UN Security Council: Demography, democracy in India’s favour

India's UN Security Council presidency
India should keep issues like Covid-19 and environment out of the UN Security Council; its global engagement should focus on achievable targets.

By Manjeev Puri

I am happy to begin the conversation, but I may end up pouring cold water on the ideas most people have about foreign policy practice. There are assumptions of the UN and multilateralism that are different from reality. Dreamers are very important as far as I am concerned — not just young people, but dreamers of all ages. India has assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council for one month in August and it rotates. In a sense, it is a kind of routine, but still an important pedestal to do things. I don’t think Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to New York, but the foreign minister is going there for one or two sessions.

In the formal sessions of the UN Security Council, everybody does take one or two themes that are of interest and try and push them a little bit. And the other members of the security council look at you favorably because you are chairing the session on that particular occasion. This time, I understand from what our ambassador to the UN has written sometime back, we will focus on peacekeeping and something called the ‘protect the protectors’ — a kind of app that we want to launch. Very good idea to marry technology with peacekeeping. India is at the forefront of these things.

Maritime security is certainly an important theme and something for which India has a great deal of vested interest. I am also sure we will raise the subject of terrorism. And I read that we would talk about Afghanistan, which, I think, is perhaps one of the more important subjects. Things have to come together because some of the most important global players are involved in Afghanistan.

Exactly 10 years back in August 2011, India held the presidency of the UN Security Council. For the first time, the Security Council issued some kind of statement on Syria. It took a great deal of dexterity on the part of other ambassadors and our team to coax people to say something on the subject and register a degree of inherited interest.

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Keep global agenda out of UN Security Council

What happens very often is that we conflate the Security Council with big global issues. You mentioned Covid-19 which really is discussed in the real sense of the term. And we have multilateral action on Climate Change. I am an old-fashioned guy and will be honest with you. We should not conflate global interest issues at the UN Security Council. The Security Council by name is just one instrument and everybody tends to think that all issues can be securitised to be discussed there. No, the General Assembly is the place for that. After all, your wellbeing is not discussed at the Security Council. It is a place that is built for traditional security issues.

At the Security Council, there are five countries that matter in decisions. There has been only one resolution that has been adopted in the UN Security Council where none of the permanent five exercised their veto and the resolution went through. This was 1973 in the case of Libya where Russia and China abstained. This is one place where, when the permanent members abstain, it means they are saying yes.

And where the non-permanent abstain, it means that they are saying no. And it needs to be really understood because the processes are extremely important in international governance. We must always remember that the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO are platforms of international governance. They’re not international talk floors.

We should be careful about bringing things into the UN Security Council because there you don’t have the final say. You are less than bit players in the game. So, India should raise global issues at specialised agencies such as the WTO and WHO. Similarly, climate change should remain at the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change. That’s the place where this needs to be discussed.

UNSC is a place where five countries can decide the fate of issues. They haven’t done a great job. They haven’t done a great job in Africa and will not even let you discuss Afghanistan. Except for the fact that there are already subject matters such as India heads one of the Taliban committees where there are certain opportunities. I think Afghanistan is a matter on which the Security Council is the right forum. And our being on the Security Council is an opportunity for us to ensure that we are into the playing side of it.

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Many factors in India’s favour

Let me take a minute to talk about reforms. By 2027 or 2028, India will be the most populous country in the world. Sitting in India, we feel that population is a big problem, but actually, it is not. The fact that you are the largest country in the world makes your situation qualitatively different from being the second largest. We have been badly hit by Covid-19. The GDP has declined by close to 10% and we are not among the top five economies. Even if we are unable to claw back, demography is on our side.

In the next 20 years, we will be among the three largest economies in the world. There is overarching reasoning that India needs to be part of those who make decisions. When the G20 was formed in 2008-09, the main idea was that you let China off the hook. There should be no free tickets for India, Brazil, and South Africa. Let them also be part of global decision makers. I think this is something we have to understand. I’m so glad that we finally come back again to push for the UN Security Council.

You know there are five big players. Three of them are easily understandable that three of them were the victors of World War II — the United States, the UK, and Russia. How did the other two get in? Well, both were grandfathered. The UK backed France and China became a permanent member in 1971. The seat was held by Taiwan and then PRC inherited the mantle. We tend to forget that we were not lucky. We were not grandfathered for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we need to work much harder.

In the mid-1990s, there was a concerted effort to induct Japan and Germany into the UN Security Council permanent structures. Quite apart from the fact that you need all the permanent members in their national parliaments to approve this particular change through their ratification processes and ratify the amendments to the charter of the United Nations. Very tough call, but remember to make concerted efforts. Then the ball will simply slip away and it won’t come simply because one day it will fall down. It doesn’t happen. Like this, we are in the business of calibrated taking things forward.

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Believe in India’s manifest destiny

We are not in the business of having been grandfathered and things are not going to work that. So, I’m very glad that we’ve decided to work on it. You must express frustration, but never get frustrated because this is a long haul. This is global power play; this is the way this game will happen. India is going to remain a major player.

One of the defining global negotiations at the moment is the one on climate change. It isn’t just a negotiation on the environment, and certainly not one on energy. It is actually strategic negotiations that are taking place because as things currently stand your GDP, your GDP is directly proportional to your energy use. Tomorrow, we may be able to do away with carbon, but nobody is moving towards it. Look at what has happened in Covid. Can you please remove the intellectual property rights (IPR) on covid vaccines and allow them to be produced everywhere? Some people make some gestures, but that’s about it. Nothing more than that.

We keep using this word post-Covid. I presume and hope that we understand that we are only talking about a world in which China is now the other alternate. There is hardly any change in the way humans react and the way countries react. It will not change. The use of morality and principles has always been done and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen again.

I strongly believe in India’s manifest destiny. And I say this basically because of the demographic dividend which is in our favour. The numbers really matter at the end of the day. We represent a different strand of global civilization. We must always assert an independent view and we must strengthen our democracy. These will give us strength in our global engagement.

(Manjeev Puri is a career diplomat who spent more than a decade at the United Nations as Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of India. This article is the reproduction of his speech at an online conference on India’s global engagements organised by Policy Circle.)