Originally Published 2010-11-15 00:00:00 Published on Nov 15, 2010
India will repent at leisure if it gives up the race for the UNSC seat now only to find, after some years, that countries with lesser weight but greater perseverance have left us irretrievably a rung lower in the international hierarchy.
UNSC seat: Is there a short-cut on the long road ahead?
US President Barak Obama’s announcement in Parliament on the US support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council was greeted with immediate euphoria. However, the highly nuanced formulation of Obama’s address in Parliament and the text of the Joint Statement have subsequently raised many questions.

This is what Obama said to Parliament: "in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member." The Joint Statement improved on this with the following  formulation: ’Prime Minister Singh welcomed President Obama’s affirmation that, in the years ahead, the United States looks forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.’

To understand what exactly has been promised, and what we should not expect, a brief description of  the mechanics of UN Security Council expansion is appropriate. An amendment of the UN Charter  is involved, requiring the votes of 128 of the 192 UN members, followed by national ratification by two third of the UN membership, including the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The requirement for ratification by the P5 looks at first sight like a veto, but has not proved to be so in practice. The only earlier reform of the Council was in 1963, expanding the non-permanent membership from 6 to 10. The relevant UNGA resolution for expansion  was adopted in the UNGA with France and the USSR voting against  and the US and UK abstaining. However, all permanent members eventually ratified the Charter amendment, allowing the expansion to go forward. The ongoing exercise may well have to follow the same trajectory.

The current attempt to reform the Council gathered steam in 1993 when the UN General Assembly established an “Open-ended Working Group on the question of equitable representation and increase in the membership of the Security Council and other Security Council matters”. It became quickly apparent that the crucial question was the number of additional permanent members. Positions rapidly congealed, and despite various attempts by Secretary General Kofi Annan, remained deadlocked till 2008, due in no small part to the requirement for consensus in the Working Group to move forward, providing an effective veto to those who were the most obstructive. In 2008,   the matter was taken up in an inter-governmental negotiating format in the UNGA, opening up the possibility of cutting  the Gordian knot through a vote.

For all the years of endless discussion on formulating criteria for qualifying for permanent membership, and the reams of self-serving position papers submitted to buttress one or other proposition, the crux of the matter now is to find a formula which can win128 votes in the UNGA.

The current line-up is that the G4, consisting of Brazil, Germany , India and Japan, have proposed an increase from the current 15 to 25,with six additional permanent members  (themselves and two from the African Union) and four nonpermanent members; they have sought to finesse the veto question by providing the possibility of a veto right for the new permanent members after 15 years. The African Union ( AU ) variant is that the expansion should be to 26, with the AU getting one extra nonpermanent seat,  and the veto right being extended to the six additional permanent members unless the current P5 agreed on the abolition of the veto.

The most vociferous opponents of the above approach are a group of countries led by Italy and Pakistan called variously as the “Coffee Club” or “Uniting for Consensus” (UfC). Their proposal is for 10 new non-permanent members, eligible for immediate re-election, with no expansion in the permanent category. The stalwarts of the group include those who are unalterably opposed to one or other of the G4, such as Pakistan against India, China and ROK against Japan, Italy against  Germany and Argentina and Mexico against Brazil. They are joined by Canada, Colombia, Turkey, Spain  who feel that the expansion of permanent membership would reduce their chances of being elected to the Council and would be a retrograde, undemocratic step. But their numbers are not large enough to block an expansion resolution. A straw vote a few years ago of countries supporting Council expansion in both permanent and non-permanent categories gathered 140 votes, well above the 128 required  to pass the resolution.

Faced with the prospect of prolonged deadlock, France and the UK have proposed an intermediate reform, proposing the addition of a number of temporary seats that would become permanent if the members so wished. Germany has shown preparedness to flirt with this arrangement, specifying however that this kind of solution “must be constructed in such a fashion as to pave the way for an expansion in both categories”, allowing member States to make the transition to a permanent expansion in both categories at a review conference within 15 years. The UfC and AU have opposed the proposal due to the danger, as they saw it, of the category of temporary members in effect being transformed to permanent members. This approach is however gathering increasing steam.

And then there is the question of the veto. None of the current P5 are prepared to consider any dilution of their privileges under the UN Charter. There is also no appetite among UN members to add more veto wielding permanent members. On the other hand, it would scarcely be reasonable to expect new permanent members to accept without compensation a new caste stratification.

The biggest obstacle at this time to achieving the128 vote target is the position of the  African Group, which insists on designating the two permanent members from Africa, without the preparedness to devise a mechanism, by voting or otherwise, to decide among the several claimants. Apart from Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt who are the leading candidates, there are others such as Kenya and Senegal .It is widely agreed that Nigeria and South Africa  have the largest support. But none of them are prepared to put themselves forward without the endorsement of the African Group and to chance a vote o in the UNGA against the wishes of its largest regional group with 53 votes.

Other major obstacles to achieving the 128 vote target are the opposition of the US to more than a limited expansion of the Council beyond, say, 20; the demand of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference ( OIC), which counts 56 Muslim countries of Asia and Africa among its members, for representation in both  the permanent and non-permanent expansion( the inclusion of Nigeria would however satisfy this demand); and the League of Arab States, which also wants an assured share of the cake. Neither the OIC nor the Arab League have much of a record of its members adhering to their decisions. But in a situation where every vote counts, the prospect of disgruntled elements working to eat into the available votes is clearly a deterrent.

Voting on contested elections for the Security Council, where the identities of the voting countries is secret, is a highly chancy exercise. Committed votes often do not materialize, as India found to its cost when  losing two elections against Japan and Pakistan. During this year’s contest for two nonpermanent seats for West Europe and Others between Germany, Canada and Portugal, Canada reportedly had 136 written commitments, but ended up getting 113 in the first round , and 78 in the second before it withdrew. On the other hand, Germany got 128 in the first round, less than it had expected, but enough to get through in the first round. If therefore the African Group got its act together , there is no reason why the G4, acting together with Nigeria and South Africa, and with the support of UK and France, should not be able to garner the 128 votes for their endorsement as permanent members.

It should realistically be recognized that none among the P5  are enthusiastic about more permanent members, though they understand that the current anachronistic structure of the Council reduces the legitimacy of the continued presence of some of them as permanent members and stretches the credibility of the Council itself. The UK and France have extended strong support to Germany and later to the G4 and the proposal they have put forward.. But this is mainly due to fear that, unless Germany gets permanent membership, it will demand that the separate seats of UK and France should be replaced by a single permanent seat on the Council for the EU. It is a different matter that this is not currently feasible, both since there is no provision for membership of an intergovernmental body like the EU in the Council , and also since  EU member states  have still reserved most political and security issues for national decision.

It should be clear from the above that Council restructuring may not be around the immediate corner. At the same time, there could be very quick movement if the question of the two permanent members from the African Group could be resolved, or  an  appropriate resolution based on the UK-French intermediate proposal, came up for voting in the UNGA.

With this background, the real substance of Obama’s support can be analysed.

•   Is it a big deal? Absolutely! US support may not be a sufficient condition for obtaining a permanent seat, but it is certainly necessary. Active opposition by the US would have made 128 votes unattainable
•   Does it commit the US to support India for early realisation  this objective ? Not necessarily! The words “in the years ahead” are similar to Obama’s Prague declaration on a nuclear weapon free world which was, according to him, was unlikely to happen in his lifetime. And Obama is a fairly young man!
•   Does it commit the US to support procedures e.g. voting, which may be essential to clinch matters? No, not unless explicitly agreed.
•   Does this commit the US not to oppose expansion of the Council including India beyond 20, as has been their consistent position in the past ? No. Given the politics in the UN, there is little possibility of consensus, or of obtaining the 128 votes necessary for an UNGA Resolution approving an expansion, unless the expansion goes up to 25 or 26 to satisfy the requirement for  equitable regional distribution.

There is therefore much work to be done with the UN membership and much to consult and clarify with the US. The Japanese were promised support by the US on this matter in even more explicit terms decades ago, but have still to cash in their cheque.

The one luxury India cannot afford is to get persuaded by the siren songs of the “sour grapes” advocates who say that the UN Security Council seat, particularly if without the veto, is not worth so much effort, that it is demeaning to have to keep asking a motley group of countries for support, or that permanent membership will be offered to India on a platter as our political and economic strength grows.

For all its weaknesses, the Council is the only body whose decisions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter relating to peace and security  are required to be implemented by all countries under international law.  Permanent membership of the Council is  an important determinant of rank in the international pecking order.  India will repent at leisure if it gives up the race now only to find, after some years, that countries with lesser weight but greater perseverance have left us irretrievably a rung lower in the international hierarchy.

Author is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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