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4 January 2021, Gateway House

India’s agenda at the UNSC

India's presence in the UNSC in 2021 provides a unique opportunity to bring India’s capacities and performance to global notice. It will be on the inside track for critical issues like the election of a new UN Secretary General, and defining global issues like the Corona pandemic and climate change, but must also use its position to prioritise counter terrorism and maritime security, especially with Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

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India will join the UN Security Council (UNSC) for the eighth time on the 1st of January 2021 and serve a two-year term as a non-permanent (elected) member. The Presidency of the UNSC rotates every month in alphabetic order and India will hold this high office in August 2021. A second shot at the UNSC Presidency may further be possible towards the bend of 2022.

India was last on the UNSC a decade ago, in 2011-12. Those were the heady days of the Arab Spring and the tumult from which the Middle East is yet to recover. This time the shadow of the Corona pandemic hangs heavy, with unbelievable infection count and mortality rates touching every country across the globe and the world economy seeing an unprecedented slow-down.  It is not surprising that at such a time, multilateralism, in general, and the UN, in particular, is under serious attack by the naysayers of globalization and those who believe that it hasn’t delivered – and more-so, in their view, is incapable of doing so.

The Corona pandemic has thrown UNSC processes into the virtual world and it remains unclear if the far more diplomatically active and persuasive in-person meetings will begin in the first half of 2021. India’s participation, regardless, must include high level presence from Delhi to highlight commitment to the UN and underscore the  push for a permanent seat in the UNSC.

The pandemic has also brought to the fore a much-changed world with an in-your-face rise of China and a clear recognition by the US, which has been the sheet anchor of multilateralism, that China is now a geopolitical threat for it and a rival. The rise of China is the first time that western global hegemony is being challenged from outside, as Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union, had long been part of hegemonistic contestation within the West.

While multilateralism was clearly no favourite of President Donald Trump, even the positive inclination towards the UN of President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to change the fact of a changed global polity. Of course, instead of a largely go-at-it alone approach, the incoming administration will go back to the traditional US way of roping in allies, particularly the Europeans, to try and bridle China and ensure an adherence to an international rules-based order.

The UNSC is the most important body in global governance and its membership, even if only temporary, allows participation in, and possibly shaping of, some of the major decisions that affect global polity.  India’s presence in the UNSC at this critical time in global polity is not only a good augury but also reflects contemporary realties given that it is now the fifth largest economy in the world, apart from being the largest democracy. Moreover, even though UNSC reform action – being pushed by India and the others in the G-4 (Japan, Germany and Brazil), including expansion in permanent membership beyond the veto holding P5 (USA, Russia, China, France and UK) – is a UN General assembly process, presence in the UNSC provides a unique opportunity to bring India’s capacities and performance to global notice.

A critical case in point is the election of the UN Secretary General, which is basically a UNSC process. The present term of the current incumbent, Antonio Guterres (from Portugal) ends at the end of 2021.  While a second term may be the expected norm, the highest election in global polity is unlikely to be without its special pulls and pressures and this time, India will be on the inside track on this. Indeed, much of this could come to the boil in August 2021, when India will hold the Presidency of the UNSC.

Today, apart from tackling the Corona pandemic, the defining global issue is climate change and, with the election of a pro-climate President in the US, the pendulum has swung to put major pressure on all big countries for showing greater ‘climate ambition’. There are also calls for declaring climate emergencies. Though the UNSC’s remit is basically on international peace and security, recent years have witnessed considerable expansion in what comes under the rubric of ‘security’ and there should be every expectation that efforts, led by the Europeans and possibly supported by the US, will be undertaken to bring it on to the UNSC’s agenda. India has been a strong supporter of climate action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but may face strong pressure on green house gas (GHG) emissions reduction –  hugely challenging given India’s development imperatives. The issue will have to be delicately and strategically dealt with, but could provide a way to push India’s green agenda, i.e., growth with renewables.

India has seen success when it served on the UNSC in 2011-12. Then, counter terrorism was a major focus of its efforts and India chaired the Counter Terrorism Committee of the UNSC. At that time, it was successful in introducing the concept of ‘zero tolerance’ on terrorism into the UN lexicon and building stronger cooperation with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). This time too, counter terrorism must be a top priority. In addition, India must now also focus on maritime security, a matter that has now assumed paramount importance for India and the world given Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific and, indeed, across the globe. Positive initiatives in these areas can only reinforce India’s role as a force for global good.

India is intrinsically associated with UN Peacekeeping, as the largest contributor of peacekeepers in aggregate terms. It is, therefore, natural that Peacekeeping, which faces serious questioning in the global community, will be a matter that India will try to use its heft in the UNSC to address, and move in positive directions. One of the actions in this can be connected  with India’s global yeoman service to combat COVID, through the supply of PPE, drugs and now vaccine production.

In the coming years India will be on the UNSC, host the BRICS Summit and chair the G-20. This is a particularly opportune time to push India’s case for a place on the global high table. It is said that the horse-shoe table, which houses the UNSC, will only open following a cataclysmic event. Perhaps, COVID-19 is that event.

Amb. Manjeev Singh Puri is an Indian Diplomat and the former Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN.

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