On Tuesday, the world voted India onto the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), arguably the planet’s most-prestigious security decision-making club. The fact that India was unopposed among the Asian group (after Kazakhstan withdrew from the contest) and still got 187 votes—the highest among the members elected in this round—bears testimony not only to the hard work done by the Indian mission to the UN, but also of the standing India has among its UN peers. Even more remarkable was the revelation that India’s bête noire, Pakistan, voted in India’s favour.
India has been elected to the UNSC at least six times over the UN’s 65-year existence. The last stint was in 1991-1992 just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the end of the Cold War heralded the start of a period of activism for the UNSC—evident in the spurt of its resolutions. Indeed, UNSC passed more resolutions in the first post-Cold War decade than it had done in the first 45 years of its existence. The period will be remembered for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent UNSC-mandated operation to liberate Kuwait and UNSC Resolution 687—supported by India—that called for the forcible disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme and the oil-for-food programme. This was in contrast to the spectacular inaction on part of UNSC during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), one that Iran still bitterly remembers.
In 1991, India had just survived the spectre of bankruptcy and was forced to send its gold reserves abroad to guarantee a loan. It had also lost its reliable friend and ally—the Soviet Union—and had only just begun to build a new friendship with the US.
In this period of transition, India was weak internationally and had little or no influence beyond its neighbourhood, let alone in the powerful UNSC; its involvement in Iraq led to senior ministers becoming embroiled in the UN’s oil-for-food scandal.
Nineteen years later, the world and India are remarkably different. Today, India is recognized as one of the economic engines that might alleviate the current global economic crisis; New Delhi has a pivotal role in the emerging multipolar world, and particularly in climate change and trade talks. Moreover, India has established strategic relationships with the US, the European Union, in addition to reiterating its old friendship with Russia, and has emerged as one of the biggest contributors to UN peacekeeping. A successful UNSC tenure will allow India to prove its global leadership credentials and also further its national interests.
India’s success on UNSC in 2011-12 will be judged on two criteria. First, whether it can restore the council’s legitimacy by supporting resolutions that are effective and implementable. Although UNSC has been prolific in passing resolutions, their implementation has been extremely uneven and detrimental to its credibility. This effectiveness will have to be proved across some of the most contentious issues: Iran; North Korea; the gathering crisis in Sudan; and, closer home, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar.
Second, India will also have to prove that it can play with the big boys—the five permanent members of the UNSC. As these five have the ultimate say in the reform of UNSC, including its enlargement and support for new permanent membership, New Delhi has the unenviable task of assuring them that it can be a reliable partner. On the other hand, India will also have to maintain its credibility with its Non-Aligned Movement and other developing world partners.
Winning the elections to UNSC, though a commendable feat, might prove to be the easy part. Achieving the dual objectives of making UNSC more effective and also strengthening the case for India’s permanent membership is clearly going to be the more daunting challenge.
W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute,New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
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