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Policy Or Posture?

One sees the dangers of the current hype over a permanent seat in the Security Council with apprehension, if not distaste. It is for the government to put the issue in perspective, rather than allow the media to scamper away with the headlines..

Policy Or Posture?

There can be no serious objection to a country's ambition, based on its self image, to be part of international decision-making nor to be in a position to protect itself from the vagaries of international decisions. India's pitch for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council has presumably been thought through by the government, in terms of implications for the future of our foreign policy, especially in the context of a world with a single super power which is validly, from its point of view, determined to ensure that international developments do not come in the way of the projections and expressions of its foreign policy. Taking this as given, if the single-mindedness in pursuing that goal obscures other significant developments, there is perhaps, a need to pause and consider the position.

The Security Council is made up of 15 Member States of the United Nations, with five of them wielding a power to veto any proposal seen not to be in their interest. The last, and to my knowledge, only expansion of the Security Council took place sometime in the early 60s when the non-permanent membership was increased from 11 to 15. The decision was taken by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly and ratified by the permanent members of the Security Council. Apparently, the US had objected to the expansion, but had gone along with the ratification. At that point in time it was embroiled in a war in Vietnam--it was also the period of the Cold War. The United States of today is a different country, and its attitude to the issue will determine the stands of many.

The present stimulus to the debate on UN reforms in general and the reform of the Security Council in particular, has been occasioned by the UN Secretary General's report, which in turn is based on the report of a High Level Panel which was set up to look at the issues of the 'threats, challenges and change' facing international peace and security and the need to strengthen the UN to deal with these threats and challenges through the system of collective security. In this report, which has been supported by the UN Secretary General, a proposal, or two, to be more accurate, has been made to expand the Security Council.

Let me emphasize that these proposals are only one part of the extensive report, which covers issues relating to collective security-significant in a unipolar world--the challenge of the preventive use of force, Weapons of Mass Destruction, terrorism, including a definition of the term that has eluded the Member States of the UN for decades, guidelines for the use of force, issues relating to sovereignty and the right of intervention by the international community in situations of gross violation of human rights, and so on. In a sense, it proposes almost a revision of parts of the UN Charter.

In this situation while other issues seem to have been overlooked or neglected, aspirants for seats in the Security Council, and the regional nay-sayers appear to have entered into an unseemly, but not unusual for the UN, contest--the aspirants, Japan, India, Brazil and Germany, struggling to get in and the nay-sayers, China and South Korea against Japan, Pakistan against India, Mexico and Argentina against Brazil and Italy and some other smaller West Europeans against Germany . The former have set up a Group of Four and the latter, a Group of countries in favour of decision by consensus (thereby giving themselves veto power) or against expansion altogether. The meetings of the last Group are attended, significantly, by representatives of the Permanent Five, the permanent Members of the Security Council with actual veto power. It is only natural that the aspirants face a rocky path towards the attainment of their goals. The point, however, is whether the current frenzy, in the media, among the interested public, and I am afraid, in the government, are taking a cool look at the entire exercise.

Firstly, an obsession, however magnificent, cannot be allowed to blindside us to the other extremely important reforms being proposed, to some of which we might have strong objections. Without entering into a critique of the Report, let me cite the issue of the right of intervention in cases of gross human rights violations. Who decides that there is or is not a gross violation? Even if the majority of members of the General Assembly recommend intervention by UN troops, would that be acceptable? After all, the UN has not been particularly helpful to us in the past-on Pakistani aggression on Kashmir, the Bangladesh war and, more recently, post the 1998 Pokhran tests when we heard, but fortunately did not heed, a shrill cacophony of condemnation from the Security Council, ironically, from those countries who today are eager to have strategic dialogues with India, lured by a reportedly booming market.

Secondly, what if there is no expansion? Or if there is expansion, and India is not included? Has the public been prepared? Will there not be a domestic backlash? What will it do to our still rather wobbly self-confidence? My objection at the moment is not, let me repeat, to the ambition, nor to a single minded striving to attaining the objective; it is to the hype and semi-hysteria that seems to have overtaken us in considering the issue of UN reforms. A modicum of restraint in expressing our views, and an equal emphasis on other issues, putting the issue of getting a permanent seat in the Security Council in perspective, does seem to be warranted.

As a perceptive UN watcher commented, "it is not clear whether the government's approach to the issue of a Security Council seat is a policy or a posture." If indeed, it is a policy, then some thought would necessarily have had to be given to the positions we might have to take when faced with the challenges encountered today: is it not likely that our foreign policy might see a pro-US tilt, as issues are considered in a situation determined by the power of the United States? 

Would we adopt a Chinese model, allowing all issues to pass except those which directly impact on the interests? Do
we have an Indian model? France and Germany may have made the implementation of US policies in Iraq difficult; do we have the strength, economic and political, to take the consequences of a similar stand? When Hans Blix, Chairman of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction was in India recently, in answer to an inevitable question from an eager member of the audience, replied that even if India had been a member of the Security Council, when Iraq was being debated, the outcome would not have been any different. (As illustrative of what I have described as the Chinese model, the Chinese voting patterns on the Iraq question is striking.) Is it not possible to tone down the frenzy? To have a debate in Parliament--this is only a wistful democratic wish--on the entire issue of UN reforms, including the possibility or otherwise of our getting a permanent seat in the Security Council? One sees the dangers of the current hype with apprehension, if not distaste. It is for the government to put the issue in perspective, rather than allow the media to scamper away with the headlines..

Arundhati Ghose was India's permanent representative/ambassador to the United Nations. In 1996 she dramatically vetoed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament, a step that some say would not have been taken without her.

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