Modi speech done, a look at India in the United Nations

Given the present situation of highly conflicting and competing interests, India, for the present, has to concentrate on and settle for more modest but pertinent reforms in the UN charter which has been modified only once since its adoption.


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | September 26, 2014

 Though the UN was primarily supposed to be concerned with defence and security, it has since taken up roles far beyond its original mandate to become an unwieldy structure with 193 member-states.
Though the UN was primarily supposed to be concerned with defence and security, it has since taken up roles far beyond its original mandate to become an unwieldy structure with 193 member-states.

This year’s UNGA session is providing a platform for a build-up to 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the UN. This would be an appropriate milestone to take stock of its performance, effectiveness, role and India’s multi-faceted diplomatic engagement with the UN.

An ordered chaos
Although the idea of some form of global governance has occupied philosophers, leaders and poets (Alfred Tennyson wrote Locksley Hall pondering over the future of the world) alike, it has often found a renewed vigour after a bloody war. So it was with the UN – the global community’s biggest adventure in multilateralism. When the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN, failed to prevent World War II which claimed 50 million lives, 26 nations met in Washington in 1942 to continue fighting against the Axis powers. (Interestingly, the term ‘enemy state’ is still used to denote Japan). Then came the San Francisco conference in 1945 to draw up the UN charter aimed specifically at containing international anarchy. India was one of the founding members of the UN.

Though the UN was primarily supposed to be concerned with defence and security, it has since taken up roles far beyond its original mandate to become an unwieldy structure with 193 member-states, assuming responsibility for what Kofi Annan called “problems without passports” – human rights, weapons of mass destruction, poverty, environmental degradation, diseases etc. It remains a work-in-progress adapting to non-traditional challenges with minimal precedents to fall back on.      

An anachronistic edifice
India has played an important role in the UN ever since its inception primarily through its peacekeeping operations. Though its roles have expanded, the architecture of the UN reflects a geopolitical reality of 1945 – this has been one of the most persisting as well as convincing arguments against the UN which first found voice in 1993 with the establishment of the open-ended working group. India has been in the forefront of such a crusade for reforms, especially in the UN Security Council (UNSC), the arm of the UN responsible for maintaining international peace and security. The present structure of UNSC includes five powerful permanent members (‘P5’) of the US, China, the UK, France and Russia with veto powers and 10 non-permanent rotating members. The latter have a curious electoral groups caucus: Africa and Asia (5), east Europe (1), Latin America and the Caribbean (2), and western Europe and other groups (2). They decide among themselves the candidate for any election. The present composition ignores the question of relative weight of each member-state, as compared to say, the size of its population.

Among the P5, the UK and France in particular have diminished in geopolitical importance over the years while India and Japan, for instance, have emerged as powerful players. On the other hand, the African continent and Latin America as a whole find no representation among the veto-wielding members, thus lending to the UNSC an overwhelming sense of obsolescence.

Apart from the imbalance in representing the world community, the UNSC’s ineffectiveness in handling problems of war and peace especially when a P5 member or one of its backyard allies is involved and the arbitrary manner of decision-making remain incontestable problems with the UN. For instance, the body has been excluded from conflict situations where China’s interests have been at stake: Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Sino-Indian and Sino-Soviet border conflicts, the Sino-India war in 1962, Chinese action against Vietnam and so on. This has proved even truer for American interests, where unilateral concerns have been camouflaged and conferred legitimacy through the UN which then become legally binding for all member-states. From 1982 till date, the US has used its veto 52 times followed by Russia (13) and China (8).

Apart from UNSC reforms, the financing of the UN (the secretariat and UN agencies) and the opacity of its functioning have been other contentious issues for India and other member-states. The assessed contributions from member-states don’t amount to much. Therefore, most of the financing for development projects is through donor funding. The US is one of the biggest financial contributors to this, making its position within the UN system unhealthily strong.

Foremost among the reform lobbies is the G4 grouping which includes India apart from Japan, Brazil and Germany who aspire for permanent membership with the expansion of permanent as well as non-permanent seats. Opposed to the G4 position is the United for Consensus (UfC) or the ‘Coffee Club’ of about a dozen countries including Pakistan, Argentina, Italy and Mexico. It is interesting that each of the G4 members have at least one opponent to its aspirations in the UfC – India/Pakistan and Brazil/Argentina, for example. The UfC has strongly opposed any further growth in the permanent seats and roots for negotiated decisions arrived at by consensus instead of a formal vote. Another critical configuration is the African Union (AU) which wants two permanent seats and an expansion in the non-permanent category. Apart from these major groups, there are other positions that have been taken by 40 small islands, the Arab states and a grouping of 21 countries pressing for UNSC reforms.

Claims to fame
India has served on the security council as an elected member on seven occasions so far, the last being in 2011-12, and has engaged strongly with the UN till the 1970s. There was a relative lull in the 1970s and 1980s owing to India’s dissatisfaction over the UN stand on the Kashmir issue and its nuclear programme. It resumed a strong engagement in the 1990s.

India’s claim for a UNSC permanent seat is premised on its historical contribution to the UN’s peacekeeping mission – it has been the third largest troop contributor – as well as its strengths as the world’s third largest economy (by PPP), the second most populous country, and sizeable experience in handling development-related issues. It was originally unable to secure a permanent seat in UNSC in the San Francisco conference because of its colonial status whereas France (a defeated ally) and China (which was a nominally independent country then) became permanent members. Securing the seat would help advance India’s national interests (for instance, having a bigger say in where its troops go) as well as marking its symbolic transformation as an important world power.

The P5 has reiterated its support for security sector reforms (SSR) time and again – in 2013 itself 24 out of the 47 resolutions adopted by the UNSC include an explicit reference to SSR. However, it remains in the interest of P5 to maintain status quo. The members of the elite club have resorted to a passing-the-buck strategy for any substantial change.

Though India is now part of many important groupings like the BRICS, there have been conflicting interests as far as SSR is concerned even within BRICS. China has supported UfC while Russia has expressed support for Brazil and India. An expansion would require two-thirds of the 193 votes in UNGA as well as the domestic ratification of the P5. Though the US and China’s obstinacy have often been blamed for the situation, the veto issue and the African seats are other complications in the matter. India will have to sell its candidature much harder and explain its capability to positively affect outcomes if it wants to build a strong case for a permanent seat in UNSC. Unless there is a serendipitous situational change, India’s ambition seems difficult to realise. This reality is reflected in India’s prudence of having already applied for a non-permanent seat in 2021-22.

Given the present situation of highly conflicting and competing interests, India, for the present, has to concentrate on and settle for more modest but pertinent reforms in the UN charter which has been modified only once since its adoption. A deepening crisis in the UN in terms of its legitimacy and its capacity to deliver has almost ensured the absence of a collective global leadership – which David Gordon and Ian Bremmer term a ‘G-Zero world’. Multilateralism, in the meanwhile, thrives in unlikely coalitions of issue-specific networks and treaty-based partnerships with business running as usual.

Making peace with blue helmets

In 2014, India, after Bangladesh, has been the largest troop contributing country (TCC), in the form of troops, military observers, staff officers and civilian police, deployed in 12 out of the 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. Historically, it has contributed peace troops to 43 of the 69 UN missions till date.

Peacekeeping missions have undergone major qualitative and quantitative changes since India’s initiation in 1950 with operations in Korea, affecting Indian peacekeeping interests.

In 1945, though it was agreed that the P5 should provide the bulk of the armed forces by forming a military staff committee, due to disagreement over the size and composition, the provision could not see the light of day. Therefore, smaller groups of unarmed military observers formed part of UN missions like in the formation of UN military observers for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) in 1949. However, there has been a major spike in operations after 1988; 51 operations have been launched since then.

More importantly, there has been an emphasis in recent times on ‘robust mandate’ –chapter VII of the charter which confers power on the UNSC to use armed forces should other measures fail – and a shift away from chapter VI which prescribes pacifist settlement of disputes through mediation and arbitration. The ‘Blue Helmet’ regime based on the premise that inter- and intra-state conflict can be controlled without resort to the use of enforcement measures does not fall under the purview of chapter VII. In April 2013, eight UN peacekeepers were killed in South Sudan when militia attacked a convoy and in December the same year three more Indian Blue Helmets were killed when militia attacked a UN base camp sheltering civilians. The Indian position of participation in such operations has been a matter of much debate in recent times.

Along with a rise in combat operations, belligerence is no longer limited to national armies but includes extra-state actors like paramilitaries, warlords and insurgents, producing integrated missions aligning peacekeepers with contestable political objectives characterised by the presence of multiple armed groups who are opposed to the UNSC’s objective like in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Mali. The peace troops work on a triad of principles of having the consent of the host country, neutrality of the troops and use of force only in self-defence. Their neutrality, however, is no longer a guarantee for their safety. The spill-over effects from such operations as the MONUC in DRC have again spurned debate in the Indian establishment since these changes have translated into much enhanced chances of Indian casualties.

Moreover, unlike the US, India has no peacekeeping doctrine which guarantees the immunity of the peacekeeper, among other concerns. Peace troops are not covered under the 1946 convention on the privileges and immunities of the UN. Immunity derives from the status of forces agreement (SOFA) which places the troops exclusively under the sending-states jurisdiction. Most SOFA/MoUs are not sufficient as regards the sending-states domestic laws relating to extra-territorial criminal jurisdiction, in case allegations arise, placing the peacekeeper at substantial risk.

I bleed more versus I pay more
Interestingly, though the decision to expand, maintain or establish peacekeeping operations is a UNSC decision, the P5 countries have confined themselves as fund contributing countries (FCC) without participating in the actual operations—referred to as ‘willing to pay but not play’. FCCs have preferred participation in multinational operations like the NATO or working through unilateral interventions. As of 2013, the P5 had contributed personnel (not necessarily troops) only once each for peacekeeping. In the 69 years, the US has provided 82 personnel whereas in 2014 alone India has 8,123 personnel on-field. According to a paper by Shashi Tharoor, former UN under-secretary general, the UN peacekeeping operations are highly cost-effective – the UN spends less per year on peacekeeping worldwide than is spent on the budgets of the New York city police and fire departments.

India and other TCCs feel that UNSC should consult them before deciding what their troops are mandated to do. With the new responsibility of protecting civilians in some UN operations—which the peace troops consider as being beyond their pay cheque—there have been allegations that the Blue Helmets have not interfered even when civilians were being killed.

A matter of remuneration of UN peace troops has been another cause of a face-off between India and the UN earlier this year in February. A demand raised by India and other TCCs of lifting a two decade-old freeze on hike in allowances (stagnant at $1.28 per day and in another allowance for rest and recuperation at $10) was met with much resistance by the top FCCs – the US, Japan and France. In a rare boycott, India’s permanent representative to the UN refused to attend a meeting called by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in February. Though in July, the remunerations were hiked, the persistent heated deliberations regarding peacekeeping troops reflects a deep divide between the global North and the South – the countries that pay more versus the ones that bleed more.

The UNSC needs to reflect much more on what Ban has called the organisation’s flagship enterprise to increase its effectiveness without heightening risks to the peacekeepers – better use of technology, for instance – and honing the capabilities required for such operations, to contain the politics of peacekeeping from turning violent.

(This article appeared in the September 16-30, 2014 print issue)



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