s then Permanent Representative to the UN, Ashoke Mukherji, reminded the body of its unanimous mandate for “early reform” at the 2005 World Summit.
On the multi-lateral diplomatic front, India joined as a member the newly founded group of Friends on UN Security Council Reform, created to accelerate the negotiating process of Council reforms in 2016.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also revived the G4 in 2015, making a strong case at the New York summit for the inclusion of “the world’s largest democracies, major locomotives of the global economy, and voices from all major continents” to the UNSC for “greater credibility and legitimacy.”
The joint communique also pledged to support “Africa’s representation in both the permanent and non-permanent membership in the Security Council,” and highlighted the significance of “adequate and continuing representation of small- and medium-sized Member States, including the Small Island Developing States, in an expanded and reformed Council.”
What’s really in it for India? And where does the entitlement come from?
For India, the membership is a shortcut to becoming a regional hegemon in Asia, especially against China’s proliferating strategic clout in the Indo-Pacific, and Saudi Arabia’s influence over the global economy.
Most international observers believe that when and if India is elevated to the table, its policies will be moderately revisionist—redefining the norms of international engagement insofar as they suit its own global vision to expand geopolitical and economic clout—without seeking to overthrow the current international system.
This is based on trends of maximum support displayed by India in the General Assembly while resorting to minimal resistance in the Security Council. New Delhi has also made significant strides in striking key trade, defence and strategic partnerships with the P5 (except China) over the years.
On India’s legitimacy as a P5+ candidate, the Ministry of External Affairs has explicitly said, “By any objective criteria, such as population, territorial size, GDP, economic potential, civilizational legacy, cultural diversity, political system and past and ongoing contributions to the activities of the UN—especially to UN peacekeeping operations—India is eminently qualified for permanent membership.”
India’s latest stint at the Council during 2011-2012 was viewed as a “rehearsal for permanent membership” and yet, its bilateral and multilateral strategies for UNSC reform continue to hit roadblocks.
Challenges and the road ahead
India commands the status of the sixth wealthiest economy and the largest arms importer in the world today. It is also seen as a proliferating nuclear power. It is this last point that many analysts view as an obstacle to India’s UNSC aspirations.
To grant it a permanent seat without asking for any steps to cap its nuclear capabilities is a threat to global security, a Brookings report states. “India will not abolish its nuclear arms. But it should renounce testing, stop producing fissile material that could be usable in weapons, and agree to cap the size of its arsenal at or near its current size of several dozen weapons,” it adds.
There are other factors hindering its cause, for instance, India has not engaged with the normative aspects of many UN Security Council issues enough. There is also a marked entitlement in India’s claims to permanent membership, instead of a more “hard-nosed realpolitik bargaining.”
But resistance from the P5 is perhaps the overriding obstacle
The emergence of middle powers who will be eligible for both the traditional non-permanent category seat and the “so-called long-term seats” is not lost on permanent members. Relinquishing the exclusive technical hold afforded by the veto is also going to shake things up, making the permanent members more averse to adding more seats to the table.
But, this defeats the entire point of the reformation exercise, which is to rectify the anachronistic regional representation on the Council today.
Keeping in step with the decolonising world, restructuring of the UN’s most important organ will serve as the most exemplary of reparation efforts at this point. The potential of UN reform in resolving armed conflicts and humanitarian crises, especially in the Middle East and Africa, should not be stifled at the cost of status quo bias.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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