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What India should do at the UNSC

October 20, 2010 12:10 IST

If we want permanent membership of UNSC, here is our opportunity to lay all doubts to rest, says former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran

For the many enthusiastic votaries of the ongoing Commonwealth Games, one compelling argument advanced was that India's ability to plan and execute, with visible success, a complex, large-scale and multinational event, would, among other benefits, burnish its credentials to eventually host the International Olympics. The Games commenced with an impressive inaugural event and were handled with commendable efficiency, but the chaos and veritable panic that preceded them, makes it difficult to believe that the Olympics could be trusted to India. At least, certainly not in the foreseeable future.

In a somewhat different context, India is set for another preview of its performance, this time its ability to deliver on its role as a major regional and global player on the international stage. India has been elected with an overwhelming majority to a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for a two-year term in 2011 and 2012, after a gap of 20 years. Its previous term was in 1990-92 and it had failed in its attempt to get re-elected in 1996.

The situation today is vastly different and the role and the work of the Security Council has undergone a major transformation. Whereas during our earlier term, the Council met infrequently, usually to deal with crises or conflict situations, nowadays it meets virtually daily. The formal meetings are preceded by extensive informal consultations, which orchestrate agreed public outcomes. Furthermore, unlike during the Cold War years, there is now very close consultation and coordination among the five permanent members — the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. There are few issues on which they display open and public differences. This inevitably constrains the role of the non-permanent members.

There are today many more Security Council resolutions than at any time in the past. An annual average used to be less than 20 in the 1980s. Today that figure is more than 60.There is now a new and additional format in consensus presidential statements on a whole range of issues where formal resolutions may not be possible. Unknown earlier were the press statements that are now issued in the name of the Council. All these require intense and complex negotiations among its members.

The agenda of the Security Council has become much more elaborate and substantive. Peace-keeping operations, for example, which are under the Council's purview, currently has a budget that exceeds that of the United Nations itself. As an elected member, India will be part of the supervisory role exercised by the Council but will have to balance this against our status as a major and long-standing personnel-contributing nation to UN peace-keeping. The Council today deals with several thematic issues that go beyond the sphere of security as commonly understood. These include human rights, global health issues such as HIV/AIDS and more recently, climate change. Delegations represented in the Council Chamber must deploy wide-ranging expertise in diverse fields. A more complex set of diplomatic skills will be required of India's representatives.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented expansion in the Security Council's organisational set-up. There are now several sanctions committees as well as working groups. There is, for example, an important working group on Africa. The issues that arise are technical and also have significant political implications. These require to be serviced on a continuing basis and will impose a heavy workload on our delegation to the UN as well as on the Ministry of External Affairs, which must provide back-up support.

During the course of our two-year term, India will assume the presidency of the Council, which is by monthly rotation. The office of Council president has now acquired a very high profile and is politically sensitive, particularly during those occasions when the Council has controversial items on its agenda. This is a role that India will have to handle with prudence but display leadership. That is what will be expected of us.

There are several difficult and thorny issues before the Council on which we will need to take well-considered positions. These include Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Nepal, Myanmar and nuclear non-proliferation. Later during our term, the election of the UN Secretary-General will also come up. We will not be able to remain in the shadows on these issues, nor will it be possible to avoid visibility no matter what positions we take. There is no scope for fence-sitting. There is no room for prevarication. Our positions will need to be the outcome of comprehensive analysis and will require careful, well-modulated articulation. Our aim should be not merely to avoid negative fallout on our relations with various countries but to see how we could leverage our Council membership to shape its debate and promote outcomes that are aligned to our interests. We will have to step up our engagement with key countries and seek coalitions wherever we can to advance our goals on different issues.

It may be necessary to institutionalise our consultations with our partners in BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) and SAARC (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) to name a few, so that we have a range of options available to us in performing our role as a Council member. The Non-Aligned caucus will continue to be important as a developing countries' constituency. In the inevitable horse-trading that characterises international diplomacy, these are the levers that we will need to play the game productively.

A new and unfamiliar challenge will be the constant and intense media focus on our performance, both at home and abroad. The need to take positions that may diverge from our traditional approaches will require educating domestic public opinion. It will demand that we reach out, on a regular basis, to a wide circle of opinion-makers, national and international media, think tanks and academics to explain and justify our approach to different issues.

As is apparent, India's membership of the Security Council will confront us with a new and unfamiliar challenge. We should prepare our diplomacy so that we acquit ourselves with distinction. This will require strengthening our foreign office as it will our missions abroad, but most urgently our UN missions in New York, Geneva and Vienna. The world will be watching us and constantly scrutinising the role we play. If we wish our claim to permanent membership of the Security Council to be taken seriously, here is our opportunity to lay all doubts to rest.

Shyam Saran in New Delhi