Encash Obama’s UNSC cheque

U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement in Parliament that “in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council (UNSC) that includes India as a permanent member” was greeted with immediate euphoria. However, its highly nuanced formulation has subsequently raised many questions.

The UNSC expansion involves a two-step process. An amendment of the UN Charter, requiring 128 votes in the General Assembly has to be followed by ratification by two-third of the UN membership, including the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5). The resolution for the only other expansion in 1963 was adopted in the General Assembly with France and the USSR voting against, and the US and UK abstaining. However, all permanent members eventually ratified the charter amendment, allowing the expansion to go forward. The crux of the matter now is to find a formula which can win 128 votes in the General Assembly.
The current line-up is that the G4, consisting of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, have proposed an increase of the UNSC from the current 15 to 25, with six additional permanent members (themselves and two from the African Union). They have sought to finesse the veto question by postponing the issue for 15 years. The African Union (AU) has a variant which wants expansion to 26 with the veto either being abolished or extended immediately to the six additional permanent members.
The most vociferous opponents of this approach are a group of countries unalterably opposed to one or other of the G4, called “Uniting for Consensus” (UfC), led by Italy and Pakistan. Their proposal is for 10 new non-permanent members eligible for immediate re-election, no expansion in the permanent category, with all decisions in this matter being taken by consensus. The numbers in the above group are not large enough to block an expansion resolution. A straw vote a few years ago of countries supporting UNSC expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories gathered 140 votes, well above the 128 required for passage of an expansion formula.
Faced with the prospect of prolonged deadlock, France and the UK have proposed an intermediate reform which would add a number of temporary seats that would become permanent after some time if the members so wished. The UfC has opposed the proposal due to the danger, as they see it, of temporary members being transformed into permanent members.
The biggest obstacle at this time to achieving the 128 vote target is the position of the African group, which insists on designating the two proposed permanent members from Africa, without being able to decide among several claimants. None of the claimants are prepared to chance a vote without the endorsement of the 53-member strong African group.
Other major obstacles to achieving the 128 vote target are the opposition of the US to more than a limited expansion of the UNSC beyond, say, 20, and the demand of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the League of Arab States for an assured share of the cake.
Voting in contested elections for the Security Council is a highly chancy exercise. Committed votes often do not materialise, as India found to its cost when losing two elections against Japan and Pakistan. In this year’s contest for two non-permanent seats between Germany, Canada and Portugal, Canada reportedly had 136 written commitments, but ended up getting 113 in the first round, and 78 in the second before it withdrew.
While the UNSC restructuring may not be an immediate prospect, there could be very quick movement if the question of the two permanent members from the African group could be resolved, or an appropriate resolution, based on the UK-French intermediate proposal, came up for voting in the General Assembly. If the African group got its act together , there is no reason why the G4, acting together with Nigeria and South Africa, and with the support of UK and France, should not be able to garner the 128 votes for their endorsement as permanent members.
With this background, the real substance of Mr Obama’s support can be analysed.
w Is it a big deal? Absolutely. US support may not be a sufficient condition for obtaining a permanent seat, but it is certainly a necessary condition. Active opposition by the US would have made 128 votes unattainable.
w Does it commit the US to support India for early realisation of this objective? Not necessarily. The words “in the years ahead” are similar to Mr Obama’s Prague declaration on a nuclear weapon free world which was, according to him, unlikely to happen in his lifetime.
w Does it commit the US to support a vote, which may be essential to clinch matters? No, not unless explicitly agreed.
w Does this commit the US not to oppose expansion of the UNSC including India beyond 20, as has been their consistent position in the past? No.
There is, therefore, much work to be done with the UN membership and much to consult and clarify with the US. The Japanese were promised support by the US on this matter in even more explicit terms decades ago, but have still to cash in their cheque.
The one luxury India cannot afford is to get persuaded by the siren songs of the “sour grapes” advocates who say that the UN Security Council seat, particularly if without the veto, is not worth so much effort, that it is demeaning to have to keep asking motley countries for support, or that permanent membership will be offered to India on a platter as our political and economic strength grows.
For all its weaknesses, the UNSC is the only body whose decisions under Chapter 7 relating to peace and security are required to be implemented by all countries under international law. Permanent membership of the Security Council is an important determinant of rank in the international pecking order. India will repent at leisure if it gives up the race now only to find, after some years, that countries with lesser weight but greater perseverance have left us irretrievably a rung lower in the international hierarchy.

Dilip Lahiri is a former ambassador to Japan

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