Lecture at the National Defence College, New Delhi on the United Nations by T.P.Sreenivasan, Former Ambassador. April 30, 2013
Officers of the National Defence College,
I am delighted to be back at the National Defense College. To be invited to address accomplished officers, who have been handpicked for higher commands in military and civilian sectors is both a privilege and a challenge; privilege because I am speaking to the leaders of tomorrow, challenge because I do not know whether I can add anything to the erudition you have already acquired. The challenge is even more when the topic is the United Nations, about which each one of you will have deep knowledge and a definite perspective.
The task set out for me is to cover four sets of issues relating to the United Nations today--the relevance of the United Nations in the emerging world order, the role of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security and the urgent need of its reform, peacekeeping operations and the proposal for a standby force for the UN and the funding mechanism of the UN. I shall deal with them on the basis of my personal experience of the UN in different capacities and locations during the period from 1980 to 2004, updated by recent studies and reports.
The United Nations is like motherhood—universal, unquestionable and unassailable. It is considered benign, benevolent and even beatific. Against its larger purpose and mission, we gloss over its inadequacies and blemishes. It was a dream come true after a devastating global conflagration to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war with a pledge to beat swords into ploughshares. In embracing the UN Charter, the original member states and those who joined later reposed their faith in its principles and endorsed its purposes even if they had lingering doubts about its structure and procedures. At the age of 68, the United Nations remains a beacon of hope for humanity. It attracts the mighty and the meek, the strong and the weak, the big and the small and each finds satisfaction, even if it is only in its aspirations finding utterance or in contributing its mite to the UN’s growth.
In analyzing the relevance of the United Nations in the emerging world order, it should be remembered that the United Nations is only as relevant as its members want it to be. As Dag Hammarskjold, once remarked, the UN is not an abstract Picasso, but a drawing made by each of its members. It was established in the name of “we the people”, but it is essentially an intergovernmental club, in which every member jealously guards its sovereign equality. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “It is not a United Nations Organization. It is a United Governments Organization.” Membership of any international organization entails the surrender of a fraction of the state’s sovereignty, but they assert their sovereignty at every point of decision-making. For smaller and weaker states, membership of the UN itself is a guarantee of its sovereignty. The powerful nations constantly endeavor to turn it into an instrument of foreign policy and, when they fail, they question its relevance. Governments do not always want the UN to succeed when they refer issues to it. They want to pass the buck. Failure is an essential part of the UN’s “proven capacity to fail.”
The democracy deficit in the United Nations is evident in its structure, which has a one-nation one-vote system in the General Assembly, while the more powerful Security Council has a P-5 oligarchy, which seeks to shape international peace and security according to its own whims and fancies. The Charter has made the United Nations a conservative body with the most stringent provisions for change. Even the most anachronistic provisions of the Charter remain frozen in time. The unwritten sartorial laws and archaic forms of address bear testimony to the conservative nature of the United Nations.
The relevance of the UN, however, is ensured by its resilience, which has enabled it to move with the times, in response to the specific needs, unanticipated at the time of its inception. Instead of amending the Charter, the UN has readjusted itself by dealing with new areas of concern such as terrorism, the environment, HIV/AIDS and piracy and by inventing new concepts such as peacekeeping, peace building, Responsibility to Protect etc. The Charter has not stood in the way of expanding the agendas of every organ of the United Nations.
When it comes to the structure of the United Nations, including the size and composition of the Security Council, the resistance has been uncompromising. The reason is not far to seek, because nothing short of a revolution can change the entrenched supremacy of the permanent members. Since the last expansion of the Council in 1963, the membership of the UN has increased dramatically
and game changing developments have taken place, but the size and structure of the Council has remained static.
The question today is not whether change is needed, but whether the provisions of the very Charter that established the institution can bring about a real change. If history is any guide, major changes take place when the time is ripe, in unexpected ways, regardless of the strength of those who seek change and those who resist it. The provisions of the law that seek to protect the establishment will be thrown to the winds and the old system will yield place to the new. We have many examples in history to show that those who have conceded changes have lasted longer than those who have resisted the forces of change.
India was among those who lit the first spark of inevitable change, back in 1979, at the height of the cold war, when an item entitled “Equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council” was inscribed on the agenda of the General Assembly. The demand was to add a few more non-permanent members, on the simple logic that the ratio between the strength of the General Assembly and that of the Security Council should be maintained. The exponential increase in the membership of the UN should be reflected in the size of the Security Council. This principle was, in fact, followed in 1963 when the number of non-permanent members was raised from 6 to 10. The reaction from the permanent members was instant and shocking. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, they opposed the move tooth and nail. They argued that any expansion of the Security Council would undermine its efficiency, integrity and credibility and ensured that the agenda item was postponed year after year, with a nominal and sterile debate. The idea remained alive, but no action was taken till the end of the cold war.
The game changed in the early nineties, when the idea of adding new permanent members was brought up by Brazil and we initiated the exercise of ascertaining the views of the members and setting up a mechanism to study the proposals and to reach a consensus. The permanent members led by the US offered a “quick fix” after initial hesitation and proposed the addition of Japan and Germany as permanent members on the ground of their being the highest contributors to the UN budget after the US and a marginal increase in the non-permanent membership. If India and the other nonaligned countries had not stopped the “quick fix” and insisted on comprehensive reform with the support of the nonaligned group, the door for expansion would have been closed after inducting Japan and Germany at that time. We demolished the payment argument by stating that permanent membership should not be up for sale. If I may be permitted to quote from my own speech at the Working Group in February 1995, “Contribution to the UN should not be measured in terms of money. We do not agree with the view expressed by a delegation that permanent membership is a privilege that can be purchased. Financial contributions are determined on the basis of “capacity to pay” and those who pay their assessments, however small, are no whit less qualified for privilege than the major contributors.”
As a lethargic debate went on in the Working Group for years, national positions evolved and loyalties changed, but it became clear that the expansion of the Security Council could not be easily accomplished. The formation of an interest group called the “Coffee Club” and later “Uniting for Consensus” which opposed any expansion of the permanent membership made the situation more chaotic. We ourselves advanced our position from seeking to establish criteria, such as population, seminal contribution to the UN, participation in peacekeeping operations etc to staking a claim and began campaigning bilaterally in capitals. Over the years, our claim has been recognized. One adverse consequence of the debate, however, was that the discussions highlighted that a vast majority of member states had not served even once on the Security Council, while countries like India, Japan, Pakistan and Egypt had served on the Council several times. This led to our long absence from the Council from 1993 to 2010 after having been elected as a non-permanent member 7 times in the earlier period.
Efforts made outside the Working Group were also fruitless. After the deliberations of a High Level Group, Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed two Plans; Plan A, proposing creation of 6 permanent and 3 non-permanent seats and Plan B, proposing 8 new seats for 4 years subject to renewal and 1 non-permanent seat. The Plan B had greater acceptability in the Group and it was at the insistence of Indian member of the Group that Plan A was included. Another exercise undertaken by India, Brazil, Germany and Japan (G-4) to get the General Assembly to adopt a resolution on expansion failed to take off because of differences with the African Group. It, however, resulted in the G-4 conceding for the first time that they would not insist on the veto at least for 15 years. The General Assembly recently entered intergovernmental negotiations to suggest a “timeline perspective” to agree on reform in two stages on the basis of a draft text, but no progress has been reported as yet. A move was initiated by the G-4 to introduce a resolution to decide that both permanent and non-permanent membership will be expanded, but it did not command majority support and was abandoned.
The only silver lining in our quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council is that the need for expansion has been recognized by the entire membership and that there is also recognition that if the permanent membership is ever expanded, India will be the first developing country to find a place in it. For the rest, there are almost as many views as there are members of the UN about the size, composition and rights and responsibilities of the members of the Security Council.
A major development in February this year was the emergence of a draft resolution from the Caribbean Community, which is nothing but a wish list of the aspirants to permanent membership as well as of those who seek an expansion of the non-permanent membership. The draft envisages a Security Council consisting of 11 permanent members with veto and 16 non-permanent members. The additional seats will give two permanent seats to Africa, two permanent seats to Asia, one permanent seat to Europe and one permanent seat to Latin America. The G-4 has reason for joy about this formula as it meets its own demand. Africa’s demand for two permanent seats has also been met. But the permanent members, the Coffee Club and several countries, which have championed the abolition of the veto will vigorously oppose the Caricom draft. But if it can secure more than 128 votes in the General Assembly, the pressure will increase on the permanent members to at least offer an alternative formula and enter into serious negotiations in a new forum as the present Intergovernmental Negotiations have reached a dead end. But as it has happened in the past, the permanent five will try, by hook or by crook, to stave off a vote on the Caricom draft in the General Assembly.
The US, which had supported Japan and Germany in the early nineties, now favours “two or so” new permanent members, including Japan and “2 or 3” non-permanent members making an addition of only 5 more to the Security Council. Such a formula is a non-starter. The support extended to India by President Obama during his visit to India is in the form of a wish without a commitment to bring it about. His words were: “In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” Though this is a significant departure from the previous US position, it is not enough for the US to extend support to India; it should shape a formula, which is acceptable to the membership. Its reservation over Germany and Brazil will itself deprive it of being decisive on the issue of expansion.
We did not need Wikileaks to find the reasons for the reluctance of the US to bring about expansion of the Council. But we now have it in black and white what we knew from the beginning. “We believe expansion of the Council along the lines of the models currently discussed will dilute US influence in the body…..On most important issues of the day—Sanctions, Human Rights, Middle East etc---Brazil, India and most African states are currently far less sympathetic to our views than our European allies”, said the US Ambassador in a cable in December 2007. The US delegation at the UN seems to have only a watching brief till intervention becomes necessary to prevent an expansion that will not serve US interests. A special report of the Council on Foreign Relations which has urged the President to do so makes the expansion contingent on demonstration of the qualifications of permanent membership. The position of the aspirants on non-proliferation, climate change and human rights will be subject to scrutiny. The Caricom draft will electrify the US delegation into action against it as it flies in the face of the US position.
China is opposed explicitly to Japan and implicitly to India, though it pays lip service to developing countries’ representation on the Council. Its position could be decisive, as the permanent members will coordinate their positions before any advance is made. France, UK and Russia are not likely to support the draft, despite their declared support for a modest expansion, including recognition of India’s credentials for permanent membership.
It is clear that it will be difficult to accomplish the fundamental change we are seeking by way of the procedure laid down for change. Like it happened in the case of the formation of G-20 when G-8 could not resolve the unprecedented economic crisis, a situation may arise when the P-5 find it difficult to maintain international peace and security without additional permanent members and thus force their hands to accept change. Such an ominous future was predicted by the President of the General Assembly, when he said on May 16, 2011, “Unless we find the determination to advance on the issue, the UN will lose its credibility. Our organization will be marginalized and important issues will be discussed in other forums and groupings, which are perceived to be more efficient and more representative of the new realities of the day.” Such a situation may arise sooner than later and that gives us reason for hope.
The Security Council chamber at the UN headquarters in New York, originally a gift from the Norwegian Government, was refurbished recently, with another grant from the Norwegians, but there was no provision made for extra space for the aspirants at the horseshoe table. Our Minister, Dr.Shashi Tharoor, who was present, put the UN on notice that the table would have to be extended soon to accommodate new entrants. “ This event is a reminder that institutions and places that looked fresh and relevant in 1952 need extensive repair work to bring them up to date for 2013. What was true of the fixtures, wall paper and electronics of the Security Council is also true of its composition and working methods”, he said. But the constraint will not be the size of the table, but the mindset of the mighty permanent members.
The effectiveness of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security is contingent upon achieving unanimity of the permanent members. The concept of such unanimity stands diluted, as abstention on a resolution by a permanent member does not amount to the absence of a concurring vote. Unanimity was virtually impossible during the cold war and the Security Council remained paralyzed when wars raged in many parts of the world, leaving it to other initiatives to order ceasefires and to bring about reconciliation. But beginning with the first Gulf war, the Security Council was able to unite in dealing with several hotspots. The largest number of peacekeeping operations was launched during this period. Even the provision of the Charter, which prohibits interference in the internal affairs of member states, did not militate against measured interventions. Principles of such interventions under R2P have been drawn up. But there have been instances of lack of unanimity among the P-5, as in the case of Syria. The balance sheet of the Security Council will show that, as long as the vital interests of the P-5 are not involved, the Security Council is able to act in accordance with the Charter.
The advent of terrorism and the threat to international peace and security from non-state actors is a new phenomenon that the Security Council has to contend with. The lack of a UN definition of terrorism and the theory that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist did not stand in the way of resolute action by the Security Council. A Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism has still eluded the UN, but various ways have been found to take action against terrorist outfits. Declarations of terrorist organizations and sanctions imposed against them have helped the fight against terrorism, including in Jammu and Kashmir.
Taking advantage of the end of the cold war and the expansion of UN peacekeeping operations, Secretary General Boutros Ghali proposed an “Agenda for Peace” in the early nineties with a number of proposals to make peace operations more effective. He used the provisions of Chapter 7 of the Charter to justify military involvement without the consent of the parties. Although the Charter had envisaged enforcement action by an international military force, this had not happened except in the Korean case. The evolution of peacekeeping operations was haphazard and the procedures for approving, organizing forces, equipping them and deploying them are cumbersome and time consuming. Ghali proposed, therefore, the establishment of a standby force for rapid deployment as soon as the Security Council authorized an operation. This proposal earned him the reputation of trying to be a “General” rather than a “Secretary General.” The proposal was treated politely by the General Assembly and the Security Council, but sidelined by adopting a series of measures such as notification by member states of specific forces or capabilities, which could be made available with the approval of the national authorities.
The proposal comes up off and on in diplomatic and academic circles and polls taken in some member states show that support for a standby force has wide support among the public. Sentiment has grown for such force to be used to prevent conflict, to combat terrorism and to enforce non-proliferation. But member states have been wary of the proposal because each peace operation is distinct and complex and a single formula cannot apply to all situations.
A standby force for rapid deployment has merits, as that will enable the Security Council to act quickly to avoid the kind of tragedies that occurred in Rwanda, Darfur and Kosovo. It will be a peacemaker and peace enforcer, if it has a strong mandate. But the member states are not yet ready to bestow such sovereign powers either on the Security Council or on the Secretary General. The Security Council embodies a necessarily selective approach in deploying forces, depending on the circumstances in each case. The UN is reluctant to involve the Security Council in certain conflicts and selectivity is rooted in caution and prudence. The command structure is distinct in different cases and has to be non-partisan and meritocratic. A UN standing force is generally considered impractical for these reasons.
The number of peacekeeping operations has dropped of late and the UN is able to put together troops at fairly short notice, as there are several countries, which place troops readily at the disposal of the UN. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been good troop contributing countries. Peacekeeping training centers have come up in some countries, including India and the frequent consultations with troop contributing countries have facilitated early resolution of routine problems. India lost 5 soldiers recently in South Sudan, adding to the considerable Indian casualties in peacekeeping operations. Unlike in the US and other western countries, where there is a hue and cry when their soldiers lose lives in the service of the UN, India has come to accept casualties in peacekeeping as inevitable price for keeping the peace. The evolution of command and control system away from NATO doctrine has also been helpful.
The UN peacekeeping operations had their moments of glory like in Cambodia and Namibia and when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but their failures have also been glaring. Peacekeepers have been helpless spectators of butchering of innocent lives and even genocide for lack of mandate, equipment or funding. Even worse, peacekeepers have been found guilty of corruption, crimes and exploitation of the very people they were supposed to protect. But, according to Ibrahimi, “No failure did more to damage the standing and credibility of UN peacekeeping in the 1990s than its reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor.”
The budget of the UN is shared by the member states on the basis of capacity to pay and the system has worked well, except when the US held back its contributions for political ends on the dictum that he who pays the piper should call the tune. The US made the UN starve of funds to force reform in the style of spending, prompting a comment that the US was not different from Cinderella’s mother! But the payment argument has not prevented countries like India from playing an effective role though our share has been below 1%. Nor have Germany and Japan gained any major advantages on account of their high contributions. India is one of the few countries, which have paid the contributions in full and on time.
The UN has contemplated changes in the funding mechanism of the UN, particularly in development funds, including the technical cooperation funds of the Specialized Agencies, such as the IAEA, as at present, such funds are voluntary and not apportioned among member states. Bot the developed and developing countries have resisted change. Brave promises have been made by some countries to liberate the UN from the financial grip of the developed countries, but none has put their money where their mouths are.
The funding and budgeting methods of the UN are so complex and the checks and balances are so many that any reform is hard to accomplish. Apart from the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly, the Advisory Committee on Administrative Questions (ACABQ), a most powerful body of elected individuals, the Committee on Programme and Coordination (CPC) and the Committee on Contributions come into play before funding is found for any programme that is adopted by the UN. Even reducing expenditure on defunct organs, sunset operations or economy measures are hard to accomplish. The Trusteeship Council has very little to do, but its budget cannot be eliminated because of long-term contracts and service conditions of professionals employed by it. The moribund Military Staff Council still holds ceremonial dinners for delegates from 39 countries. Once the General Assembly decided to stop the supply of pitchers of water to each delegate at all meetings and set up drinking water fountains outside the halls, believing that more than a million USD could be saved. But when the expenditure statement for the year came, the expenditure was still there because the staff engaged in supply of water could not be sent home. No wonder when Secretary General was asked how many people worked in the UN, he said, “about 50%!”
A word must be said, in conclusion, about India and the United Nations. India is among the countries that take the UN very seriously. An investigation report on the oil for food programme Iraq indicted the Secretary General, but the SG survived and the Indian Foreign Minister had to resign as his name was found in an Annex to the report. Gone are the days when we took the Kashmir issue to the UN. We would not take any bilateral issue to the UN anymore, but we do our best to contribute to the growth of the UN. This explains our approach to the permanent membership of the Security Council, which has become the Holy Grail of Indian diplomacy. We do not think very deeply of the value of permanent membership, particularly if it is without the veto. We have been exaggerating our accomplishments as a non-permanent member recently and imagining that our claim to a permanent seat has been strengthened. The truth of the matter is that every country on the Council, whether permanent or non-permanent, will act in its own national interest even when it is elected regionally. No one, other than the candidates themselves, is, therefore, enthused by claims of permanent membership. Legend has it that India was once offered the Chinese seat on the Council and Pandit Nehru declined it saying that we would claim our own seat when the time came. The time has not yet come, even though we have been knocking at the door for thirty years.
India has given much more to the UN by way of concepts, seminal resolutions, conventions and the rest than it has gained by way of core interests. We have had to plough the lonely furrow on issues such as self-determination, non-proliferation, International Criminal Court and most recently, on an Arms Trade Treaty. Though we have more than our share of sherpas in the secretariat, we do not have many summiteers. But we count our blessings from the UN not in terms of the concrete benefits it gives us, but on account of the hope it holds out for world peace and prosperity.