Public pronouncements, positive affirmations and slap-on-the-back relationships do not necessarily translate into action on the ground.
In recent years it has become standard practice for the Indian media to ask visiting foreign dignitaries where they stand on New Delhi's claim to a permanent seat in the UNSC. If the answers are in the affirmative, there are smiles all round and the glow is then transmitted to readers or viewers as the case may be.
Among the Permanent Five in the Council, the United Kingdom has long affirmed support, so have France and Russia. China has remained non-committal. So the United States' stand was deemed crucial. When President Barack Obama, during his recent visit, backed India for a permanent seat, the joy was palpable. The media went to town as if it were just a matter of time before India joined the select group of the World's almighty. The happiness lasted a few days until the first tranche of WikiLeaks punctured the mood somewhat.
The revelation of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's classified whisper, describing India as a self-appointed front-runner exposed Washington's innermost thoughts on the subject. Though the embarrassing leak was subsequently sought to be played down, it opened the curtain to a larger truth which is that the U.S. and the other four have never really been interested in real reforms to the Security Council.
Public pronouncements, positive affirmations and slap-on-the-back relationships don't necessarily translate into action on the ground.
Jakob Silas Lund of the Centre for U.N. Reform Education states a few individuals within the process believe that some of the Permanent Five countries “are more than happy to see reform moving at near-zero-velocity speed”.
The reforms are open to interpretation. Broadly, they mean democratisation of the Security Council to make it representative and in tune with the contemporary world. This, for some, means more permanent members. The Group of four — India, Brazil, Japan and Germany — has been the most vocal in demanding it be included.
What is surprising, especially where India is concerned, is the hope and optimism that it is heading towards a permanent seat. In reality, a committee set up by the United Nations 17 years ago to go into reforms shows little signs of progress.
The first meeting was held in 1994 of the U.N. group, a mouthful, called the “Open-Ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters Related to the Security Council”. Until now, this group has completed four rounds of negotiations, just on preliminaries.
A brief peek into the past will make it clear that the addition of more veto-wielding permanent members to the Council is a veritable pipe dream. For any amendment to the U.N. charter, two-thirds of the General Assembly needs to acquiesce. This may be possible but the next requirement, that of ratification by the Permanent Five, is the real obstacle.
Since the formation of the United Nations in 1945, there have been only a handful of meetings of the Security Council to discuss the original charter, and even that, merely to discuss minor amendments. One of some significance came about in 1965 when the membership of temporary, non-veto powered countries in the Council was increased from six to 10 and the number of votes required to pass any decision increased to nine from seven.
As academic and U.N. commentator Thomas G. Weiss wrote in the Washington Quarterly, “Most governments rhetorically support the mindless call for equity, specifically by increasing membership and eliminating the veto. Yet, no progress has been made on these numerical or procedural changes because absolutely no consensus exists about the exact shape of the Security Council or the elimination of the veto.”
The argument for a bigger, more representative Council is undoubtedly valid but the issue is who will implement it and how.
U.S. is the prime mover
In today's global equation the U.S. is the acknowledged prime mover. It has already had to sweat it out to convince the other four members to go with it on several issues, like the sanctions against Iran. If more countries are allowed to join the Council the difficulties for U.S. interests are obvious, even if those included are vetted for their closeness to Washington.
Real and effective reforms should have meant democratisation of the Security Council to reflect the aspirations of all its members. Ideally, this should mean removal of permanency and the veto power to be replaced with a rotating membership for all countries, where each one big or small, powerful or weak gets to sit for a fixed term in the hallowed seats of the Council. This is unthinkable within the existing framework of the United Nations. At the heart of the issue is the reluctance of the Permanent Five to give up the prized veto power.
The situation is paradoxical given that democracy is being touted, pushed and inflicted by the U.S. across the world. But democracy seems to end where the Security Council begins. The rest of the world has no choice but to bow to its decisions. The consequences for defying the Council can be terrifying as was experienced by Saddam Hussein's Iraq through the 1990's. Iran is now on the receiving end for its defiance on the nuclear issue.
Not just that, the credibility of the Security Council itself took a beating over its inability to prevent the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Having failed to convince France, Russia and China to vote for invading Iraq, the U.S. went alone. The Council was reduced to a bystander. It failed to fulfil its primary task, that of ensuring security — to Iraq.
What this also implies is that Council or no Council, in today's unipolar world, the U.S. will go with what it decides and no one can stop it. This has been the case particularly since the end of the Cold War. “With a U.S. global presence as great as that of any empire in history, Security Council efforts to control U.S. actions are beginning to resemble the Roman Senate's efforts to control the emperor,” writes Weiss.
Instead of trying to clamber onto a patently unfair arrangement it would have made more sense if the four self-appointed front-runners along with the rest of the world had demanded a more equitable and representative Council.
To achieve this, academic and U.N. expert Erik Voeten suggests pressure tactics to counter veto power. One tactic is for countries en bloc to ignore the decisions taken in the Security Council. Another is for Germany and Japan, which are among the largest contributors to the United Nations, to turn off the tap.
Despite this, if nothing happens, countries may have no choice but to look for, or at least threaten to float, an alternative U.N.-like organisation whose structure would be more in tandem with the contemporary world. Idealistic, perhaps. But this should force the Permanent Five to sit up and take real notice.
(K.S. Dakshina Murthy was formerly Editor of Al Jazeera based in Doha, Qatar.)