Responsibility without power

Why should India bother to become a member of the UNSC minus the veto ?

Srinagar, Publish Date: Apr 16 2018 10:49PM | Updated Date: Apr 16 2018 10:49PM
Responsibility without powerFile Photo

The ongoing civil war in Syria, the atrocities committed by all the sides, the alleged  chemical weapons attack and the Western attacks in response, are a marker of how the United Nations is steadily becoming irrelevant in carrying out its main task, that of providing peace and security in a war torn world.

Under the UN Charter, all war is outlawed, and even a defensive war requires sanction from the UN. The primary responsibility for maintenance of peace and security rests with the UN Security Council (UNSC), a body comprising of five permanent members (P-5) —the US, UK, France, Russia and China--  and 10 who are elected every two years.  The most important facet of this body is that each member of the P-5 has the right to a veto which can block action on an issue.

Under Chapter VII the UNSC can either recommend measures for a settlement, or if things don’t work out, order sanctions and even a blockade of a state concerned, and, finally, under Article 42, even order military action “to restore peace and security”.  While members of the UN have the right to defence, both individual and collective, Article 51 says that this must get sanction from the UNSC.

All this power was concentrated in the hands of the big powers with the hope that they will set aside their national interests to promote peace and security. But as we know, that is only in theory. In Syria  the big powers the US, UK and France are ranged against Russia, with China sitting on the fence.

The reality of power politics  was spelt out by the Greek historian Thuycidides (460-400BC) who said that equality of power did not exist in the real world, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” So, big powers have done what their national interests decided they should, whether it is the US in Vietnam and Iraq, Russia in Afghanistan and Crimea, and China in Vietnam and the South China Sea.

Though the world has changed since the UNSC was created and the centre of gravity of power has been shifting eastward from Europe towards China and India, the Security Council remains the body run by the victors of World War II. Besides ignoring it when their own interests are affected the P-5 have failed to deploy their formidable power on issues like the Cambodian and Rwandan genocide,  Bosnia, or more recently in Syria. Further as the decades have gone by, there has been criticism that three of the P-5 are from Europe, of which two are clearly has-been powers—France and UK.

Everyone says there should be reform, but no one has a clear idea as to how it should work out. The UN General Assembly has been debating the issue of Council reform since the 1990s, but with little consensus. Note, however, that the P-5 must unanimously approve any reform process.

In 2004, India, Brazil, Germany and Japan formed a group of four or G 4 nations for a joint effort for permanent seats in the UNSC. The G 4 also proposed that there be another seat for Africa and an expansion of the non-permanent council membership.

Soon it became clear that each of the countries of G 4 have regional rivals who refused to support them—Italy against Germany, South Korea against Japan,  Pakistan against India, Mexico against Brazil. As for Africa, there are many claimants, including Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Egypt. So the G-4 was faced by a another larger rival group called “Uniting for Consensus” comprising of Italy, Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey  and Pakistan.

Actually even the  the current P 5 are not really keen on reform, even if they periodically call for it. The reason is that they do not want to lose their authority and status. Since the process is going nowhere, they do not hesitate to loudly support India’s candidature and New Delhi revels in this support which means little.

Now the US, China and Russia are floating the semi-permanent reform plan where six new semi-permanent members would be created and the rest-- the veto wielding five and the non-permanent ten-- would remain the same. The semi-permanent could have 4 or 5 year terms and be eligible for reelection, but would have no veto.

In October 2017, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN said that perhaps India could get a permanent membership minus the veto. In her view the issue of the veto could derail the candidature since there were countries like China and Russia who were actually against any change in the UNSC.

The obvious response to that is :Why should India bother to become a member of the UNSC minus the veto. It would be responsibility without power. But as experience has shown us that the veto itself is a problem. The P-5, with each member armed with a veto often finds itself unable to take an unbiased view of events or act decisively. An expansion with all members armed with a veto will only complicate matters. Quite clearly the effectiveness of the UNSC depends on its compactness. Maybe a way out is to keep the body compact, abolish the veto and take decisions by a majority vote.


(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)



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