While an UNSC of a smaller number of nations is desirable to make the UN effective, it must also reflect world realities and be representative of its diversity. (AFP)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has again made a strong pitch for a permanent seat for India in the United Nations Security Council, saying it should get it as a "right" for its immense contribution to global peace. "Those days are gone when India had to beg. Now we want our right. No other country has such moral authority," said Mr Modi.
That will happen sooner or later, particularly if India regains its sharp climb on the economic ladder and as a military power. But the question that must also be addressed, apart from the UNSC’s expansion, is what kind of a permanent membership will India get or should take?
While the UN was fashioned by the Second World War’s victors, its birth had its origins in the darkest days when leaders of nine occupied nations in Europe met British and Commonwealth representatives in London on June 12, 1941 and signed a declaration pledging to work for a "free world". On January 1, 1942, these nations consulted signed what came to be known as the United Nations Declaration, and approving the aims of the Atlantic Charter.
This was the first time the phrase "United Nations" was used. But the creation of the UN organisation to preserve world peace had to wait till October 30, 1943, when Britain, China, the USSR and the US signed the Moscow Declaration on General Security. Its signatories continuously met from August to October 1944 in Washington DC, and fashioned a basic plan for an international peacekeeping organisation.
The centrepiece of this plan was a Security Council in which the US, USSR, Britain, China and France would be permanent members. Fifty nations met in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, 12 days before Germany surrendered and four months before Japan was defeated, to consider this plan. After much deliberation the differences, mostly over the veto power demanded by the Big Three — US, USSR and Britain — were papered over and on June 26, 1945 all 50 nations signed the Charter and the UN formally came into being. The UN now has 192 members.
The Cold War and the balance of power between the two superpowers ironically enough served as a guarantor of peace and security of nations that came under accepted spheres of influence. With the world poised a button push away from Armageddon, the UN, and especially the Security Council, became a ready forum to facilitate constant dialogue between the superpowers and it served this purpose admirably.
True, it didn’t prevent regional wars from erupting constantly — since 1945 there have been 244 wars and armed conflicts: 53 civil wars; 43 involving the US; and eight ongoing civil wars — but it did prevent a general war of ruinous dimensions. Both superpowers usually heeded the UN because the other was there. The veto powers ensured one bloc couldn’t override the interests of the other one.
The veto came to be used 252 times since 1946. It was used the most in the UN’s first decade (1946-55) when it was exercised 83 times, with the USSR alone using it 80 times. This dropped off to 31 and 26 respectively from 1956 to 1965. The West, led by the US, used the veto oftener since 1966 (115 times, compared to 15 by USSR). Since 1996, Russia hasn’t exercised the veto even once, while the USA used it six times and China twice. This presumably reflects the shape of today’s world order.
As an immediate response to a destructive world war, the UN reflected the reality and ethos of that age. Nothing reflected this more than the composition of the Security Council’s permanent members. Four of the five were "white" nations. The other 10 members of the Security Council are elected members from various regions. These members are without the veto and with little voice or clout. Their plight is best illustrated by the admission by a former Colombian representative, Luis Fernando Jaramillo, that even as Security Council president (1992-94) he was "forced to stand outside the chamber where the Permanent Five were meeting and beg for pieces of information as a personal favour from the permanent representatives as they were leaving".
While the single veto doesn’t reflect a desirable level of democratisation, to have a Security Council of elected equals will only render it more ineffective and irrelevant. Even within the Security Council, the ability of some countries to have their way makes it vulnerable to unwise choices. In the early 2000s, US ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering snarled near an open microphone at Yemen’s ambassador al-Ashtal after his country voted against the US on Resolution 678: "That is the most expensive vote you ever cast." The following week, the US suspended its $100 million aid package for Yemen.
Thus, while an UNSC of a smaller number of nations is desirable to make the UN effective, it must also reflect world realities and be representative of its diversity. Africa and Latin America are not represented in the Permanent Five. The Islamic world too doesn’t find a place. India, which has a fifth of the world’s population and the world’s third largest GDP in PPP terms, doesn’t find a place. Europe’s biggest economy, Germany, is excluded. On the other hand, with two members, Britain and France, Western Europe is over-represented. With Russia added, Europe has three members. This is clearly not a satisfactory arrangement.
India’s diplomacy for the past many years has increasingly focused on securing permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Partly in response to this and similar pressures from Japan, Brazil and Germany, we now and then hear of proposals to make some of these bigger nations permanent members, but without veto powers. This will be unfortunate, as rather than making the UN more democratic, it will make it even more stratified.
What we need to seek is reform of the UN by eliminating single vetos, while at the same time ensuring that the Security Council does not become victim to the tyranny of a simple majority. Instead of a single veto being able to derail its intentions, a certain minimum threshold, say of three or four members, should be required to thwart a majority of the Security Council. This will prevent the P-5 from insisting world affairs can only be shaped to their liking. Only an expansion of its permanent membership, accompanied by its internal reform, will assure the Security Council a more secure place in world affairs.