Thursday, February 24, 2011

Nuclear Disarmament Timeline Challenges
Nuclear Base Camp: The Numbers Conundrum
Ever since J.Robert Oppenheimer invoked the Bhagavad Gita to create the mother of all metaphors, “the radiance of a thousand suns” and “the destroyer of worlds”, the nuclear weapons and disarmament efforts have given us many images and metaphors. But they were all images of mutually assured destruction and inevitability of a nuclear catastrophe. There was even a telling image of the world resting comfortably under the hood of a cobra. But more recently, despair has turned into hope with the metaphor of a mountain which, though distant and high, does hold the promise of a panoramic view of a nuclear weapon free and non-violent world, if we reach the summit. The world realizes that the climb up the mountain will be slow and hazardous, but there appears to be a universal desire to make a determined effort.
The metaphor of the mountain has led to the image of a base camp, which is necessary to equip ourselves and to prepare for the climb. It is indeed a practical and necessary stage and translated into practical measures, it encourages all nations, whether they possess nuclear weapons or not, to build a staging ground. It means the establishment of intermediate goals towards disarmament on which there could be a consensus. The proponents of this concept have explained that the idea is to agree to proportional disarmament instead of smaller nuclear countries waiting till the others come down to their levels before they contemplate disarmament. They would like to craft a treaty, whereby countries, coming from different levels, could agree to work at reciprocal and proportional cuts, which would aim at all countries reaching the same lower number of weapons at a future date. William Perry characterizes the base camp as a place that would be safer than where we are today. It also serves as an organizing principle to “lead, but hedge”, in keeping with the US nuclear posture.
While the base camp concept is novel in the new context of optimism, it has been part of every plan that has been put forward in the past. Though the general and complete disarmament is the ultimate objective, giving priority to nuclear disarmament and that too through various intermediate stages is not very different from the base camp idea. The Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988 and the other practical steps put forward by various powers have contemplated intermediate stages of various descriptions. The proposal for a complete freeze was another logical step, which did not find acceptance by the nuclear weapon states. The proposed FMCT is another interim measure which is desirable and logical. We should welcome any step that reduces arsenals, strengthens non-proliferation and leads to elimination of nuclear weapons.
It is not clear, however, whether we can approach the base camp concept on the basis of numbers. Such an approach has been adopted in the case of START, but the world is skeptical about the numbers involved in the negotiations as all categories of weapons are not included in the numbers game. Transparency is highly desirable, but often absent when it comes to counting weapons. Fixing agreed numbers to reach the base camp is likely to elude us. The idea of proportionate reduction in arsenals regardless of the present size of the holdings will be anathema to those countries, which have only a minimum deterrent. India, for instance, has not revealed the number of weapons it considers necessary to have a credible minimum deterrent and the numbers are a matter of speculation. How would India participate in negotiations in reduction without revealing the numbers?
A broader approach, which takes into account the new optimism, generated by President Obama’s Prague speech, the sighting of the mountain, the encouraging signs at the latest NPT Review Conference and the Nuclear Security Summit, should move the disarmament effort forward.
India and the United States attempted precisely that at the summit level in their Joint Statement last year. The Prime Minister of India and the President of the United States agreed to join in a “strong partnership to lead global efforts for non-proliferation and universal and non-discriminatory global disarmament.” Further, “they affirmed the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines.” The key words here are “trust and confidence” and “reducing the salience of nuclear weapons” in strategies. This will be a very good start for our journey to the base camp and beyond, but not easy to do as it requires fundamental rethinking in many capitals of the world. As the Norwegian foreign minister observed, “Every small demonstration of our willingness to move forward towards abolition make many of the intermediate obstacles more surmountable.”
The nuclear weapon states, sadly, still consider nuclear weapons important for their security and do not wish to consider a timeline for their elimination. In my view, the base camp will not be meaningful unless there is a collective commitment to a multilateral framework for negotiations within a time frame. Neither the NPT nor the CTBT has succeeded in accomplishing this. The FMCT negotiations remain stalled. An alternate route will be, as India has suggested, working on a global non-first use agreement as the first step towards delegitimisation of nuclear weapons. Hesitation on delegitimisation on the ground that it will outlaw retaliation seems unfounded as any use of the weapons will be unthinkable if there is delegitimisation. A commitment to negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention may also be an appropriate element of the base camp.
Changing of postures, rather than agreeing on nuclear force sizes may be a practical approach to the base camp. In the case of the two countries, which possess 95% of the nuclear warheads, numbers are relevant to build mutual confidence, but for the others, the doctrinal commitment to nuclear weapons, regardless of numbers, is the greater threat. It is no great comfort for the world to know that the nuclear weapons can now destroy the world only a dozen times, not dozens of times.
The coming to force of the START treaty on February 5 has been universally welcomed. But further progress may be stalled on account of fears of China’s growth. The focus is likely to shift to Asia, where the numbers game will be even more complex. In the Asian context, it will also be difficult to count the numbers considered necessary for minimum deterrent by different countries. Here again, a review of doctrines rather than entering a debate on numbers will have the desired impact.
The optimism that has entered the disarmament debate in recent years has not been fully justified by the latest signals from the major nuclear weapon states. The mountain and base camp images raise hope, but do not instill confidence. The urgency for nuclear disarmament, going beyond legal obligations has also been sidestepped in the process of setting up long term and intermediate stages. The time frame to reach global zero must be shorter if the world has to be safer.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reform of Global Institutions
(Remarks by Mr. T.P.Sreenivasan, former Ambassador of India at the Lunch Session of the India-UK Roundtable on February 19, 2011)
Global institutions, by their very nature, have to remain dynamic and ready for change. The mere change of membership, the entry and exit of member states, brings in changes in priorities, agenda and nature of functioning, as the sovereignty of member states continues to be the guiding principle in international relations. Changes in the global power structure, sometimes gradual and quiet and sometimes sudden and dramatic, also do force changes in global institutions. Continuous reform, therefore, is essential for global institutions to remain relevant, effective and efficient. History has shown that only resilient global bodies have survived and gained acceptance of their members.
Reforms are cyclical in nature for all global institutions and the process can never be completed once and for all. The challenges of the time impose reform to meet immediate needs and it gets formalized only subsequently to bring the practice in line with the statutes of the organizations.
The most significant restructuring of global institutions in recent years is the emergence of G-20 in the wake of the global economic crisis. The speed and efficiency with which this was accomplished should be a model for other global institutions. Even the financial institutions, which were considered extremely conservative, have begun to see changes sweeping through them, as a result of the transformation of the world economy.
The Commonwealth underwent a fundamental change when India decided to remain within it as a Republic and its agenda has also been flexible and responsive to the demands of the time.
The United Nations itself is the classic example of an international organization, which has changed beyond recognition without any change in its Charter. The agenda of the UN and its priorities today were not dreamt of by the authors of the Charter. From peacekeeping to human rights, from terrorism to climate change, the UN has taken on tasks and responsibilities not envisaged in the Charter. They are subsumed in the general concept of maintenance of international peace and security. Fight against apartheid and the concept of humanitarian intervention have amended the basic tenet of non-interference in internal affairs of states. The existence in the Charter of outdated words and phrases, which make a mockery of the present state of the world, has not inhibited the functioning of the UN.
The adoption of the ‘Agenda for Peace and the ‘Agenda for Development’ and the massive array of declarations, treaties and resolutions have made the UN richer and relevant. The recent changes in the working methods of the Security Council and the General Assembly are far reaching enough to meet the aspirations of the members for change to a great extent.
The history of the UN has shown that one thing that cannot be changed without a formal amendment to the Charter is the composition of the Security Council. The UN went through the difficult process of amendment to the Charter in 1965 to raise the number of non-permanent members from 6 to 10. We have now reached a stage when a change in the Charter is necessary to reflect the realities, not only of the enhanced membership of the UN, but also of the power structure in the world, which is dramatically different from the days after the end of the Second World War.
This is one forum where I do not need to dwell upon the need for increase in the permanent and non-permanent categories in the Security Council as I shall be preaching to the converted. The UK and India are of one mind on this issue and what we can do is to compare notes on the situation today and work out a common strategy.
India is of the view that time for concrete action has come after 30 years of discussions on this matter. On a personal note, I was at the UN as a young diplomat when India introduced the relevant agenda item in the General Assembly in 1979. Every aspect of the issue has been considered and there is now a consensus that expansion is necessary in both categories of Security Council membership. Today, we have reached text based negotiations with different formulas and numbers. What is required is political will to act here and now.
In his report ‘In Larger Freedom’, Secretary General Kofi Annan had brought down the options to two and in our view, Plan A is clearly preferable for the simple reason that creating a new category of members, as outlined in Plan B, will be clearly invidious. Plan A, which envisages the addition of 6 new permanent members and three new non-permanent members should resolve the problems of size, balance and equity.
In discussing strategy, the one thing that we have to remember is that support to one country or another, however strongly worded, will not lead to a decision. Members, preferably the permanent members, should promote a formula, like Kofi Annan’s Plan A, which has the potential of securing a two thirds majority in the General Assembly. The UK is in a position to take the lead in this regard.
The G-4 countries, Japan, Germany, Brazil and India have taken certain initiatives to speed up the process of reform forward. The group has recently decided to make an effort to establish a time frame of a year to bring about change. It would be helpful to know whether the UK and the other permanent members will go along with this time frame. If not, what is the timeframe that you have in mind? Would delaying a decision in the best interests of the UN, as China seems to suggest.
As for the identity of the new permanent members, India has held the view that criteria should be established for them. An agreement on expansion with regard to categories and members and the criteria can be established this year, it would be a major accomplishment. The difficult question of veto can, perhaps, be tackled at a later stage. The India-UK Roundtable appears to be an ideal venue for reaching an understanding on this important issue.


Monday, February 14, 2011


By T.P.Sreenivasan

No wonder only the Indian Ambassador realized that our Minister of External Affairs was reading the wrong speech at the UN Security Council. The others were not listening, not even the Portuguese delegate who authored the text. In the UN, delegates develop selective hearing, because no one can listen to the millions of words spoken every day. Everyone knows that the first few minutes of the speeches in the Security Council will be devoted to congratulating the present President on his assumption of the position even though it is by rotation and thanking the previous President for his accomplishments, even if he did not achieve anything during his month long presidency. The members of the Council were waiting for our Minister to come to the substance of the debate to give him some attention. If he had said anything new or original, it would not have gone unnoticed.

But what happened to the practice in our Permanent Mission in New York of one officer being assigned to every politician to keep a copy of the speech and to make sure that every word is delivered correctly? In the case of the Minister of External Affairs, this used to be done at the level of the Deputy Permanent Representative himself. How could the officers occupying the four chairs behind the Minister not know he was reading the wrong speech for full three minutes?

Has the good custom of having a heading and even a separate cover sheet for the speeches of the Ministers been abandoned? Did the Portuguese Mission also circulate the speech without a heading or a cover? We need to have answers to these questions if we have to understand where the system went wrong. Such things are too important to be left to the Minister himself. After all, Ministers have too many things on their mind to check whether the text placed before them is the right one. The topic of the debate was also a motherhood issue, development, not any controversial matter.

I have had some experience of gaffes by our political delegates misreading or mispronouncing words. One distinguished Minister of State read 'Namibia" as "Nambiar" repeatedly from the podium of the General Assembly. Unlike in the Security Council, no one sits or stands behind the speaker when he speaks and there is no way to communicate with him quickly to correct any mistake. Another delegate, this time a lady, accustomed as she was during the decolonisation days to condemnations of various policies of imperial powers, decided to "condemn" UNESCO for helping a non-self governing territory to preserve its cultural heritage. The text, of course, meant to commend the UN Agency!

Speaking of pronunciation, my Indonesian colleague, sitting next to me in the General Assembly hall asked me once what language our delegate was speaking in. Normally if a delegate does not speak in any of the six languages of the UN, someone would read the English text from the booth. My Indonesian friend could not catch the English version as our delegate was actually speaking in his version of English.

On one occasion, we had a truly sick External Affairs Minister, who should have stayed at home without taking the strain of travelling to New York. In fact, the Minister of State was also sent to New York at the same time in case the Minister needed any help. But our Minister insisted on doing everything that the Ministers were expected to do, like making speeches and holding bilateral meetings. He resented any suggestion that he might want to rest after a few meetings. That was one occasion when I had smuggled myself behind the podium with the permission of the chair when the Minister spoke to help him, if necessary. In replying to the Minister's comments on Jammu & Kashmir, a particularly vicious Pakistani delegate referred to India as "the sick man of Asia", hitting somewhat below the belt.

The same Minister left us in a quandary when he called on the Secretary General. The Minister described all the problems we were having with Pakistan and repeatedly asked the Secretary General to intervene in some way. The Secretary General, who was very keen to intervene, knew the Indian policy too well to take the request seriously. Still, we did not feel comfortable till we wrote a letter to the Secretary General, on our return to the mission, that the Minister did not really mean to request for mediation.

We also had political delegates, who wanted to change policy when they were at the UN. A very senior delegate was convinced that our policy on Afghanistan was wrong. He was inclined to support the resolutions, which criticised the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but our policy was to abstain on them. We had abstained on the main resolution already, but in one of the committees, a similar resolution was introduced. Knowing his views, I tried to send him for coffee to the delegates' lounge when the vote came up. He was not interested in shopping or sightseeing. He was also very conscientious and did not leave the chair in the committee. When a roll call vote was announced and India's name was called, he said "yes", but I shouted loudly "abstention" from behind him. The secretariat official, who knew the Indian position well, recorded our vote as abstention and our delegate was not any wiser. He was hard of hearing.

We had another delegate, who was convinced that our policy on East Timor was faulty. He was seen hobnobbing with the Portuguese delegation in the lounge occasionally. He tried to persuade me to change our position on East Timor and denounce Indonesian colonialism. I explained to him the rationale of our policy and said that he could take the matter up with Delhi, which he was not inclined to do. He watered down the language of the speech I gave him, but as long as the speech conformed to the established policy of the Government, I had no problem. I kept a close watch on him as he read the speech and, sure enough, he deliberately changed a phrase to dilute it further. The statement that the people of East Timor had already exercised their right to self-determination was changed to suggest that we were not convinced that it was so. I was astonished by his dishonesty, but without saying a word, I went to the secretariat and handed over a copy of the speech and said that it should be reflected faithfully and the electronic recording should be ignored.

The secretariat normally obliges in such cases, but it does insist occasionally on showing the original and the correction. If a delegation votes wrongly on a particular resolution, the original vote will be recorded together with the amendment submitted subsequently. In the case of the Security Council, I do not know whether the secretariat will insist on recording the pleasure of our Minister in seeing two countries of the Portuguese speaking community in the Security Council.

India is not the only country that generates such gaffes in the UN. Uganda had a big problem once when no Ugandan delegate was present in the General assembly hall. When Uganda’s name was called, someone walked to the podium and made a speech denouncing the reigning President of Uganda, Idi Amin. By the time the official delegates heard about it and rushed to the hall to challenge him, the damage was done and the news was already in the air. The whole Ugandan team was recalled and a new team was sent with instructions that the Ugandan chairs should never be left vacant. Pakistan had to contend with a politician, a member of the official delegation, who denounced the regime in Islamabad. Knowing his views, the mission had refused to print out his speech, but he managed to type it on the teleprinter. Once when the Iraqi delegate referred to the Kuwaitis as small people, the interpreter referred to them as “pygmies”. The Zaire delegate protested and the Iraqi did not know why. “Pygmies” is not a politically correct word in Zaire! A delegate was asked to repeat his vote four times till the secretariat was convinced that he was acting as instructed.

Gaffes in the UN create some red faces and send a few chuckles around, but do not harm anyone as each country’s position is known and the situation can easily be retrieved. These add some entertainment to the rest of the dull proceedings and go down to the archives, which have plenty of faux pas recorded for posterity.