The 75th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) was planned to be a glittering affair with world leaders congregating in New York for the General Assembly (UNGA) high-level General Debate beginning from September 22. That was, however, before the world came in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UNGA’s new annual session did begin on schedule and the high-level debate was also convened but in virtual mode. World leaders recorded their speeches and these were beamed into the UNGA hall.
In the process all countries had their say but what went missing was the opportunity that the high-level segment provides for leaders to meet their counterparts bilaterally and in groups in New York to address issues, move international processes forward and make assessments of the problems facing the international community. Such meetings on the side-lines of multilateral events have gradually and increasingly become part of international diplomacy and annual high-level UNGA sessions are part of the global diplomatic calendar. Virtual meetings will doubtless become more frequent among world leaders but many will still prefer the traditional mode of quiet in-depth conversations while looking the interlocutor in the eye. This will specially be so if sensitive matters with large and enduring implications for bilateral ties or international issues have to be discussed.
A large number of Heads of States and Heads of Governments addressed the high-level segment on behalf of their countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did so on September 26. He focussed on the need for the UN to move with the times and correctly asked the question “Whether the character of the institution, constituted in the prevailing circumstances of 1945, is relevant even today”? He went on to note, “If century changes, and we don’t, then strength to bring changes becomes weak”. There is no doubt of the need to reforming UN structures, especially the Security Council (UNSC) which is responsible for the maintenance of international security.
The UN was founded after the end of the Second World War with the aim of preventing world wars which had twice devastated humankind in the first half of the last century. This said, it was also designed by the victors of the Second World War—US, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China, the P5 as they are called—to cement their interests in a new world order. They arrogated to themselves special privileges. These were entrenched in the composition and modes of work of the UNSC. Thus, the P5 insisted that they would be permanent members of the body. To protect their individual interests, they also ensured that they individually have a veto over any decision of the Council.
The past 75 years have witnessed enormous political, social and economic changes some of which are because of humankind’s truly revolutionary progress in science and technology. These comprehensive global changes should be reflected in UN structures, particularly the UNSC. All countries recognise this truth but there is no consensus on how the structures should be changed. It is unlikely that an agreement on this issue will emerge anytime soon for the P5, whatever they may say, do not attach a priority to UN reform.
Except for China the rest of the P5 openly acknowledge that India has all the qualifications to be a permanent member of the UNSC. They mention it in their bilateral conversations with Indian leaders and this point has become a routine element in the joint statements that issue after the meetings of the leaders of these countries and their Indian counterparts. Indian leaders also stress India’s credentials for holding a permanent seat in the UNSC.
Modi devoted a substantial portion of his UNGA address to point out India’s eligibility for permanent UNSC membership. He mentioned India’s democratic credentials, the size of its population, its diversity and its economy. He also noted that it had suffered “hundreds of years of foreign rule”. This last point was obviously made to strike a chord with other states that had suffered colonial domination. In addition, Modi also referred to India’s ancient belief that the world is a family. Modi mentioned India’s global actions in accordance with this belief. These include its contributions to UN peace keeping operations in which Indian soldiers have made the supreme sacrifice, in sending humanitarian relief to other countries in their times of need, and in trying to take along regional countries as it proceeds ahead on the road to development.
For how long would a country like India be kept out of the decision-making councils of the world, Modi asked? This is a fair argument and reflects the sentiments of millions of Indians. Just as India feels strongly that decision-making global structures are outmoded so does Germany, Japan and Brazil, the three other countries with whom India has joined hands to press for UNSC reform and their own permanent presence in an expanded Council. These three states also have the credentials for permanent membership of the UNSC. Germany is Europe’s leading country and with its large economy is a technological powerhouse. It eclipses Britain and France. Japan is also an economic and technological powerhouse claim. Brazil is the South American giant. But the valid claims of all the four countries do not determine results in the global power play. Interests and power and the lack of inhibition to use them do.
The time has come for the four to think of innovative strategies to press their cases because pleas to justice and equity will simply not work.