India at the high table

India’s first month in 20 years as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council began well with our election to the chair of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee at the start of the New Year. The Committee, the UN’s top body on terrorism issues, is an institution of some importance to New Delhi — and it is

one which many foreign observers had thought India might not be asked to lead, given our strong feelings on the issue. Coming in the wake of India’s record margin of victory in the race to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, this news confirms our standing in the world and the contribution New Delhi is capable of making on the Council.
So what awaits us in our first month at the UN’s high table? By the time this column appears, Sudan will be looming large. The Council will have to engage seriously with the implications of the Southern Sudan referendum, an extraordinary event in modern African history, which will permit the residents of one part of a state, the Southern region of Sudan, to decide whether it is wishes to secede from Khartoum. The voting is scheduled to be conducted for one week from January 9 and India will watch it with more than routine interest. First of all, we have troops on the ground — Indians make up an important part of the UN peace-keeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Second, our economic interests are involved, since we are an important customer for Sudanese oil and are involved (unusually enough, in partnership with a Chinese company) in exploring a major oilfield in the South. The result of the referendum is not likely to be known for at least three weeks after the end of voting, so the issue is going to require sustained engagement — and when the verdict is out, probably in early February, we may have to be braced for violence that could put Indian lives in harm’s way, so every step will be of direct concern to us.
Sudan will also feature more routinely in January, when the Council is briefed by the Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping, France’s Alain Le Roy, on the progress (or lack thereof) being made by the two existing UN missions there, UNMIS on Southern Sudan and United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), focused on the conflict-torn region of Darfur. The Sudan Sanctions Committee will also meet to discuss the 90-day interim report issued every three months by a panel of experts, and this month will mark India’s first participation in that body.
If Sudan is important for our national interests, even more crucial is next-door Nepal. In early January, the Council is expected to consider the Secretary-General’s report on Nepal and to review progress made in implementing the September agreement between the government of Nepal and the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The UN Mission there, known as UNMIN, is slated (under last year’s Security Council Resolution 1939) to close on January 15, and the report is also expected to contain details of the arrangements being made for the post-UNMIN period, which will naturally be of particular interest to India. The deal is that, unless there is a joint request from the Nepalese parties, UNMIN will indeed be wound up, and there does not appear to be much support amongst Council members for its continuation. Since there is no sign so far of the parties in Nepal asking for an extension of UNMIN’s mandate, its termination seems more likely than not, but no one is ruling out a last-minute change of heart in Kathmandu. One should not forget, though, that UNMIN, officially created as a “focused mission of limited duration”, has now been extended seven times since it was set up in January 2007. But what happens next is of more than passing concern to New Delhi, and our diplomats at the UN will certainly be in close touch with South Block to ensure that the Council’s decisions are in conformity with how we see the future of the Nepalese peace process.
Sudan is not the only African country expected to feature on the agenda in January. This month, Somalia will be the subject of a report by the Secretary-General and a briefing by his Special Representative there, Tanzania’s Augustine Mahiga. Also in early January, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Legal Issues related to piracy off the Coast of Somalia, the former French Minister Jack Lang, is due to present his recommendations to the Secretary-General, who in turn, will pass them on to the Council with his own comments. Mr Lang was tasked with identifying “any additional steps that can be taken to achieve and sustain substantive results in prosecuting piracy”. With the Indian Navy patrolling off the coast of Somalia, escorting vessels and even intercepting pirates in a couple of celebrated incidents, this is a subject that ought to be of more than passing interest to our diplomats.
The rest of the world will, of course, occupy the Security Council as well in our first month there. There is talk of holding a “horizon scanning” discussion on issues of potential concern, in line with similar consultations that were held in November 2010 when the United Kingdom chaired the Council. This month, the Council will also discuss Haiti, where tensions following recent elections have not dissipated, and where the mammoth task of reconstruction and rehabilitation since last year’s devastating earthquake remains largely incomplete. One more subject of particular interest to New Delhi should be the six-monthly briefing by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Central Asia on the UN Office for Central Asia, which was established in December 2007 and whose activities will no doubt be reviewed carefully by India’s representatives on the Council. 
All in all, January offers an interesting example of the range and seriousness of the issues that will occupy India on the Security Council after our two decades’ absence from that body. What remains, of course, is the unpredictable and the unexpected. Council diplomats heading off for their summer holidays in August 1990 did not expect Saddam Hussein’s tanks to roll into Kuwait that month, transforming their workload and ending their vacations. India’s envoys in New York will certainly hope nothing of the sort occurs on their first month on the job. But they know that, if it does, it will give them a chance to make India’s voice heard on a global crisis — and its views count in resolving it.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

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