UNSC Reforms: India Must Make Most Of Momentum – Analysis


By Chayanika Saxena*

With the baggage of a moribund predecessor to tow around, the inception of United Nations was seen as a moment when initiatives geared at creating and sustaining international security could be reclaimed. Claiming to have learnt from a past that was bridled with many moments of delinquency, inefficiency and indifference, the creation of the UN was treated as yet another, but a conclusive step towards installing a global society, albeit of a kind that was to be led by some leaders. Acknowledging that the realization of a harmonious order would inevitably demand the placation of those who were ruling the roost of nation-states at that moment, the United Nations was created with a beefed-up and more powerful Security Council that was to be at the helm of all its binding affairs.

But since its inception with the adoption of the Atlantic Charter by the 51 founding member countries — of which India too was a part — in 1945, both the UN and the world in and for which it works have come a long way. The common realists’ refrain — balance of power — has witnessed a considerable transformation in the contemporary era, having moved from bipolarity to a multi-polar order. In fact, as the contenders for cultural, economic, military and political power inflate in numbers like never before, the multi-polar tendencies in the world order are becoming more bold and vocal. Demanding representation that is reflective of the changes in the international circles, this multi-polar order is asking for reforms within the Security Council, particularly through an expansion in its Permanent Membership (P5) to ensure that an already disaffected international community does not shun a rusting UN because of its anachronistic core.

But where an increasing proliferation of other political groupings and economic forums are demonstrative of shifting allegiances, why does the clamor for an expanded Security Council not peter out? The answer lies in the symbolic and material significance that an organization like the UN — with a near total global participation and its all-mighty organ, Security Council, have come to enjoy.

A major case that is often taken up in the academic ‘agent-subject debates’, multiple arguments have been sounded to effect change in the Security Council — but often with little actual traction. At one level, where as an agent in itself, it is demanded of the UN to break the relative immunity of the Security Council to transformative changes much the same way in which its other organs — like the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and Trusteeship Fund — have accommodated to the changing realities through their expansion and dissolution respectively, the pressures on it as a subject of the international community has drummed up this demand to an even higher level.

Hence, where on the one hand, the need for reforms within the Security Council is being projected as a way to provide the UN with a new lease of life, on the other, the claimants for an equal share of power within its most powerful organ are being depicted as a rightful right of these burgeoning power houses.

The calls for expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council are in part being made for the high status that an entry into this core comes along with.

This major power vested in the P5 in the UNSC is well-known and is contained in a small, but powerful word – Veto. As a power that allows the members of the P5 to shoot down any proposal/resolution single-handedly, and often without scope for its resuscitation through second time tabling, the symbolic and material significance of this privilege is what most of the contenders for admission into the permanent circuit are vying for — and rightly so.

As the most powerful organ of the UN that it is, the fact that the Charter through its Chapters VI and VII accord the Security Council power to impose and execute economic and military sanctions, and even define what qualifies and what does not qualify to be a ‘threat to and breach of international peace and security’ elevates the status of both the Council and its permanent members to an enviable position. Thus, with all that is granted to it, no wonder there is a growing (and justified) demand for the expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council to ‘reflect the current geo-political realities better’.

Having been asked for long, a substantial, if not substantive moment in its journey was witnessed a few days ago, when the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a negotiating text to outline and pave way for the subsequent discussions on the reforms within the Security Council. Prepared by the General Assembly Task Force on Security Council Reform, this Negotiating Text was much like a farewell gift given by the outgoing president of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, to the international community. Prepared in time for the 70th General Assembly meeting, this negotiating text had some momentous moments to its credit. Touted as a tipping point of sorts, the adoption of this text by consensus and not by vote marked a major goal for the diplomatic parleys that have been on for long. Signaling a growing international intent to have the Security Council reformed, this 144 page-long text has finally paved way for a resolution to be drafted, which when passed can officially open discussions and negotiations on the “Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council”. To this effect, many member states have submitted drafts of what they think the potential resolution should have in it, even as US, China and Russia have registered their opposition in varying intensity on it.

Building on the initiatives that had begun gathering steam as the Cold War faded from the scene, the much-sought reforms in the Security Council include the following aspects: (1) categories of membership; (2) Veto power as held by the Permanent Members; (3) greater regional representation in sync with the modern times; (4) the size of an enlarged Council and its working methods and (5) the relationship between the Security Council and General Assembly.

Setting the stage for a discussion on the impending reforms, the Negotiating Text has been acclaimed as a historic milestone in what is (still to be) a long way to the realization of the reforms that are being sought. Both a procedural and substantive challenge that it is bound to be, it will be instructive to quote from the Charter to emphasize the terseness and tortuousness of the path that lies ahead: “Amendments to the present Charter shall come into force for all Members of the United Nations when they have been adopted by a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council. (UN Charter, Article 108)”.

Where the procedural requirements are a challenge in themselves, what further compounds the issue of putting these reforms into action is the opposition that it is receiving from different quarters. On the one hand, the P5 have expressed their resistance to the expansion of the Permanent Membership of the Security Council with all its power and privileges, the Chinese seat is pretty perturbed with the very claims for admissions that have been sounded by India for long. Outside the P5 orbit, there are countries that are opposed to the expansion for the regional rivalries they maintain vis-à-vis the individual contenders for the permanent posts.

Having evolved in their nomenclature from something as loose as the “Coffee Club” to a title that sounds more official and stern, “Uniting for Consensus”, this group of naysayers includes the likes of Pakistan, Italy, South Korea and Argentina, whose respective regional rivalries have them convinced about the dismal consequences that the proposed expansion would have for them. Finding their regional rivals in the list of contenders for permanent seats in the Security Council, the G4 — which has India, Germany, Japan and Brazil asking for a fair share of power and representation owing to their rising currency in all the aspects of international affairs – would surely have to up their game.

The variety of African caucuses and the lack of consensus among them on the issue of regional representation can be another stumbling block in the long-winding path to the UNSC reforms. Demanding representation on the counts of culture and geography, while the African nations had agreed on rotating two seats in the expanded Security Council, the dynamics governing this process continue to remain unclear. And, while it did not spring up as a concern during the adoption of the Negotiating Text, in all the likelihood it can be a potential speed-breaker that can arrest the progress of discussions and stall the formulation of resolutions within the General Assembly by a good margin.

As the leaders of 193 countries gather to mark the 70th year of UN’s existence, the reforms within the UNSC will undoubtedly be on the top of the agenda. A milestone that this negotiating text is, it is warranted of a contender like India to make the most of the momentum that has been built around the much-sought reforms and not let it get lost in the bungle of diplomatic play-offs and bureaucratic procedures.

*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. She can be reached at [email protected]

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