Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India and the United Nations: How do we get that elusive security council seat?

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Dilip Sinha
    Venue: WB National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) , Kolkata
    Date: September 09, 2017

India is a founder member of the the United Nations. It participated in the San Francisco Conference in 1945 as a Dominion of the British Commonwealth. India was also a signatory to the declaration of 1942 from Washington, when the United Nations began as a military alliance against the Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan. Four countries, the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and China made this declaration and 22 countries, including India, joined the alliance the next day. Over the next 3 years, another 21 countries became parties to it.

The post-war international order was settled in a series of meetings during the war among three leaders: President Roosevelt of the US, Premier Stalin of the Soviet Union and Prime Minister Churchill of Britain. They led the war effort and made themselves the guardians of the new international order, adding China and then France to the elite group to widen the base. India was not considered because it was still a colony, though given the exalted status of a Dominion.

This was the origin of the permanent five in the Security Council, the most powerful organ of the new international organisation. The Security Council had 6 other members, elected for a 2-year term. All decisions were to be taken by a majority of 9 votes, but a negative vote by a permanent member constituted a veto. The Security Council was assigned the task maintaining international peace and security and given the authority to take coercive measures against a country, including imposing sanctions or using armed force against it.

The veto and the centralisation of power in the hands of the permanent five were, thus, an integral part of the United Nations, not accidental deviations from its ideals. President Roosevelt had decided that international peace and security could only be maintained by the ‘four policemen’ – the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and China. He also believed that the four powers should be the exclusive holders of weapons with the capacity to enforce peace.

In April 1943, an American journalist, Forrest Davis, wrote a series of articles based on his interviews with President Roosevelt. He concluded that Roosevelt wanted a "simple, flexible and workable body of arrangements”.[1] The big powers did not want to be burdened with commitments to provide security all over the world, nor did they want to be tied down with procedures and guidelines.

Winston Churchill was not entirely happy with selection of the permanent five by President Roosevelt.He did not like the idea of the Soviet Union being included, but realised that it was a necessity. He also opposed China’s inclusion, calling it a puppet of the US. But Roosevelt insisted on it because it was a useful ally against Japan.

The United Nations was not conceived as a universal organisation nor did democracy or decolonisation figure in its goals. The big powers wanted to limit its membership to like-minded countries. It was an organization of the victors and the enemy states had no place in it. The UN Charter contains three references to possible action against "enemy States.”[2]For the Soviet Union, territories and their demarcation were more important than the text of the Charter. Britain and France permitted a fleeting reference to self-determination in the Charter but they were firm in their determination to recover their colonies which had been conquered by Germany and Japan during the war.

Though the new international order was to be run by the permanent five, the defining feature of its history has been the lack of unanimity among them, except for a brief period between 1991 and 2011. The Security Council has not able to adopt regular rules of procedure and continues to work on provisional rules adopted in 1946. The permanent members refused to make available armed forces to it under Article 43 of the Charter and the Military Staff Committee formed for this purpose is lying dormant.

The Security Council has thus had to improvise and work around the differences among them. It devised innovative schemes like peacekeeping forces taken from neutral countries to maintain peace in countries where it was able to negotiate peace. It also resorted to authorising member states to use military force on its behalf for enforcing its resolutions, whenever a consensus could be negotiated among the permanent five. It has alsoappointed two international tribunals for trying individuals for war crimes.

The divisions among the permanent five have meant that there have been very few amendments to the UN Charter, since they have a veto on that too.Article 108 provides the procedure for amending the Charter. It says that an amendment has to be adopted by two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly and also ratified by two-thirds of members, including all the permanent members of the Security Council.

There have been only five amendmenst to the UN Charter, all of them essentially insignificant: one relating to the increase in theelected members of the Security Council from 6 to 10; two relating to two articles on the consequential increase in the votes required to adopt a resolution from 9 to 11; and two relating to increase in the membership of the Economic and Social Council, first from 11 to 27 and then from 27 to 54.

The resentment among several countries at San Francisco to the veto induced the big five to make a concession by providing for a review conference after ten years. However, the demand for a revision of the UN Charter started very early. The frequent use of the veto by the Soviet Union made the United States contemplate ways to overcome it, but the Soviet Union was adamant in its opposition to any change.

In 1955 when the General Assembly discussed the review conference, provided for in the Charter, the Soviet Union boycotted it. It also abstained on a resolution calling for a conference on Charter revision. The other major powers were also not keen on it and the committee set up to study it, delayed submitting its recommendation.

However, there have been two significant changes among the permanent members, both without an amendment to the Charter. In 1971, after the United States gave recognition to the People’s Republic of China, the General Assembly adopted a resolution admitting it in the United Nations. The second change came in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Western countries promptly had the Russian Federation take its place. In neither case was the UN Charter amended. Article 23 of the Charter, which gives the composition of the Security Council, continues to mention the old names, Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic as permanent members.

Italy’s proposal for EU seat:

In September 1990, the Italian Foreign Minister, Gianni De Michelis, taking advantage of the Maastricht Treaty negotiations on the formation of the European Union, made a valiant attempt to persuade Britain and France to give up their permanent status and be replaced by a single seat for the proposed European Union.[3] The Italian proposal was essentially to pre-empt any further dilution of its position by Germany’s ascent to a permanent seat, as was being sought by some, following Germany’s rise as the largest economy of Europe. Italy also proposed the addition of Japan as a permanent member.

Britain and France, however, were able to stall this. They successfully got an article inserted in the treaty setting the issue in their favour, "Member States [of the EU] which are also members of the Security Council will act in concert and keep other member states fully informed. Member States which are permanent members of the Security Council will, in the execution of their functions, ensure the defense of their positions and the interests of the European Union, without prejudice of their responsibilities under the provisions of the UN Charter.”[4]

The Current Reform Process:

The end of the Cold War saw a revival of cooperation among permanent five and a remarkable phase of activism in the Security Council. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was tasked to prepare a new "Agenda for Peace”. The US, Britain and Franceproclaimed the dawn of a new era of democracy and human rights and decided to make the United Nations the main instrument of spreading these in the rest of the world.

In September 1991, a group of 10 countries, including India and Brazil, tried to build on this zeal for change to seek a discussion in the General Assembly on Security Council reform. The proposal was defeated and shelved to the next session. The permanent five argued that since the Council was working well, there was no need to reform it. In a report of the Secretary General in 1993, a Soviet delegate was quoted as saying, "The organization cannot afford to engage in an overhaul of machinery which not only is not broken but is in fact in good working order.”[5] France too argued that there was no need to change the working arrangement.

Two new aspirants soon joined the clamour for change, and a permanent seat in the Security Council, Germany and Japan. They had become leading economic powers and had given significant financial support to the First Gulf War. By 1992 they had become the largest contributors to the UN’s regular budget and to its peacekeeping operations, after the US.

While Germany and Japan felt that they deserved a permanent place in the Security Council because of their deep pockets, the non-aligned countries invoked the principle of democracy to demand reform. The NAM summit in Jakarta in September 1992 declared, ". . . the veto powers which guarantee an exclusive and eminent role for the permanent members of the Council are contrary to the aim of democratizing the United Nations and must, therefore, be reviewed.”

India and 35 other non-aligned countries tabled a resolution in the General Assembly in September 1992 for taking up the "Question of equitable representation and increase in the membership of the Security Council.” Japan decided to co-sponsor this resolution, which was adopted without a vote.[6] The issue of Security Council reform was thus placed on the agenda of the General Assembly, where it has remained since.

In pursuance of this resolution in 1993, 80 states sent written comments while 74 others gave their views verbally expressing support for the idea of reform. Thus, the urgency of reform was established and the need was felt of working on finding acceptable solutions. For this, the General Assembly set up a working group in 1993 to consider all aspects of the question of Security Council reform. This ‘Open Ended Working Group’has been working almost continuously since then. It has gone through numerous meetings and compiled the suggestions of members in an omnibus document to facilitate the negotiations.

In 1997, a special panel under the chairmanship of Rizal Ismael proposed changes including in the permanent category but was rejected by the middle-ranking rivals of the permanent seat candidates and by the indifference of the permanent five.Opposition to the proposal came, as could be expected, from the two smallest permanent members, Britain and France, whose claim to the status was the weakest. They had not only lost their empires and been overtaken by Germany and Japan as economic powers. They had also diluted their national sovereignty by joining the European Union. Britain and France fell back on the principle of "operational efficiency” to block the demand for enlargement. Britain submitted to the Secretary General, "The first priority must be to safeguard the effective operation of the Council and its ability to fulfill its primary responsibility under the UN Charter.”[7] France used the same argument. It maintained that a compact Council was essential for quick decision-making in order to respond to crises.

The US took a more accommodating position, but emphasized that the existing permanent five should continue. Taking the cue from this, Britain and France softened their opposition to reform. They turned their argument to the need for participation in UN military operations for any aspiring permanent member. Both of them said that Germany and Japan could be considered for permanent membership only when they were fully involved in UN peace-keeping operations. This was a problem for both Germany and Japan, whose post-war constitutions were strongly pacifist and prohibited sending military forces abroad.

India based its claim on the size of its population and its democratic credentials, ". . . population represents both an expression of the principle of democracy and an element of power. With increasing emphasis on the principle of democracy at the national level, there is a need for extending this principle to the international level also. The present permanent members of the Security Council have a combined population of less than 1.75 billion. This leaves two-thirds of the world’s population without representation in the permanent membership category.”[8]

All non-aligned states were for expansion in the non-permanent members, which would take the total membership from 15 to about 26. However, differences cropped up among them on expanding the permanent members, both on the states to be included and on giving them the veto.

Latin America and Asia initially proposed a ‘two plus three’ formula: the two being Germany and Japan and the three being one each from Latin America, Africa and Asia. Africa, however, wanted its share to be increased to two and was willing to concede the same number to the other two regions. Thus the ‘two plus three’ formula became ‘two plus six.’

The new formula was not universally endorsed by the developing countries. Countries like Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Botswana, Libya, Sri Lanka and Lebanon, which were unlikely to make to the short list of permanent members, opposed any increase in this category. The regional rivals of the countries claiming permanent membership were the most vociferous in opposing them. Chile and Argentina in Latin America, Egypt in Africa and Pakistan in Asia vehemently objected to Brazil, Nigeria and India being selected from their regions.

On the issue of the veto, members realized that it would be very difficult to persuade the permanent members to give up this power. They turned their endeavour towards restricting its use. Some proposed that routine issues like admission of new members and election of Secretary General should not be subject to the veto. Some proposed that the veto should be applicable only to decisions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter. Netherlands proposed that a minimum of two vetoes should be required to block a decision. This was supported by Africa.

The opponents of an increase in permanent seats argued that it would make the Council more undemocratic. The Italian ambassador to the UN, Paulo Fulci, in his submission to the Secretary General said that the addition of five new permanent members "would double the number of Council members fully absolved from the need to stand for democratic elections.”[9]

The permanent five used the efficiency argument to counter the demand for increase in representativeness. They invoked the ineffectiveness of the League’s Council to justify a small Security Council. They recalled the historian, Edward Carr, who had observed that as the Council of the League became more representative it "lost much of its effectiveness as a political instrument.” Carr declared that the principle of representation was an abstract one and "reality was sacrificed to an abstract principle.”[10]

The World Summit, 2005:

Another impetus to the debate on Security Council reform was given by the preparations to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations with a world summit 2005. In November 2003, Secretary General Kofi Annan set up a 16-member high level panel to examine the issue of Council reform and restructuring.The high-level panel recommended the inclusion of more countries that contribute the most to the UN – financially, militarily and diplomatically. It suggested two possibilities: (i) creation of 6 new permanent seats, without the veto and 3 new non-permanent seats (ii) a new category of 8 seats with a 4-year renewable term, to be divided equally among the four regions: Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and the Americas.

Based on these recommendaions, the secretary general presented his own report titled "In Larger Freedom” in March 2005. On the institutional side, Annan recommended three key changes: (i) expansion of the UNSC from 15 to 24, by the inclusion of additional non-permanent members, (ii) creation of a Peace Building Commission, to help rehabilitate countries recovering from civil war, and (iii) replacement of the Commission on Human Rights with a smaller, standing Human Rights Council.

Annan made Security Council reform the cornerstone of his program. He maintained that no reform of the UN could be complete without it. However, once the reform proposals reached the General Assembly more options were proposed by member states. India, Brazil, Germany and Japan formed the G-4 in 2004 and promoted the idea of 6 new permanent seats: 2 to Asia, 2 to Africa and 1 each to Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, they proposed 4 new non-permanent seats: one each to Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean. On the issue of the veto, this proposal advocated keeping it in abeyance till a comprehensive review had been undertaken of the Council’s procedures.

The African Union proposed a similar model of 6 new permanent seats but added one more non-permanent seat for itself. It also insisted on the right of veto for the new permanent members. A third proposal came from the Uniting for Consensus group, the Coffee Club, which rejected the idea of new permanent seats and advocated 10 new non-permanent members.

The permanent five stayed out of the fray, content to leave the others to fight among themselves. As was to be expected, the proposals came to nothing. Regional rivals of the G-4 (Italy and Spain against Germany, Pakistan and China against India, South Korea and China against Japan and Argentina and Mexico against Brazil) accused them of trying to grab power for themselves in the name of representativeness. The smaller countries felt left out. The African countries were the most strident and uncompromising in their demand for two permanent seats with veto and five non-permanent seats. But they were unable to decide among themselves who the two permanent members would be. South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt were unwilling to back down while Kenya, Algeria and Tanzania played spoilers.

With the countries of Africa undecided on their support for the G-4 proposal there was little chance of it getting the required two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. The G-4 realised that they had over-estimated the enthusiasm of the member states for Security Council expansion and under-estimated the resolve of the permanent five to block one or another member of the G-4 unacceptable to them. China remained openly opposed to Japan and worked behind the scenes against India. The US did not have a clear policy on this issue and swung in all directions on the inclusion of Germany and Japan as permanent members. The G-4 relented and decided not to press for a vote.

The Security Council reform process survived the 2005 World Summit fiasco, but it had run out of steam. The open-ended working group continued and the General Assembly president appointed some facilitators to hold consultations and make recommendations. Discussions continue to take place periodically, essentially to keep diplomats engaged.

The World Summit Outcome Document made a number of other recommendations on reform of the United Nations, particularly relating to the Security Council. World leaders recommended that the Trusteeship Council be abolished since it had no remaining functions and was no longer holding meetings.[11] This would require deletion of Chapter XIII and other references to it in the Charter. They also recommended that the references to "enemy States” in Articles 53, 77 and 197 of the Charter be deleted "bearing in mind the profound cause for the founding of the United Nations and looking to our common future.”[12]

None of these materialised, since no amendment to the Charter took place. However, the recommendation on R2P, the new concept of Responsibility to Protect, was promptly accepted by the Security Council in a resolution[13] and applied subsequently, most notably in the invasion of Libya in 2011.

India’s Approach to a Permanent Seat:

Though India has now made acquiring a permanent seat the centrepiece of its stand on UN reform, its policy on this has not always been so. There are some legends narrated by Indian diplomats of the time of offers of a permanent seat to India. It is difficult to comment on the veracity of these stories but it certain that in 1950 and in 1955, there was talk in the US and the Soviet Union respectively, on the possibility of India either replacing China as in the Security Council or joining as the sixth permanent member. One cannot say how serious these countries were and if it would have been possible to carry out the necessary amendment to the Charter but, in any event, Prime Minister Nehru showed no interest in them and the proposals were nipped in the bud. In reply to a parliament question in September 1955, Prime Minister Nehru said that there had been no such offer.[14]It is well known that Nehru pursued the cause of the People’s Republic of China’s membership zealously from 1950 to almost the end of the decade. India occupied the elected seat only once during Nehru’s term as prime minister.

What are India’s prospects today? An amendment to the Charter will require 129 votes in the General Assembly. India is part of a group of developing countries, called the L-69 group, in the UN on Security Council reform. This group, which has 42 members, revived the reform process two years after the debacle of 2005 and got intergovernmental negotiationsrestarted. However, as we have seen the UN Charter has become immune to change. It has not even been able to carry out routine amendments required to give effect to the recommendations of the World Summit of 2005, like the abolition of the Trusteeship Council , which has finished its work.

The revival of differences among the permanent five has impacted the prospects of agreement among them as has the lack ofagreement among the pro-reformers on the basic question ofexpansion in the permanent category.Those who want it are not in agreement on who should get it and whether the right of veto should be extended to them. The African countries want a minimum of two seats for Africa but are unable to agree on which two. They are adamant on the veto, while the G-4 is willing to forgo its use for an indefinite period. And finally, India has to reckon with China’s opposition to its permanent membership as do others in the G-4 with it and other permanentmembers.

Security Council reform is essential for its legitimacy and effectiveness. The Security Council cannot promote democracy unless its own structure conforms to its basic principles. It cannot promote human rights unless its key members, the permanent five, uphold them in their own countries. And it cannot claim to be a representative body if it does not have the second largest country in the world as a member.Security Council intervention in the domestic affairs of member states, even for humanitarian purposes, requires appropriate amendments to the Charter.

India should continue to press for Security Council for reform, but press more for more principled measures like abolition of the veto and clearer definition of the Security Council’s powers of intervention in domestic affairs. It must also seek bring all pro-reformers together on the issue of expansion of membership, since without that the present imbroglio will not end.