UNSC non permanent seat is symbolic – more noise than substance

The 55-countries of the Asia Pacific group, including China and Pakistan had agreed to back India.

This will be the eight time that India will be part of the UNSC Representative Photo: Twitter

India is all set to be elected as non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) when polls take place next week. Delhi will take the slot for the Asia Pacific region. India will be elected unopposed as no other country has put up a candidate. The 55-countries of the Asia Pacific group, including China and Pakistan had agreed to back India.

This was actually Afghanistan’s chance to sit on the UN high-table. India got the nomination after Afghanistan decided to withdraw. Many experts believe that Afghanistan, a country in transition and grappling with an elusive peace process, would have benefited by being in the UNSC non- permanent seat. It could project its case better in New York. Delhi could have persuaded Kabul to go ahead and grab the opportunity.

Though elections are on June 17, the tenure begins from January 2021-2022. This will be the eight time that India will be part of the UNSC. Once, when it contested in 1996 with Japan and Kazakhstan also in the race, Japan beat India to win the Asia Pacific slot. India’s external affairs ministry diplomats were shell shocked.

It was not so much the loss as the huge margin of victory, 100 votes by which it was defeated. Kazakhstan had withdrawn from the contest and opened the way for Japan’s decisive victory. That shook South Block and since then the ministry of external affairs has never taken anything for granted at the UNSC.


Being at the high table of the UN as part of the 10-member non-permanent group is mainly symbolic. As former diplomat Dilip Sinha points out in his book ”Legitimacy of Power : The Permanence of the Five in the Security Council,’’ that the P-5 — US, China, Russia, UK and France, call all the shots. In 2011-2012, when India was a temporary member of the UNSC, Sinha was heading the UN desk in South Block.

Sinha’s book is an eye-opener on the inner workings of the UNSC and makes a strong case for reform of an institution that continues to reflect the power equation that existed in the world after the end of World War-II. So, the UNSC does not portray the reality of a changing world.

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Decades have passed and countries like India, Brazil, Japan, and Germany as well as the African bloc need to have a voice at the UNSC. But the P5 nations, US, Russia, China, France, and Britain, are reluctant to widen the group. They keep talking of reforms and many of that happened, but the Security Council remains sacrosanct. None of the members actually want an expanded council, despite loud public statements on reforms.

The temporary members have little say in important matters. In fact since 1986, when the Iran-Iraq war was at its height, the P-5 would meet separately on vital international issues and then call in the ten other ambassadors to brief them. Holding meetings with just the five major powers have now become the norm on important issues. Ambassadors representing the non permanent member nations are allowed to question or ask for clarifications. But they cannot make a difference. In short they have no impact on the decision already made by the P.5.

Yet those who are outside this charmed circle are keen to get in, be it as non permanent members. It helps political leaders something to highlight as an achievement. For many developing countries it is a kind of power projection. India and Prime Minister Modi take the temporary membership seriously. They believe that in a world wracked by terrorism, a crippling pandemic which has not only cost lives but livelihoods, India can play an important role in chartering the future debate.

More than all this India’s temporary membership will help the Modi government to sell India’s contribution to international issues to its home base. The general public is hardly aware of the inner workings of the UNSC, and that unless the world body is reformed, the stranglehold of the P-5 remains. The rest of the 10 non permanent members are mere appendages to these five nations who finally call the shots.

Ahead of the elections on June 17. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, spelled out India’s priorities in the UNSC. He released a brochure giving out the five key areas Delhi would focus in. These rather vague principles include, new opportunities for progress, fighting international terrorism, reforming the UN system, comprehensive approach to international peace and security, and promoting technology with a human touch.

And in typical Prime Minister Modi style, the minister said that India would be guided by the five ”Ss’’. The PM’s love for alliteration is well known. So it is – samman (respect), samvad (dialogue), sahyog (cooperation) and shanti (peace) in order to create conditions for universal samriddhi (prosperity).

As India readies to take on its role next year, Pakistan commentators believe that raising Kashmir or a discussion on it at the UNSC may become much more difficult. India could also influence the UNSC sanctions regime, Pakistani experts say. They also believe it would be easier for Delhi to formally or informally embarrass Pakistan.

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But raising issues in the UNSC has little to do with non permanent membership. Political ties with the P-5 is much more important. Pakistan is not among the non permanent group now, but it knows well that China will stop all anti-Pakistan move sought to be introduced by India or the US or the UK.

Without UNSC reforms no member except the charmed five can make an impact. This is why India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany or the P4 group have long been pushing for reforms at the highest level. The squabbles among those seeking admission finally benefits no one but the original five members. Ranged against the P4 are Italy, Pakistan, Mexico, and Egypt, this group previously called itself the `’coffee club’’ but now the term used is ”uniting for consensus.’’

Then we have a separate African group, which wants two rotating seats for the continent. India, Germany, and Japan has the backing of the US, Russia, France, and UK. China naturally wants India out and would like to bring in Pakistan. But these speculations have continued for decades, but little progress has been made. India should once again begin pushing for UNSC reforms. And in towards changing world clinging on to the situation which prevailed in 1945, is not justified.

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