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Reform, terror in focus as India assumes UNSC chair

As India takes over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on December 1, in the final month of its two-year stint as a non-permanent member in the council, it will double down on its core agenda of pushing UN reform and countering terror.

External affairs minister S Jaishankar will travel to New York to preside over sessions on these two signature themes of the Indian presidency on December 14 and 15, Ruchira Kamboj, India’s permanent representative to the UN said.

But beyond that, India believes that it has used its stint in the council, in the words of Kamboj, to project itself as a “caring, creative, collaborative, contributory” member-state which has been “a voice of reason, a bridge builder, and a voice of the global south”. For independent experts, India’s stint in UNSC marked the presence of an independent power, which took decisions without aligning with any bloc.

December’s twin agenda

On December 14, Jaishankar will preside over a session on a new orientation to reformed multilateralism. The UNGA president, Csaba Korosi, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, will brief the council on reform.

During the UN General Assembly’s high-level debate in September, UNSC figured high on the agenda, with US President Joe Biden calling for reform (an official later said that this included support for India’s claim for permanent membership) and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov explicitly mentioning India among the countries which should have a seat on the global high table. Jaishankar said that he sensed greater momentum on the issue than in the past.

Kamboj said, “The UN architecture is crying for change. Seventy-six countries during the high level debate spoke of reformed multilateralism, with 73 calling for UN reform. There was a noticeable shift in the US position. With the intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) process starting in January, India will keep the spotlight on the issue.” The IGN process is the key framework for discussing UN reform. Delhi hopes the process will lead to a text that can be taken to the General Assembly, where all countries (including China which has rhetorically supported reform while opposing it in reality) will have to show their hand on where they stand on the issue of reform.

Experts want to wait and watch to see whether this momentum for reform translates into action. Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group, among the most widely respected analysts on UN, acknowledged that there was a push for reform, but was cautious. “Talk about UN reform is cheap. We have seen previous waves of reform talk, like that following the 2003 Iraq war, gather pace but then ebb away with no results. Right now, I find diplomats very divided over whether all this reform stuff is a passing fad, or if the UN is in such a bad state change is unavoidable.”

Gowan said that from India’s perspective it made sense to use its last month in the council to press the issue of reform, irrespective of prospects of success. “In cricketing terms, there are times in a Test match when you need to conserve wickets and play it safe — and there are times when you need to swing for the boundary. In light of Biden’s comments, and with everyone talking about reform, it’s natural for India to swing for the boundary as aggressively as it can.”

On December 15, Jaishankar will chair a session on countering terror, with the undersecretary general of the UN office for counter terror Vladimir Voronkov scheduled to brief the Council. Kamboj said, “This has been India’s priority and follows closely the Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting and the No Money for Terror ministerial conference. We will continue to keep the spotlight on it,” Kamboj said. She pointed out that the CTC meeting was the first time the Council met in India and it was marked by the substantive outcome of the Delhi Declaration countering the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes. “We have a zero tolerance policy on terror and have walked the talk on the issue.”

Besides the signature themes, minister Jaishankar — in the presence of all 15 current UNSC members and five incoming members of the council — will unveil a bust of Mahatma Gandhi on the north lawn of the UN complex in New York. The minister will also have a lunch meeting with the Secretary Generaland council members.

India will also continue its focus on peacekeepers — it had piloted a resolution on accountability of crimes against peacekeepers and will, in December, set up a a group of friends to keep the focus on the issue. This group will include other key troop contributing countries. The Council is also expected to hold scheduled discussions on Afghanistan and Syria, while Ukraine is expected to come up.

Independent presence

Kamboj said that in its two-year stint, India has kept the focus on all its core agenda items. Besides UN reform, terror and peacekeeping, these include issues such as technology with a human face and global development agenda. “We have been willing to bring solutions to the top table, from being first responders in times of crises to proving vaccines, from providing financial assistance for development to offering humanitarian support including in Ukraine.”

India’s stint coincided with a turbulent time in global politics. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the coup and suppression of democracy in Myanmar, Russia’s war in Ukraine, the ongoing impact of the pandemic, the global food, fertiliser and energy crises were among key developments in the period that dominated debates in the council while conflicts in Africa and West Asia remained a constant theme.

“Being a member of the Council is always as much about crisis management as grand plans and visions. That has definitely been true for India. India has had the misfortune of being on the council during two very turbulent years. The crises over Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ukraine have all taken up a lot of council time and touched on India’s immediate national interests,” Gowan said.

In many of these cases, India adopted a position that did not align with that of the West, despite its warm ties with Washington in a sign of its “strategic autonomy”, which was noticed in New York. At the same time, India collaborated with the West on key issues, including its battle with China’s attempts to block the listing of Pakistan-based terrorists.

Gowan said, “The Indian team in New York’s overall strategic direction has been pretty simple. They have wanted to behave and be seen as an independent power on a par with the P5…India’s goal has been to project a high degree of confidence in its right to be treated as a major power on the council, not just a diplomatic tourist passing through.”

Kamboj said that just like every country acted on the basis of its national interests, India had done so. And it was unapologetic about it, for its primary duty was to its 1.4 billion citizens. “But while we have done that, we have shown we care for global good. We have responded to countries in need. We have provided vaccines to many parts of the world which were left behind, a fact that many foreign ministers acknowledged during a special meeting in September. Our focus, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said, has been on a people-centric foreign policy and well being of all.”

While few dispute India’s claims to a permanent seat in the council — as the world’s largest democracy, as a major contributor to UN in various dimensions including peacekeeping, as the world’s fifth largest economy poised to become the third largest by the end of the decade, as a tech leader, as a provider of solutions to global issues — New Delhi’s last month in the Council will be one more opportunity to burnish its credentials as a responsible and independent power.

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