For the last 15 years countries around the world like India, Brazil, Germany, South Africa and Japan are dreaming of a permanent seat at the singularly most powerful space at the United Nations – the Norwegian Room — which hosts the meetings of the Security Council.
Frustration among the aspirant countries is growing too. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week gave vent to the country’s irritation at being made to wait. “For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?” he asked. The prime minister even wondered if the reform process would ever reach its logical conclusion. His was a valid bone to pick.
At a meeting of nations at the UN on the issue of reform last November, the German representative speaking on behalf of the Group of Four — Brazil, India, Japan and his own country — said the intergovernmental negotiations framework was marred by “constraints and flawed working methods” but should receive one last chance to reach a breakthrough.
““We remain alarmingly far away from the intended destination,” said the representative of of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, on behalf of the L.69 group of developing countries, pointing to scant results achieved over 10 years, according to a UN report.
Despite all the tall talk of the five veto-wielding nations, innumerable promises and the setting up of various committees to discuss the modalities of expanding the Security Council, the unvarnished truth is there will be no reform of this powerful body that dictates politics and events around the world.
The reason is logical. Why would the five nations – the United States, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia – want to share power with more countries, in the process diluting their own clout. Secondly, in the unlikely event of a reform actually reaching the implementation stage, which of the remaining 188 countries will be accorded the permanent seats?
India, for instance, may fancy itself as a legitimate contender for a variety of reasons – the largest democracy in the world, among others, in its CV. There are others, who are equally if not more forceful in their claims. Take South Africa, for instance. The government in Johannesburg contends that none in the African continent is represented at the Security Council. Similarly Brazil’s position is there is none from South America.
India, on the other hand, represents Asia and China is already there. And, it is not as if relationship between the two giant neighbours is consistently friendly. One doesn’t need to look far. The ongoing standoff between the two over the disputed border across the Himalayas is a clear sign that Beijing will veto any proposal to include New Delhi as a permanent member. Pakistan will also oppose, but that can be neutralised by lobbying at the United Nations General Assembly, but not China.
The process for getting a seat in the Norwegian Room is pretty straightforward – a two-thirds support from the General Assembly and the backing of all the five extant permanent members of the Security Council. A single veto will put paid to any chances of an aspirant.
Around the world too, ties among nations are pretty fractured. In international politics, the core dictum is “self-interest” – there are no permanent friends and enemies. During the Cold War, the United States was much closer to Pakistan and its relationship with India was laced with hostility. After the Cold War, the India-US ties were reset and today Washington relies on India to join forces with it to contain China’s perceived aggression in the Pacific. The outcome of this is that the US is arguably closer to India than even Pakistan.
The proposal to reform the UNSC was proposed in 2005 by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who pointed out that it was time for the world body to restructure itself to reflect the changes in the political topography of the world, after six decades since the end of the Second World War.
No status quoist could really object to this valid proposal since this was based on an objective truth. The UN set up committees to follow up on the suggestion, and set about enthusiastically making it appear as if Annan’s call was the most important on its agenda.
Over time, those who have followed the developments on this front, have realised that there cannot be a bigger charade than this process which uses all the time-tested bureaucratic methods to a point where the idea of a reform itself starts looking jaded and no one is really giving it much mind space, least of all the media.
As bureaucrats will vouch, their systems are so well honed that in time the issue will end up producing yawns and use up countless cups of coffee and snacks at meeting tables.
Some may argue that a small set of countries, as at present, is a better bet to ensure world order, peace and balance. With more countries within the SC, it may lead to chaos. This argument is fallacious as, more often than not, the current arrangement has proved to be untenable, unjust and blatantly partisan.
For example, according to a media report, from 1946-2016 the US has used its veto power 83 times almost always to protect its allies specifically Israel on its various shenanigans in the occupied Palestinian territories. Russia is no less. In the same period, it used its veto power 133 times, again to protect its allies, including one discussion on the chemical attack by Syrian forces in the ongoing civil war. In this period, China used the veto 40 times, Britain 32 and France 18.
Another instance is that of the US invading Iraq in 2003, without the permission of the UNSC, as required under international law. None could move against Washington because any resolution proposing sanctions against the US would have got vetoed by it. Or take the issue of China’s reported incarceration of thousands of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Beijing’s veto will always ensure that none can question it.
It is not entirely hopeless, though. There are ways by which the rest of the world, including India, can put pressure on the United Nations. If all the remaining 188 countries in the world threaten to walk out of the world body and constitute a fairer alternative, it could work. Instead, to assuage these nations the UN system allows them 10 non-permanent member seats for two years at a stretch without veto power.
Sadly, nations see this as a position of privilege. When India is voted to head the non-permanent category, it is embarrassing to see the national media going to town projecting it as a great achievement when it is actually a sickly sop.
In an alternative world, the non-permanent members would have demanded the scrapping of the Security Council, and hand over all the powers to the UN General Assembly which would imply that all nations are equal. Once this is done, all decisions could then be taken by a democratic vote.
Instead, the five permanent members, smugly ensconced in the Security Council, reflect the imbalance, utter injustice and skewed priorities where they alone are the real rulers. All others are of the cardboard variety – with no real say in the running of the world. Anyone who thinks otherwise should wake up and smell the coffee.