This article is based on a speech that the author delivered at the closing ceremony of the Model United Nations of the Government Law College, Mumbai. It was held at the Trident Hotel on 25 March 2018.
Honourable Justice G.S. Mishra, honourable Consuls General of Iran and South Africa, Shri Raghav Chadha, Aam Aadmi Party, Mr Vismay Shroff and Prakhar Agrawal, I am honoured to be invited to speak at this event about ‘A Road to Unity’.
This theme is especially important because we live at a time of transition as a new international order emerges with many discontinuities. Only if we can do this together will it be better than the one that is fragmenting.
Since I have only ten minutes I will touch briefly on the current fractures in the global order, their impact on the domestic politics of countries and the special responsibility of the legal profession to uphold a fair international order and a just dispensation at home.
Participating in an exercise such as the Model United Nations (MUN) gives you the opportunity to understand not only the specific issue or crisis taken up by the committee that you happened to be placed in, but the how and why of it, the historical background, and the way forward to a resolution. The resolution may not satisfy all concerned, but it is one that is feasible and implementable with the urgency that conflict or war situations demand.
It is well known that after the Second World War the victorious western powers, led by the United States, created a global governance order, intended largely to safeguard their own political and economic interests. That included the creation of the United Nations. But from its very inception, the composition of the UN Security Council was biased in favour of the Euro-Atlantic powers as were the voting rights in the Bretton Woods system. This dominance of the West was further reinforced by the collapse of the rival super power, the Soviet Union, in 1989.
We have become inured to living with these biases, but the system itself has begun to fray, with political governing institutions, such as the UNSC; economic institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization; and the elites that dominate the socio-political architectures within countries becoming less influential. They are being pushed aside because they are not adapting to the reality of a shrinking West—principally, the U.S. Such shrinking runs parallel with the emergence of newly powerful countries, such as China, with its communist polity and capitalist economy, and India, with its democratic polity and mixed economy.
A word about India’s foreign outlook which is at a critical juncture. The U.S., India’s most important defence partner, is unreliable because President Trump revels in unpredictability. Our former all-weather friend, Russia, is a little less friendly because, shunned by the West, it has become dependent on China; it has even begun to lean towards Pakistan on the Afghanistan imbroglio. Our strategic relationship with China, our largest trading partner, is complex as the economic giant becomes more assertive by the day. And our already tough neighbourhood becomes even tougher, with burgeoning Chinese investment eroding our traditional relations with all our neighbours, especially Pakistan — the centrepiece of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Even our ties with the Maldives have frayed in the face of massive Chinese investment because the island chain is an important link in the Maritime Silk Road project.
In the last few days, you have represented different countries on the various committees of the UN. You will recall that only three Resolutions could be passed relating to the war in Syria because of hostilities between the West and Russia. And with all the players – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel – pursuing their own objectives, the fighting continues as does the misery of the people. Conflict in Syria, Congo, Sudan and numerous other countries persists unabated, reflecting the inability of the contending members of the UNSC to agree how to resolve them.
Similarly, although the UN Assembly has approved many Resolutions relating to disarmament, three of the five permanent members of the Security Council, which are the recognised Nuclear Weapons Powers, continue to spend billions of dollars to refine and miniaturise their arsenals while the rhetoric around North Korea shows that the world is at an ever more fragile juncture.
Does this mean that the UN, especially the UNSC, is completely irrelevant? No, its specialised agencies, like the World Food Programme, UNESCO, UNICEF and others, do much good. And some conflict situations are like Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that did not bark”: we do not hear about them because the problems have been mitigated. In the long run, however, unless the membership of the institution is reformed to include countries like India, and veto powers are curtailed, the UNSC will increasingly be disregarded. Big power rivalries will prevail — to the detriment of the victims of disorder.
The intransigence displayed by countries in the international arena is linked to their domestic politics more than before because of social media. This applies as much to mature western democracies such as the U.S. under President Trump as to countries in transition to more democratic governments — especially formerly colonised nations like India or even one-party dictatorships like China.
The same logic of the spread and impact of social media applies in domestic as well as in foreign affairs, with leaders fearing they might be considered weak if they back off from maximalist postures, whether in multilateral organisations, like the UN or the World Trade Organization, or at home, where divisive issues of language, ethnicities and religion fester. China is completely unyielding on issues relating to Tibet or Xinjiang, but India, as a more mature democracy is better able to absorb the occasionally resurgent fissiparous tendencies of its linguistic or religious chauvinists. Sadly, the democratic imperative to win elections fosters nationalism, as in Western Europe, and regionalism in India.
I will stop here, adding only that the judiciary remains the most respected institution in India. As the third pillar of democracy, the legal profession is indispensable. I am sure that all of you will step up to domestic challenges and in developing international law.
Neelam Deo is Director, Gateway House.
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