Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

An Indian seat at the global high table

The UN Security Council requires urgent reforms to sustain its credibility

The leaders of the G4 countries—India, Brazil, Japan and Germany—met in New York on Saturday in a summit convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The four leaders “strongly emphasized" that the process of reforming the United Nations (UN) Security Council should be conducted “in a fixed time-frame".

This gathering was significant for many reasons, though it is still unknown whether this push will be able to put the belated reforms agenda on a faster track, let alone achieve it in the near term. The meeting gains importance from the fact that it marked the determination of the four nations to jointly pursue reforms without undermining the interests of each other.

The composition of the permanent membership of the Security Council, or the P5, reflects the geopolitical realities of the world in the aftermath of the Second World War. Today, powers like the UK and France hold much less salience in the maintenance of international peace and security, the primary objective of the Security Council. The body requires urgent reforms to broadly reflect the geopolitical realities of the 21st century and arrest the erosion—currently underway—of its credibility.

It is also important to recognize the diverging prescriptions on how the reforms should be gone about because these differences are likely to hit the G4 agenda sooner than later. The Security Council reforms require consenting votes of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly (that is, more than 128 votes) along with the approval of the P5.

The members of the General Assembly are likely to demand an expansion in the number of non-permanent members while conceding to an increase in permanent members. This will further erode the capability of the Security Council to arrive at a consensus on matters of global importance at a time when the council is already facing tough questions on its effectiveness. For the Security Council to be more efficient, the power of veto has to be reviewed, especially if the proposed expansion takes place. This is not to say that veto should be restricted to only the P5 and not be granted to the new members. The expansion of the veto power, however, should be undertaken carefully.

One normative concern that has always pegged itself to the question of reforms is the geographic distribution of permanent members. As things stand, the Security Council has no members from Africa and South America, while it has three from Europe. Even the G4 has no representation from Africa. However, the membership of the Security Council should not be based on regional quotas, but on the ability to contribute to international peace and security.

It is significant that India has decided to push for permanent membership in close collaboration with Japan, Germany and Brazil. While this adds to the combined political and economic heft behind the push, it also increases opposition from countries that may not be opposed to India’s candidature, but to others in the G4. In response to the previous G4 bid over a decade ago, “Uniting for Consensus"—a group with the negative agenda of stalling reforms—had called for maintaining the status quo on permanent members till a consensus is reached. It consists of countries such as Pakistan (opposed to India), Indonesia and South Korea (opposed to Japan), Mexico and Argentina (opposed to Brazil), Italy and Spain (opposed to Germany).

On 14 September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a negotiating text by consensus on the Security Council reforms. Three of the P5—China, Russia and the US—however, refused to contribute to the text. Two of them—Russia and the US—have in the past explicitly backed India’s candidature. These developments are indicative of the nature of the beast. The existing members are reluctant to dilute their positions of privilege, irrespective of what they may have committed to in bilateral summits. To add to that, questions on expansion of non-permanent members, geographic representation, broader Security Council reforms including on the veto provisions remain unresolved, further creating an atmosphere that inhibits important stakeholders from taking a firm stance on the reforms process.

That the process can be cumbersome and prolonged is no excuse for not making the push. India’s political acuity and diplomatic enterprise in reawakening the G4 should, therefore, be commended. The G4 has the potential to contribute on many important matters of global importance not limited to the Security Council reforms.

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