What are the opportunities and challenges awaiting India in its new role as a non-permanent member?

India's latest election, with the highest number of votes cast in the United Nations General Assembly, to serve a two-year term as non-permanent member of the Security Council commencing in January 2011 is a worthy development that should prompt informed appreciation of its importance. On the one hand, the election, no doubt, is a clear recognition of the long and rich reputation our country has earned in the U.N., besides being an acknowledgment of the growing importance India continues to gain in matters of multilateral governance. On the other hand, it could be dismissed as being too little too late a development to quench India's vexatious thirst for status of a permanent member. What are the opportunities and challenges awaiting India in its new role? How is the non-permanent membership relevant to pursuing our aspiration for permanent membership? A useful basis for such speculation should be a stock-taking of the patterns in India's performance in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the occasions when it served as a non-permanent member previously.

At the San Francisco Conference where U.N. structural architecture was finalised, India not only supported the need for permanent members in the UNSC, but also persuaded the powerful countries to accept an eligibility criteria for election to the non-permanent membership category. No comparable criteria guided the selection of permanent members, while the non-permanent members are to satisfy tough criteria of contribution to peace and equitable geographical representation. Our approach to the U.N. is characterised by, to borrow Jawaharlal Nehru's words, “wholehearted co-operation” through full participation “in its councils to which her geographical position, and contribution towards peaceful progress entitle her.” How tough, nevertheless, is the route to non-permanent membership became clear from the fact that, after establishment of the U.N., it took four years for India to enter the UNSC through the election route. Inclusive of the ensuing stint, India has to its credit only seven terms (mostly) representing the Asian region in a span of 65 years.

Earlier term

Between the first two terms it had during the 1950s-1960s, there was a gap of 15 years, while India will assume its seat now after a lapse of 19 years since its previous term ended in 1992. The years it served in the Council coincided with “testing times” for the Security Council and the U.N. at large. Major conflict situations occurred during the time India was a member, the Korean war during 1950-51, the two Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and then in 1973, Israel's first invasion of Lebanon (1977), and the first Gulf war against Iraq (1991). During the time of its non-permanent membership of the UNSC, the Indian delegations had espoused certain fundamental principles that should govern relations among Member States. These are the principles of non-use of force, the respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of States, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The principle of the inadmissibility of territorial acquisition by force is absolutely fundamental to India's approach.

In terms of quality of participation, strikingly India's contribution at the UNSC mirrors the larger picture of India's role at the United Nations, encompassing a good mix of maturity, moderation, pragmatism and propriety. India not merely abstained in the vote on the resolutions adopted on the question of Jammu and Kashmir, but also ceded its turn to preside over the Council meeting in March 1951 because the Kashmir question appeared on the agenda. Moderation was manifest in the total absence of a negative vote, while abstentions remained few and far between. The characteristics of flexibility and pragmatism were evident in plenty in terms of a willingness to work with others in helping the process of drafting or refining texts that had the potential of obtaining the widest possible support. It is naturally difficult to categorically assert whether such an undoubtedly enviable performance decorated by the gifts of devotion and dexterity is a rarity among countries (developed or developing) which have served on the Council as non-permanent members.

Again, India strove to be part of the democratic majority helping in the adoption of broadly acceptable decisions and resolutions. On the one hand it was part of 59 per cent of the resolutions adopted either unanimously or without a vote. Even in regard to the aggregate of 113 adopted resolutions (41 per cent) which attracted division, India cast an affirmative vote on 101 (89 per cent). Only on no more than a dozen occasions has it stood aside without joining the concurring majority. To be sure, India had not voted against any resolution, but has resorted to abstentions only to signal its reservations. Interestingly, India was never a loner as an abstaining country; it had the company of China, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe on many occasions. Six abstentions (50 per cent) pertained to the last term during 1991-92. Those abstentions exemplified India's sensitivity to negative implications of the adopted resolutions for such important issues of principle as respect to state sovereignty, non-discrimination among Member States of the U.N., unconditional and immediate ceasefire, recourse to coercive action after exhausting all other options, respect for the jurisdiction of other organs, and so forth.

India sought to take pains to bring Non-Aligned member countries together in the UNSC. Side by side, India seemed to place high hopes in the potential of the non-permanent members in the Council to play the role of constructive peace makers. Such a strategy was advocated, although in vain, during the Gulf war soon after it entered the Council in 1991. Earlier in the mid-1980s, India moved a proposal aimed at a long overdue increase in the non-permanent seats in the Council reflecting “more adequately the enhanced membership of the Organisation.” However, the primacy of this move was lost when it became a part of the larger demand since 1992 to expand the Council in both permanent and non-permanent categories.

The role of IBSA

No doubt, India's self perception is more robust than what it was in 1991-92. Whether India will make a difference to the deliberations and outcomes in the UNSC during its upcoming tenure will depend less on solo heroic propensity than on the effective partnerships and positive consensus it is able to build and sustain involving, first, sister non-permanent members and then the permanent members. It is encouraging that India, Brazil, and South Africa will be working together for a year in the Council which could become a nucleus of a larger coalition on salient issues. Will these three countries make history in the Council by being together or miss the opportunity as the Non-Aligned troika (India, Egypt, and Yugoslavia) did when they sat in the Council when the Korean conflict erupted in 1950 will be the moot question. If the past is a guide, India may not be keen to adopt a confrontationist posture and vote alone against a resolution, but more keen to work to be part of legitimate, transparent, effective Council.

(Professor C.S.R. Murthy teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

Keywords: UNSCIndia

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