Prime Minister Modi spoke at the UN twice in recent days. One was at a commemorative meeting on the 75th anniversary of its founding. The other was the annual address to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). On both occasions, he strongly underlined the need for the UN to reform or things would just move past it.
The UN turned 75 this year but instead of grand celebrations, the world witnessed an empty UNGA with world leaders addressing it via video screening. Social distancing forced by COVID-19 may be the proximate cause, but the UN is also under unprecedented stress and being shown up for its inability to tackle the challenges of the contemporary world, be they pandemics, climate change, terrorism or global peace and security. This is fundamentally reflective of the inadequacy of the key governing structures of the UN and demands reform.
The UN was established in 1945 and a one country-one vote rule in the UNGA defines multilateralism. However, the effective levers of decision-making at the UN are centered within five countries (P-5) which have a special place as permanent members of its Security Council (UNSC) with a veto. Their power and influence is not only de-facto but also de-jure because, as Article 25 of the UN charter says, “the Members of the United Nations agree to accept to carry out the decisions of the Security Council” – in contrast to UNGA resolutions that are non-binding.
Three of those countries – the U.S., U.K. and the former U.S.S.R. (now Russia) – are the well-known victors of World War II (WWII). France was brought in at the insistence of the U.K. and China was pushed by the U.S. because of its help in the war against Japan and their old links across the Pacific. Beijing’s portrayal of itself as a founding member of the UN glosses over the fact that the 1945 decision was about the Republic of China, which was later ousted from the mainland. The People’s Republic of China came to the U.N. scene only when the U.S. (de-facto) started recognizing it.
The U.S. has been the sheet anchor of the UN, even if in its first 50 years some power-sharing with the U.S.S.R. was an accepted norm. The extraordinary rise of China has challenged this hegemony and COVID-19 provided a natural segue for its disparaging by the U.S.
India is unique in being a founding member of the League of Nations, the precursor of the UN, even though not independent. Similarly, India became a charter member of the UN. Pakistan, incidentally, only joined in September 1947 after applying for UN membership.
The world of today is vastly different from the world of 1945. Germany and Japan, which were excluded in the post WWII arrangements as ‘enemies’ are among the largest economies and biggest contributors to the UN. India, then a colony, is now the fifth largest economy in the world. The fulcrum of the world has moved from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific and Africa and Latin America have come of their own. Regional bodies and coalitions of the willing are important but cannot produce global participation and ownership of actions. An active UN is thus an imperative.
The U.S.-China contestation has put the UN in a kind of lazy slumber. This must be overcome, and the key lies in broadening the polarity at the top of its most important decision-making and influencing organ, the UNSC. Of course, several other changes are also needed including in the UN’s working methods but most of these will flow from an expansion of the key decision-makers.
For a country of the long-haul like India, engagement with the diplomatic song-and-dance of contemporary issues is important, but its institutional presence in governing structures is critical. Ideas on UNSC reform have been in discussion for quite some time. In 2005, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in his seminal report In Larger Freedom proposed two models, both of which involved expanding the UNSC to 24 members in varying categories. One proposal was for six new permanent members and three new non-permanent members. The other one proposed the creation of eight seats in a new category of members, a renewable longer-term seat, plus one additional non-permanent seat.
India, along with Germany, Japan, and Brazil, is part of a grouping known as the G-4 which is pushing for expansion in the permanent membership of the UNSC. A vexatious issue is permanent seat(s) for Africa with no self-evident stand-out country and at least three to four claimants. There is also the question of extending the all-important veto to new permanent members. Some years ago, with a view to move things on, there were suggestions in the G-4 to abjure the use of the veto for around 15 years for new permanent members.
On the other hand, a group of middling countries led by Pakistan, Italy, Mexico, Turkey etc. have formed a group known as “Uniting for Consensus”. They are really nay-sayers on effective change and only propose expansion in the non-permanent membership to 20.
The benefits and inevitability of expansion in the permanent membership are there for all to see, especially with the example of the G-20 in the sphere of the economy. But shaking the status quo is not easy with the P-5 loath to share the de-jure high table of global governance and others, in particular the middling countries, wary of letting a select few ‘graduate’.
Decisions on expanding the UNSC will have to be first taken in the UNGA and the charter amending resolution will require the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the General Assembly. Thereafter, the amendment to the UN charter will need to be ratified by two-thirds of the UN members, including all the P-5. The G-4 has recently written to the President of the UNGA calling for negotiations, which have not moved in years, to resume with vigor. Given the contentious nature of the issue, text-based negotiations are useful to start the processes of focused negotiations and compromise, if required. India, which joins the UNSC as non-permanent member for a two-year term starting January 2021 and will also host the G-20 Summit in 2022, appears well-positioned to undertake the required global heavy lifting to push these reforms and its own case for permanent membership of the UNSC.
Frustration with no movement on UNSC reform is natural and needs to be articulated. However, gritty determination to keep at it, is the order of the day. It is said that the horseshoe table, that houses the UNSC, will only open if there is a cataclysmic event in the world. Hopefully, 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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 In 1945, the UN only had 51 members with an 11 member UNSC (P-5 and 6 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms). In 1965, by when the UN membership had reached 117, the size of the UNSC was expanded to 15 with the addition of 4 more non-permanent members. This is where things stand today even though UN membership has nearly doubled to 193. While the increased UN membership alone demands expansion in the UNSC, it is also important to set right the skewed membership presently favoring Europe.