Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 21, 2019
India and multilateralism: United Nations and the World Trade Organisation

India's engagement with international organisations is an important part of its diplomacy, as they provide a platform to protect and pursue the country’s national and international interests abroad. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led robust interactions, in particular, with two major international organisations, i.e. the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Overall, the government has largely continued and expanded the agenda adopted by previous governments at the international stage. Broadly, this comprises of establishing India as a global power, tackling terrorism, and pursuing development objectives.

United Nations

The United Nations (UN), set up in 1945, undertook the responsibility of confronting various challenges facing the international community, like peace and security, climate change, human rights, disarmament, terrorism and development. The UN Security Council (UNSC) is the primary organ for the maintenance of international peace and security and is the most powerful body for global governance. However, its decision-making process is not only largely archaic—reflecting the power structures of a bygone era—but has also obstructed action on important matters. For instance, due to China’s repeated obstructionist strategy, it took nearly a decade for the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee to successfully designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.<1>

Given the need to reform the UNSC, the G4 (India, Germany, Japan and Brazil) have proposed several changes—including the grant of permanent seats to the G4—to reflect current geopolitical realities and make the process representative, legitimate, efficient and transparent. While it remains to be seen if any concrete steps will be taken towards this end, there has been a growing need to re-examine the utility of these reforms since they are criticised on the ground that they may only end up accentuating disparities.

India’s voting patterns at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN, provides a bird’s eyeview of the country’s stance on important foreign policy issues. The present government has maintained its traditional support for development,<2> disarmament and the Palestine cause by voting affirmatively on these resolutions.<3>,<4>  The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also issued an order to implement various economic, commercial and military sanctions against North Korea’s aggressive regime.<5> Per contra, India abstained or voted no on resolutions condemning its allies and neighbours, i.e. Russia (on the Crimea issue),<6>  Myanmar,<7>  and Iran.<8>  India, additionally, abstained from voting on resolutions related to Syria on the ground that it “mixed humanitarian elements with political elements.”<9>  While the diktat of realpolitik requires the government to refrain from endorsing resolutions that may alienate its allies, it has raised tough questions on New Delhi’s commitment to protecting human rights.

India’s  contribution  to  the  UN  Peacekeeping  Operations  (UNPKO) has emerged as a way to project itself as a responsible global power that is committed to securing peace, order, and conflict resolution. Though India has dropped from being the highest troop and police contributor (8,132 as of April 2014)<10> to the 4th highest (6,319 as of April 2019),<11> the country remains the largest cumulative contributor to the UNPKO.<12> However, the failure of UNPKOs in various missions, such as Rwanda and Somalia, have highlighted their operational weaknesses arising from a top-down approach, vague mandates, poor organisation, and lack of training. In this context, New Delhi needs to re-evaluate the importance of contributing its personnel to the UNPKO, and its returns – if any – to the country’s global status.

A unique initiative under the present government has been the efforts to  leverage  “soft  power”  by  promoting  various  aspects  of  India’s  culture and heritage. The announcement of June 21 as International Yoga Day, the International Conference on the Zero (2016) and the recent, somewhat controversial<13>   move to adopt Hindi as an Official UN language, aims to further India’s global presence.

The government’s decision to bring the Kulbhushan Jadhav case<14> before the ICJ on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963), reaffirms India’s faith in the international legal system and the primary judicial organ of the UN. Table 24 summarises India’s presence in the UN’s specialised agencies and Table 25 lists the treaties and agreements India has signed under the aegis of the UN.

On treaties, two challenges continue to remain for the next government. The first  is  to  convincingly  project  New  Delhi’s  commitment  to  nuclear

Figure 21: India’s Presence in UN Specialised Agencies and Adjudicatory bodies (2014–19)

Source: Annual Reports of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

Figure 22: Treaties and Agreements

Source: Annual Reports of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. .

disarmament given its refusal to participate in the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017). The treaty is viewed as a landmark achievement since it is the first legally binding agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. Though India has expressed reservations about its efficacy given that all nuclear weapons states have avoided signing the treaty,<15> there has been a growing opinion that New Delhi needs to take tangible steps to legitimately back its position on nuclear disarmament. The second is to work out an agreeable framework for India’s proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), which is currently stalled on the issue of defining terrorism. The test for the next government, therefore, is to adopt a fresh diplomatic strategy to address these concerns.

World Trade Organization (WTO)

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was established in 1995 to liberalise trade rules, negotiate trade agreements, and settle trade disputes between member  states.  The Doha  Development  Agenda  (DDA),  which  began  in 2001, is the latest round of negotiations to achieve a “single undertaking” for “improving trade prospects for developing countries, by lowering trade barriers and increasing prospects for global trade.”<16>  The primary areas of DDA negotiations include agriculture, services, market access in industrial goods, rules on anti-dumping, trade facilitation and environment.

In 2008, stark differences emerged between the developed and developing countries on the future course and trajectory of WTO’s negotiating agenda. The developing countries, including India, wish to pursue the roadmap set by the DDA and finalise binding commitments, especially on agriculture. This includes measures like public stockholding for food security purposes, special safeguard mechanism (SSM)215 and the elimination of agricultural export subsidies maintained by developed countries. The developed countries, for their part, are keen to move away from the issues of agriculture and development, and introduce new ones to the negotiating table, such as e-commerce, labour, environment, competition policy, and investment.

The biennial meetings of the Ministerial Conference – WTO’s highest decision-making body – is where matters came to a head between the developed and developing countries, thereby throwing the future of the DDA in uncertainty. The present government represented India at two Ministerial Conferences, i.e. Nairobi, Kenya (2015) and Buenos Aires, Argentina (2017). To India’s dismay, the Nairobi meet ended without reaching any permanent solution on the SSM and public food stockholding. This was a worrisome

Figure 23: India’s Disputes before the WTO (2014–19)

Source:Disputes by Member, World Trade Organization

development, since the Nairobi outcome was a step back from the 2013 Bali Ministerial Conference where countries declared support for the DDA. Matters worsened by the time of the Buenos Aires meet, since the conference ended without any ministerial declaration. Given that fundamental divisions have now materialised between the member states of the WTO, the future seems uncertain for development-centred trade negotiations.

In the backdrop of this turbulent trade environment, India ratified the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) in April 2016. The TFA contains provisions for expediting the movement, release and clearance of goods, including goods in transit. While it is believed that the TFA’s implementation will reduce trade costs and boost global trade, there are concerns that the agreement may disproportionately benefit developed countries more than developing countries.

The WTO’s  Dispute  Settlement  Mechanism  has  been  regarded  as  the most successful adjudicatory mechanism amongst various multilateral organisations. (Table 26  gives an overview of India’s disputes from 2014 to 2019). Noticeably, all of India’s complaints are against the US’ protectionist policies, which demonstrate America’s disregard for the established rules of free and fair trade. Furthermore, the US has also been responsible for actively blocking the appointment of new members to the WTO’s Appellate Body – thereby raising serious concerns for the expeditious disposal of disputes.

There is no doubt that the emergence of protectionist and nationalist tendencies from developed countries will pose a complex and arduous challenge to the new Indian government.

Need for an innovative roadmap

While PM Modi’s government has succeeded in pushing India’s interests to global attention, much work remains to be done in actualising these goals before the multilateral platforms. However, while some of New Delhi’s efforts to usher in a new order call for introspection, others that aim to preserve the old one need to be supported with a fresh narrative. For the new government, the priority in this area would be to formulate an innovative roadmap that will provide for inventive and skilful diplomacy to protect India’s key interests before international organisations.

This article originally appeared in special report Looking Back looking Ahead.

<1>Masood Azhar Listed by UNSC Panel as Global Terrorist, Subject to Sanctions,” The Wire, 2 May 2019. <2> “Implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development and of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 21 December 2016, A/RES/71/223, RES/71/223. <3>Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 2 December 2014, A/RES/69/41; Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 2 December 2014, A/RES/69/42. <4>Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 25 November 2014, A/RES/69/20; “Peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 25 November 2014, A/RES/69/23; “The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 17 December 2015, A/RES/70/141. <5>Implementation of Security Council Resolution on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Order, S.O. 1549(E),” Ministry of External Affairs, Government  of  India,  21  April  2017. <6> “Situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 19 January 2018, A/RES/72/190,; “Problem of the militarization of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 23 January 2019,   A/RES/73/194,;   “Situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine),” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 1 February 2017, A/RES/71/205. <7>Situation of human rights in Myanmar,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 29 December 2014, A/RES/69/248. <8>Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 17 December 2018, A/RES/73/181. <9>Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 9 March 2016, A/RES/70/234; “International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011,” Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, 11 January 2017, A/RES/71/248. <10>Ranking of Military and Police Contributions to UN Operations,” United Nations Peacekeeping, 30 April 2014. <11>Summary of Troop Contributing Countries By Ranking,” United Nations Peacekeeping, 30 April 2019. <12> Ministry of External Affairs Annual Report 2017-18, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, 2018, 163. <13> Proponents against the adoption of Hindi as an official UN Language argue that Hindi is not spoken uniformly across India and is the official language of very few foreign countries. <14> Jadhav Case (India v. Pakistan), International Court of Justice Case No. 168. <15>Ratification of Core ILO Conventions No. on 138 and 182 on Child Labour,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 13 June 2017. <16>Statement Delivered by Ambassador D.B. Venkatesh Varma, Permanent Representative of India to the CD: Explanation of Vote by India on First Committee Resolution L.41,” 28 October 2016.
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