Britain will not recognise a Taliban govt. that takes power by force: U.K. envoy to U.N.

‘We are working alongside partners to try and make sure that we can return Afghanistan to a pathway towards security and prosperity’

Updated - August 05, 2021 03:02 pm IST

Published - August 05, 2021 02:41 pm IST

The U.K’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Barbara Woodward, says Britain is not prepared to recognise a Taliban government that uses force to come to power. She discusses U.K.-India cooperation at the U.N., multilateralism, China and climate action, in an interview with The Hindu .

The U.K.’s U.N. mission has said that it’s looking to work with India on India’s priorities during its presidency of the U.N. Security Council, that is, counterterrorism, maritime security and peacekeeping.

In addition, there are other priorities that both countries share, such as climate action. On counterterrorism, U.K. Defence Minister Ben Wallace said that the British government will work with whoever comes to power in Kabul, providing they adhere to international norms. The Taliban has already broken these norms with its ongoing brutal campaign. Will the U.K. recognise a Taliban government that takes Kabul by force, overpowering the Afghan security forces and overthrowing the civilian government?

Thank you for the invitation to join you today. We’re delighted to be working so closely with India during their Security Council presidency but actually during their tenure on the Security Council. And as you say, really strong support for counterterrorism, maritime security, and peacekeeping, which are the three big themes of the Indian presidency, and we look forward to coming back to those.


But on the particular question around Afghanistan, we have of course been following events in Afghanistan and the growing advances of the Taliban, their attacks on cities, their violence, the breaches of international humanitarian law. So there’s a real concern there for the U.K., for India, for other countries, particularly the neighbouring countries. And I think the answer is no, we would not be prepared to recognise a Taliban government that took power by force [and] that was committed to terrorism.

So, we are working alongside partners at the moment, to try and make sure that we can return Afghanistan to a pathway towards security and prosperity [and] that we don’t lose the progress of the last 20 years, particularly with respect to women’s rights — so a real focus for us at the moment.

The Taliban have said that for there to be progress in peace negotiations, their leaders need to be de-listed by the United Nations. India is the chair of the Taliban Sanctions Committee ... where does the U.K. stand on this de-listing?

So, as our Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson made clear to the house on the 8th of July, what we’re doing is supporting Afghanistan in counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and development. So, I don’t think we see any reason at this stage to de-list the Taliban, given what we’ve seen and the links that they have.

On maritime security, there’s the freedom of navigation aspect, there’s also the crime aspect, piracy and so forth… With HMS Queen Elizabeth entering the South China Sea a few days ago, Beijing had very strong words for the U.K.. You were formerly the British ambassador to China... where do you see this going?

So, again, a theme in the Indian presidency that we really welcome — both, as you say the crime prevention as well as the freedom of navigation — and we have an interest in both. You will have seen what happened on the MV Mercer Street with the loss of life, and the drone attacks, which we have unilaterally and unequivocally condemned alongside other partners. And we’re working towards a solution on that.

As you say, HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Carrier Group was recently in the Bay of Bengal exercising with the Indian Navy as a demonstration, I think, not just as a strength of our bilateral relationship, but also of our shared commitment towards UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]. And UNCLOS, generally very important across the board, but we agree, in the South China Sea, very important, as everywhere, to respect the judgement of UNCLOS on that issue.

In the U.K.’s Integrative Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, released earlier this year, there was a strong Indo-Pacific ‘ tilt’. Is Britain willing to join the Quad?

We were delighted to articulate our Indo-Pacific tilt in the Integrated Review. I think it’s been captured again in the U.K. India 2030 Roadmap, India awarding Britain the status of ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ , and the recognition overall. Of course, 41% of global GDP is going to come from the Indo-Pacific, so that’s what’s behind our look at the Indo-Pacific tilt. We have been talking to ASEAN about ‘dialogue partner’ status.

We have, of course, really strengthened, I think, our relationship between the U.K. and India, starting at the very top with the roadmap, and Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Johnson. So, at the moment, we are very happy with the way things are going with our own Indo-Pacific tilt, but also with the architecture that is building up in the region. So, I think no immediate plans to join [the Quad], but very happy to stay closely engaged in how things are developing there.

On U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s comments recently in Singapore: he welcomed and supported HMS Queen Elizabeth’s foray into the Indo-Pacific, but suggested that it would be more “helpful” for the U.K. to focus on other parts of the world. In light of what you just said, how is Britain interpreting and reacting to these comments?

Well, I think it goes back to what you said earlier about the Integrated Review, and the point there is that global Britain is going to play — continue to play — a global role in international peace, security and prosperity. We’ll do that with our bilateral relationships, such as the deepening one that we have with India, and we’ll do it to through our multilateral relationships including here from the U.N., with NATO and so on.

So, I think that there is a strong reason for the U.K. to engage in the Indo-Pacific tilt. We’ve talked about the security implications and HMS Queen Elizabeth and the Carrier Group will be going out to the Pacific, later on this year. We’ve talked about the economic reasons, we’ve talked about the security reasons that we share.

So, the Indo-Pacific is an important area of focus for us. So is our relationship with the United States, our relationship with United Nations, our relationship with Europe and the strong development relationship we have with Africa as well. So, a lot in there, and I don’t think there’s any reason for the U.K. as a permanent member of the Security Council to have a self-denying ordinance on the way and the places in the world that we get involved in.

Given how closely U.K. foreign policy is tied to America — and that’s been re-articulated in the Integrated Review as well — isn’t U.K. over-exposed to risk, given that America may back away from multilateralism again after its next general election?

I think the important thing at the moment is that President Biden and the Americans have been very clear about their return to multilateralism. And what we’ve found, although the Biden presidency is not even a year old, is the value of joining the Americans in that commitment. You look at the American recommitment to the WHO...really helped us raise the funds we need for COVAX and getting vaccine rolled out. You look at American recommitment to the Paris Climate Change treaty, again, a real opportunity to work with the Americans to make sure we hold 1.5 degrees.

And we are looking forward to working with India, which has taken such a strong stand on solar power as well and hoping for a strong net zero commitment as we approach Glasgow. And then a third example, of course, would be American re-engagement in the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for support as Iran develops. So, I think in all of those areas the really important thing is that we seize the opportunity and seize the momentum of America’s re-engagement in multilateralism, and use that to stabilise and shape peace and prosperity in the 21st Century.

The U.K. supports a permanent seat for India on the Security Council. But given that Security Council reform is a General Assembly issue, how specifically can the U.K. help with this, at the moment?

So, yes, the U.K. has been — and been proud to be — a sponsor of... supporter of India’s permanent membership of the Security Council for the last 20 years. We’ve been very consistent in that. But you’re right, Security Council reform is a challenging business and I think there are two aspects to that. The first is the reform of how the Security Council works: What’s on the agenda? Can it work more efficiently? Can it work more effectively? And I think there’s plenty of scope for us to work on those areas, and we found that during COVID, when we were working virtually. Some of that was more difficult, some of it, there were lessons that we can take forward in order to make us more effective.

And then the second question of course is the membership of the Security Council, on which there are competing views and various obstacles to reforming that. And yes, I know it’s a General Assembly issue and there are really, sort of, two competing groups…one where India is one of a few countries which are supported for permanent membership.

And then there’s another group of countries which feel that there shouldn’t be such a thing as permanent membership. And that needs to be sorted out, discussed and resolved in a way that doesn’t lock us in to the current geopolitical scenario but, somehow, keeps us agile in the future. Because, part of the reason, as you know, that Security Council reform is such a touchstone question here at the U.N., is that people feel that we were locked into a post-1949 world and here we are in 2021.

While there are lots of areas of alignment between India and the U.K., there are obviously some areas of disagreement as well. For example, the [General Assembly] Myanmar vote in June, where India abstained. [The resolution recommended an arms embargo]. What is the U.K.’s position and how are you working with India on getting greater alignment on these issues?

I would say we worked very closely and very successfully with India, in the immediate aftermath of the 1st of February coup in Myanmar. India, of course, has a very long border with Myanmar and having the perspective of India on the Security Council, as a close neighbour of Myanmar, I think was really valuable. India joined the consensus on the three Security Council statements that we have issued on Myanmar, expressing our concern and seeking to move things forward.

The General Assembly vote was, I think, a much broader question; the U.K. supported, India abstained. But the point was the resolution passed in the General Assembly, which I think gave a signal of the very wide concern around the world about the coup in Myanmar, and the aftermath, which we’re currently seeing playing out, both as an economic crisis for Myanmar but, more tragically, as a humanitarian and health crisis as COVID racks the country.

Up to 50% of Myanmarese could have COVID in the next week, which is a terrible tragedy, and we are seeking urgently to get humanitarian aid, vaccines, PPE, therapeutics into Myanmar in order to address that.

The U.K. is hosting this year’s U.N. climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow. What can India and the U.K. do together specifically — but also realistically — to put the world on a better climate action path this year?

This is also a priority in the U.K.-India relationship. I know that Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Johnson have raised the level of ambition on climate change, and we are very excited by the potential that India has shown in leading on solar capacity, having quadrupled your own wind and solar capacity; and we partner with India in the Indian-led International Solar Alliance, which is really accelerating the uptake of solar. So that’s the adoption of new technology, where I think India is really at the forefront.

Perhaps slightly slower progress on net zero emissions. [We] very much welcome the net zero commitment on Indian Railways by 2030, but obviously, we need to see if we can broaden that out… That can be accelerated by sharing technology by capacity building, but also by ensuring that there is enough finance raised to support this and we in the U.K. are working hard to raise the 100 billion pounds that was committed at Paris, but more importantly to raise additional private sector funding that would allow us to move more quickly with mitigation and adaptation.

And then we’ll come to Glasgow. And again, very much hope that Prime Minister Modi will be able to make a commitment that will, I think, have a real impact on not only across India, but across large swathes of developing economies to help us get to net zero, and keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees.

Are you concerned at all that the friction between China and the U.S. — and in fact between China and the U.K. as well — is going to derail the outcomes from Glasgow?

I think we’ve seen, very encouragingly, that the U.S., more recently with the arrival of President Biden, has made a very clear commitment to Glasgow to net zero and to supporting the 1.5 degrees. But earlier on, President Xi Jinping, made a commitment that China would get to net zero by 2060. Now it would of course be nice if we could do that a bit faster. And we do have concerns about the place of coal, both in China’s economy and also in India’s economy too. But I think climate is really one area where we are all united in our desire to cut emissions to reach net zero.

We recognise that different countries need different sorts of support and that’s why we’re engaging so energetically around the world. Our COP President designate, Alok Sharma, is in close contact with his U.S. and Chinese counterparts, and the Indian ones as well, of course. So I don’t see that as an area where we are at particular risk. There are of course, tensions in the U.S., China relationship — I don’t deny those — and we need to work through those. But as we saw with the talks in Alaska, and most recently with [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman’s visit to China, the important thing is that both sides are talking about the situation and the differences. And we’re seeing good cooperation, I would say, broadly, in the Security Council

There were some comments from the Chinese government that cooperation in specific areas such as climate change were dependent on the overall nature of relations between the U.S. and China. So that’s not of ... enough concern to you that you think it might derail the outcome from Glasgow?

I think it’s regrettable that any country would think of making cooperation on climate change conditional on anything else. Because climate change is the future of our planet for every single person on it. So, to make it contingent on solving other political issues between countries, I think is deeply regrettable. It’s something that we all need to come together on. And it’s an example of a truly transnational challenge, and we will see more of those in the 21st Century.

We’ve already seen how COVID has been a transnational challenge. This is not one nation state talking to another one about particular problems; these are transnational challenges and we need to set aside our differences, find our commonality and find ways to reach net zero, and keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

What is it that you are looking for from the Indian side and what is it the British side is willing to offer in terms of working together so that you can call this month [of India’s Presidency of the UNSC] a success?

So I think going back to what you were saying earlier about the priorities of India on the Security Council. So let’s start with peacekeeping. India has plans for a Security Council resolution condemning impunity for attacks on peacekeepers. Now India obviously has the largest contribution to UN Peacekeeping — over 5,500 Indian peacekeepers in the field. And India has tragically lost 174 killed in action, and we are, we send our condolences to the families who have suffered over the years.

The U.K. has a smaller number of peacekeepers. I think a Security Council resolution that condemns attacks on peacekeepers would be very valuable. I also welcome Indian plans to look at and enhance the technology that’s accessible to peacekeepers, so they have a better chance of identifying threats and early warning... and we were talking about how that was going to work yesterday (August 2), so I think a real contribution to U.N. peacekeeping would be a big step forward.

We talked a bit about maritime security, and again I think something that reiterate the authority of UNCLOS and its judgments will be very valuable and put a focus on preventing crime in maritime areas. I mentioned the MV Mercer Street, which has been a particular problem for us this week with the attack which we believe originated from Iran. And then counterterrorism — which is a scourge, which we see across the whole of the Security Council agenda I fear. We see it in Africa, obviously a particular problem in Asia as well.

And we see tragic attacks in Europe and the Americas too, and particularly as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11. So, I think something there that is clear in our condemnation of terrorism that respects international law in dealing with it, but also can get underneath it, and look at and try and stop the sources of finance which reached the terrorists because that is, that will enable us to cut them off. …Then there’s always the challenge of running, day-to-day business on the Security Council and new things that come up so it’s going to be quite a busy August I think for India, but we are in very good hands with Ambassador Tirumurti [T.S. Tirumurti, India’s Ambassador to the U.N.].

Broad topics were outlined ahead of the interview. Non-substantive minor edits were made to the transcript for readability. A full-length video is available here .

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