India's permanent membership

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress parties election manifestos express a desire to work towards India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The former states, “We are committed to seeking permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council so that the body reflects the contemporary realities of the world.

We are determined to intensify our efforts towards these objectives.” The latter notes, “We will re-double the efforts to win permanent membership of the UNSC and the NSG.” The NSG stands for the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

The language of these formulations is routine. This is further reinforced, in Congress’s case, by the clubbing together of UNSC and NSG ‘permanent’ membership.

This is sloppy drafting for it overlooks the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘permanent’ membership of the NSG as there is in the UNSC where the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China are permanent members. This technicality apart the NSG and the UNSC are not at all comparable; their inclusion in one sentence is therefore also problematic.

The NSG is a multilateral group which seeks to control trade in civil nuclear materials and technology. Its members set the rules for this trade. India was given an exemption following the Indo-US nuclear deal.

This was needed for India is not a member of the Nuclear non-Proliferation treaty. The UNSC is an organ of the United Nations dedicated to the maintenance of international peace and security.

It has therefore virtually a universal character and its permanent membership would elevate India’s diplomatic status tremendously.

Two questions arise. The first relates to the implication of the assertion in the BJP manifesto viz. that the UNSC does not reflect contemporary because of India’s exclusion. The second:  can UNSC reform that would lead to India becoming a permanent member be achieved anytime soon?

The United Nations was established after the Second World War. It put in place a world order that consolidated the position of the victors of that war—the Allied powers and the Soviet Union.

They wanted future matters of global security to be decided among themselves; hence, they not only accorded themselves permanent membership but also gave themselves powers to veto any UNSC decision, thereby ensuring that such decisions could only be taken by a consensus among themselves.

China became an unmerited beneficiary for it too became a permanent member just because it had suffered Japanese occupation and a third world country had to be included. At that time, it was subordinate to the Allied powers and would, it was expected, do their bidding. Hence, despite the Communist take-over Taiwan held the UN seat till 1972.

The world of 2019 is completely different from that of 1945. The Soviet Union has gone and Russia has taken its seat. Imperial France and Britain have become middle-level powers overshadowed in Europe by Germany.

China is claiming the global second slot by virtue of its enormous financial reserves and its military power too. In the present international situation Germany, Japan, India and Brazil claim that they have the heft to become permanent members and have joined hands to press their claims.

They are being opposed by a group of countries that feel that their interests would be hurt by the rise in status of the four.

Maria Garces, President of the current, the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly said, in January this year, at the re-commencement of work on UNSC reform, “It is now over 25 years since the Open-Ended Working Group was formed.

Intergovernmental negotiations began more than a decade ago. And still, the composition of the Security Council continues broadly to reflect the world as it was in 1945, save for the increase in non-permanent seats half a century ago. A lot has changed since then, to put it mildly”. There is no apparent hope that the vast differences in views will be bridged anytime soon.

A large part of the membership agrees that the working methods of the UNSC as well as the relationship between it and the UNGA needs to change. However, there is no consensus on “categories of membership, the question of veto and regional representation”.

There is also the issue of the size of a future UNSC. There is a general recognition that the current size needs to increase but the permanent members do not want it to become unwieldy. Africa and South America feel that they are inadequately represented in the Council.

Significantly, Syed Akbaruddin, India’s excellent Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, recalled last month that 113 countries of the 122 who had formally responded on UNSC reform within the UN system deliberations had supported expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories.

Among them there is also wide-spread recognition that India cannot be kept out of permanent membership of an expanded security council for it fulfils all required criterion. This is so in terms of its political and diplomatic importance and its growing economy.  It is also a factor of stability in its extended neighbourhood.

Most countries voice their support for India becoming a permanent member in bilateral interactions. However, this will have to be tested when the UNSC reform process actually gains traction. India must continue to press its case and along with like-minded countries keep the issue high on the UN agenda. With India joining as a permanent member the UNSC will indeed gain greater legitimacy for it will then reflect contemporary realities more.