United Nation Reforms

The UN reforms we are seeking, particularly the expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council, is nothing short of a revolution. We are challenging the very foundation of an institution, born out of a world war, the winners of which gave themselves the responsibility of maintaining world peace and security by assuming extraordinary powers. 

The UN Charter, which was crafted by them, has been embraced voluntarily by 192 nations. That there has not been a world war since and that the UN has served as a stabilizing factor in the world is the strongest argument for continuing the status quo. But the contrary argument is stronger, because the global equations have changed so much in the last 66 years that it is imperative that the UN must reflect those changes to maintain its representative character and moral strength.
Image Source: The Hindu
The question today is not whether change is needed, but whether a real change can be brought about by the provisions of the very Charter that established the institution.

India was among those who lit the first spark of inevitable change, back in 1979, at the height of the cold war, when an item entitled “Equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council” was inscribed on the agenda of the General Assembly. The demand was to add a few more non-permanent members, on the simple logic that the ratio between the strength of the General Assembly and that of the Security Council should be maintained. The exponential increase in the membership of the UN should be reflected in the size of the Security Council. This principle was, in fact, followed in 1965 when the number of non-permanent members was raised from 6 to 10.

The reaction from the permanent members was instant and shocking. They argued that any expansion of the Security Council would undermine its efficiency, integrity and credibility and ensured that the agenda item was postponed year after year, with a nominal and sterile debate. The idea remained alive, but no action was taken till the end of the cold war.

The game changed in the early nineties, when the idea of adding new permanent members was brought up by Brazil and we initiated the exercise of ascertaining the views of the members and setting up a mechanism to study the proposals and to reach consensus.

The permanent members led by the US offered a “quick fix” after initial hesitation and proposed the addition of Japan and Germany as permanent members on the ground of their being the highest contributors to the UN budget after the US and a marginal increase in the non-permanent membership. If India had not stopped the “quick fix” and insisted on comprehensive reform with the support of the nonaligned group, the door for expansion would have been closed after inducting Japan and Germany at that time. We demolished the payment argument by stating that permanent membership should not be up for sale.

As a lethargic debate went on in the Working Group for years, national positions evolved and loyalties changed, but it became clear that the expansion of the Security Council could not be easily accomplished. The formation of an interest group called the “Coffee Club” and later “Uniting for Consensus” which opposed any expansion of the permanent membership made the situation more chaotic. We ourselves advanced our position from seeking to establish criteria, such as population, seminal contribution to the UN, participation in peacekeeping operations etc to staking a claim and began campaigning bilaterally in capitals. Over the years, our claim became strong and it became universally recognized that if a single developing country were to become a permanent member, that would be India. One adverse consequence of the debate, however, was that the discussions highlighted that a vast majority of member states had not served even once on the Security Council, while countries like India, Japan, Pakistan and Egypt had served on the Council several times. This led to our long absence from the Council from 1993 to 2010 after having been elected as a non-permanent member 7 times in the earlier period.

Efforts made outside the Working Group were also fruitless. After the deliberations of a High Level Group, Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed two Plans; Plan A, proposing creation of 6 permanent and 3 non-permanent seats and Plan B, proposing 8 new seats for 4 years subject to renewal and 1 non-permanent seat.

General Assembly recently entered intergovernmental negotiations to suggest a “timeline perspective” to agree on reform in two stages on the basis of a draft text, but no progress has been reported as yet. A move is afoot by the G-4 to introduce a resolution to decide that both permanent and non-permanent membership will be expanded, but its fate is uncertain.

As of now, there is no formula for expansion which can command consensus or even secure two thirds majority of the General Assembly, including the support of the 5 permanent members.

The framers of the UN Charter did not intend that it should be amended easily. But that has not prevented the UN from transforming itself to deal with new issues and new circumstances. Today’s preoccupations of the UN like peacekeeping, human rights, environment, climate change etc were not anticipated in the Charter. The flexibility and resilience of the Charter have been tested again and again and nothing in the Charter has prevented the UN from taking on new responsibilities and obligations.

The permanent members, for instance, consider that they only stand to lose by adding new permanent members with veto. They have made it clear that there is no question of veto being extended to the new permanent members, even though some of them tactically accept the African demand for veto. 

No group, outside the G-4, is actively campaigning for a formula.

We did not need Wikileaks to find the reasons for the reluctance of the US to bring about expansion of the Council. What we knew from the beginning. “We believe expansion of the Council along the lines of the models currently discussed will dilute US influence in the body…..On most important issues of the day—Sanctions, Human Rights, Middle East etc.

China is opposed explicitly to Japan and implicitly to India, though it pays lip service to developing countries’ representation on the Council. Its position could be decisive as the permanent members will coordinate their positions before any advance is made. 

Permanent membership without veto is not such an attractive trophy that we should expend unlimited resources and energy on it. As a member of the Council, India will be called upon to take sides on every issue in the world, sometimes losing friends in the process as we are fiercely independent and do not play second fiddle to anyone. 

The UN needs reform not to make one country or the other happy, but to make itself more relevant, credible and effective in the world and it will be ready for a revolution sooner rather than later.

Some appreciation please!

  Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2015 at 3:21 AM under   Misc GK