Home / Opinion / Challenges of using multilateralism effectively

The 71st UN general assembly (UNGA) session, unlike the somnolent affairs of the past, literally began with a bang. A couple of explosions and the discovery of crude bombs in New York and New Jersey, barely a week after the 15th anniversary of 9/11, revived the spectre of terrorism. The swift arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami just two days later and his reported trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan focused attention on the region as a base of transnational terrorism.

Afghanistan condemned all terrorism and called on Pakistan “to avoid a dual policy of making a distinction between good and bad terrorists". Almost on cue, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who spoke after Afghanistan, eulogized a perpetrator of terrorist acts in Kashmir. It was left to India, smarting from a terrorist attack on its army base in Uri, to remind the assembly that “the world has not yet forgotten that the trail of that dastardly attack (on 9/11) led all the way to Abbottabad in Pakistan".

Clearly, Sharif’s ill-advised speech served neither the cause of Pakistan nor Kashmir. As my colleague Barnett Rubin observed, “The world will not listen to the just grievances of the people of Kashmir as long as Pakistan tries to impose terrorists as their leaders."

For India, while using the UN’s multilateral platform to secure itself from transnational terrorism is an understandable priority, the forum is also crucial for institutionalizing India’s growing role in global governance in several other areas.

India’s other stated priorities at the 71st general assembly session include a continuing push for text-based negotiations on the reform of the UN security council (UNSC); an attempt to seek greater transparency and accountability of the 26 sanctions committees of the Security Council, which India has described as a “subterranean universe".

Over the past few years, several high-level special sessions on issues ranging from disarmament to countering maritime piracy have been held on the sidelines of the general assembly and have provided an opportunity for India to play a role in shaping global rules that also advanced its interests. Last year, for instance, at the high-level event on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), India boldly adopted a pivotal role and responsibility in ensuring the success of the SDGs. It asserted that as many as 11 of the 17 SDGs adopted are already part of the government’s agenda. Additionally, India’s constructive role also paved the way for the climate change agreement in Paris last year.

This year at the high-level event on large movements of migrants and refugees, prompted by the crisis in Europe, India (which is a non-signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol despite a decent record in accepting refugees) sought to ensure that the developed countries and the World Bank did not divert funding from development commitments to refugees. Consequently, the “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants" is neither legally binding nor does it call for concrete commitments. However, a parallel Leaders’ Summit on Refugees chaired by US President Barack Obama and co-hosted with six other countries (which India did not participate in) led to a commitment to increase funding, admit more refugees and enhance their self-reliance. Clearly, India will have to rethink its official position on refugees if it wants to play an effective role on this issue.

Similarly, India, with reportedly the largest number of drug-resistant infectious patients, had significant stakes in the UN high-level meeting on AMR (antimicrobial resistance) this year, which focused on how to prevent an estimated 700,000 annual deaths worldwide. Having initiated a range of national measures, including the labelling of medicines and strong awareness campaign for the judicious use of antibiotics, India was well placed to shape global norms and practices that would also help prevent deaths. While this might not be as dramatic as combating terrorism, it is equally vital for India’s well-being and development.

Finally, on the reform of the UNSC, India is now evolving a more elaborate and multifaceted approach. On the one hand, it is pursuing the text-based negotiations in the general assembly (even though they have been sought to be stymied by permanent UNSC members, particularly China).

On the other hand, India is also looking to increase transparency of the various UNSC sanction committees, which remain some of the most powerful and opaque UN instruments. This crusade would also have a wider appeal among the UN membership and might translate into support for India’s permanent membership.

Moreover, as part of the group of four (G4)—including Brazil, Germany and Japan—India needs to explore other common areas of convergence (beyond simply UNSC enlargement), which would allow the group to also make a case that its membership of the council would make it more effective.

While external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is bound to raise issues in her speech later today (which will, doubtless, evoke a right of reply from Pakistan), it is crucial to effectively use the UN to advance India’s long-term global interests. Anything less would be walking into Islamabad’s trap.

W.P.S. Sidhu is clinical professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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