In his address to the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to “make it more democratic and participative.” It was a thinly-veiled call for India to be made a permanent member.
Modi reiterated that India was one of the founding members of the UN in 1945, and urged that the reforms be carried out in time for the international organisation’s 70th anniversary next year. He highlighted the fact that institutions must reflect 21st century realities or risk irrelevance—a challenge the UN is already failing to meet.
The UNSC is the most important organ of the United Nations. It decides issues of war and peace, and has a total of 15 members. Of these, the five permanent members wield veto powers: U.S., Russia, UK, and France—the victors of World War II—and late entrant China.
Since 1945, the UNSC has been reformed only once, in 1963, to expand the number of non-permanent non-veto empowered members from six to 10. This does not reflect even the most basic realities of a world in which the population has grown from 2.3 billion, when the UN was established, to over 7 billion now, and the number of UN member countries has almost quadrupled from 51 to 193.
Since 1955, India has claimed permanent representation in the UNSC. In later years, two of the defeated former powers, Japan and Germany, have also staked a similar claim, as has emerging power Brazil. Numerous other countries also remain claimants to UNSC seats—including two (unnamed so far) from the African Union and an Arab/Islamic country
It is unacceptable that India, with a population of 1.2 billion, a $2 trillion economy, the third largest country in terms of purchasing power parity, a nuclear weapons power with the third largest standing army in the world, and a major contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping missions, is not a member of the UNSC—that too when economically and morally exhausted nations like France and UK remain on the council.
Many spoilers without credible claims of their own are committed to derailing the chances of neighbours and rivals. But it is the opposition from the Uniting for Consensus (that includes Italy, Mexico and Pakistan—called the “Coffee Club” by UN diplomats) as well as the reluctance of existing members that has confounded the reform.
India’s new government has taken up the issue not only in the General Assembly, but also at summit-level interactions with the U.S. and China. After Modi’s White House meetings in September, President Barack Obama expressed his appreciation for India’s role in peacekeeping operations for the last 60 years and reiterated his backing for a reformed UNSC with India as a permanent member. In the past, France, UK, and Russia have also supported India’s claims to permanent membership. But the verbal support has so far not translated into any action.
Meanwhile, even as the reform remains in abeyance, global geopolitics have changed.
Today, there are three major conglomerations of problems: the turmoil in West Asia, encapsulated by the brutal Islamic State, which is quickly redrawing the map of the region; the rise of an increasingly expansionist and assertive China; and the renewed standoff between the West and Russia.
It is worth noting that although matters of war and peace are the core function of the UNSC, it has not been consulted on any of these issues. The most blatant instance was Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, where he defended airstrikes on Syria and Iraq. The U.S did not deem it necessary, once again, to seek the approval of the UNSC. Sadly, UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon was pressured to support the U.S.’s unilateral actions, though he expressed the vain hope that the UNSC will lead the effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In the east, China has completely rejected international arbitration on territorial disputes with its maritime neighbours, despite the Philippines taking the issue to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
And amid steadily deteriorating Russia-West ties, U.S.-led NATO has not taken the issue to the UNSC, though it has accused Moscow of breaching international law and compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by annexing Crimea. With these disagreements—as well as the opposing perspectives on Syria—the equation between the West and Russia has deteriorated to a point reminiscent of the hostilities between the two during the Cold War.
The new standoff over Ukraine has completely paralysed the UNSC. However, such disregard was already evident when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 without the Security Council’s authorisation, distorted the sense of UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya in 2011 by justifying the invasion of that country, and recently ordered airstrikes on Syria.
These repeated unilateral actions raise questions about the UNSC’s relevance. It then becomes necessary to ask if India should persist in its efforts to be part of an organisation that lacks weight and sway.
In fact, whether India should seek membership is a matter of debate within the country. Former colonial powers are not going to allow a change, nor will China allow other Asian countries, particularly Japan, to enter. But there is also the view that though India may not gain much from becoming a part of an archaic organisation, the world needs an expanded UNSC that includes countries like India to influence the very ethos of the council.
At a time when faster growing economies, more youthful populations, and the concentration of natural resources are mainly in the developing world, as are problems like the dispersion of capacity to build weapons of mass destruction, a reform of global political management systems to respond to crises and violence—such as the chaos in West Asia—is even more imperative.
If the UNSC includes India and Brazil, and also represents Africa and West Asia, it will infuse the council with a deeper understanding and enable a wiser response to the world’s cascading political crises, unlike the hasty and excessive militarism of the West.
Ambassador Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director of Gateway House. She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast with concurrent accreditation to several West African countries.
Karan Pradhan is a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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