Why India won't get a permanent seat at UNSC

The start of text based negotiations does not mean that New Delhi is anywhere near obtaining permanent membership.

 |  4-minute read |   22-09-2015
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India has been actively pursuing its quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC). It has pushed for text based negotiations in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) as a step to move forward the agenda of UNSC reform and expansion stuck fruitlessly in the Open-Ended Working Group all these years. Now that the UNGA has resolved to commence such negotiations in the 70th UNGA session, there is sense of progress. Many would rightly say that the start of text based negotiations does not mean that India is anywhere near obtaining permanent membership. The text in question is not a mature document that could be finalised or significantly progressed during the current UNGA session. In reality, this is the start of a long drawn-out process with no visible closure date. No breakthrough that brings us within striking distance of our aspiration has actually been achieved.

Hard reality

Some believe that an unjustified sense of achievement is being projected officially, or, worse, that official India is being hopelessly naive in ignoring the hard reality that UNSC expansion remains a remote proposition. To think that our professionals have been hypnotised by their success in terms of better structuring the process would be unwarranted. They understand that the process now begun does not guarantee success on substance within any predictable time-frame. The negotiating text is a 25 page document that contains the views of diverse groups of countries, whether the L69, the G-4 or the African group, on five identified parameters, namely, the size of the expansion in the permanent and non-permanent categories, regional distribution, the working methods of the Security Council, its relationship with the UNGA, and veto powers. These are complex issues on which negotiations could drag on for ages. To expect concrete results from the 70th UNGA session would be to harbour illusions.

Nevertheless, to view the introduction of a negotiating text as a futile exercise would not be justified either. That China, Russia and the Uniting for Consensus (UFC) countries (comprising countries like Pakistan, Italy, Mexico, Egypt, South Korea etc) have rejected the text and strongly opposed its introduction suggests that they see this step as a breach in their strategy to continue stalling the process of reform and expansion through open-ended discussions without any working text. They have made demarches with member states to change their position, but without success. China, Russia and US have effectively boycotted the process by refusing to provide any inputs to the negotiating text. The UFC countries too have not provided any input but have asked the UNGA president to attach their letter to the text. France and UK have, on the contrary, provided inputs. Russia’s negative position has been particularly noted in India. We expect China to block our bid for permanent membership as much as possible.

Highly restrictive

We know the highly restrictive US position on expansion, including its ambivalent phraseology on our claim for permanent membership. Russia has supported our candidature for years now, which is why its heavy-duty opposition to a negotiating text has come as a surprise. This suggests that they along with China actually do not want UNSC expansion. In discussions with us the Russians apparently claim that they have no issue with India’s membership and that of Brazil, but are strongly against that of Japan and Germany. The UN Charter requires a two-third majority for amendments, but Russia wants the expansion and reform issue to be decided by a larger majority, a “near consensus” as they say.

Current challenge

Russia otherwise insists on the supremacy of the Charter, but, inconsistently, not in this case. Their other argument that the vote will be “divisive” is not convincing because the last expansion was decided not only by a two-third majority, but was divisive, as two permanent members abstained. While we are of the view that reform and expansion will improve the functioning of the UNSC, the Russians are concerned about disintegration and fragmentation of the UN as a result. We would prefer Russia to be less rejectionist on the issue.

The immediate challenge is to ensure that the next UNGA chair picks up the baton from his predecessor and sees that Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) on the negotiating text begin in November. Beyond that, if no consensus is reached on a text which can be put to a vote- which one can safely assume would be the case — other choices are available. It can be a member driven or chair driven process. A broader coalition, which would include India, can take the initiative to present their own text for vote. The ING chair at some stage can present a text-a “zero draft” for further negotiations, emulating the process followed with the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda by world leaders this month in New York. If ever a decision gets taken with no P-5 veto in the UNSC (politically difficult if the UNGA delivers a two-third majority on the issue), all member countries will have to ratify the agreement.

If cynics are right in doubting whether the P-5 will easily agree to share power with would-be aspirants, the more hopeful may not be wrong in believing that circumstances will force a change. The crisis we see today reflect the failure of the UNSC as presently constituted to ensure global peace and security.


Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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