The way Prime Minister Narendra Modi collected endorsements for the long-pending demand for India being made a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) during his recent tour of Europe is heartening. After all, New Delhi has been after this long before Modi became prime minister, all the time rightfully deserving what should be considered an entitlement, not an honour—and core groups in the West have always found ways to deny it, by delaying it.
China, which is one of the five permanent members with veto power, along with the US, Russia, the UK and France, is the bogeyman—and understandably so. But times have changed and so has India’s importance in the global theatre. The way the entire West on the one hand and Russia on the other have been continuously wooing New Delhi over the Ukraine War should be an eye-opener. The actions of the Western nations, especially, have exposed their inherent limitations in the matter.
Conveniently, all those who did not want to give nations such as India, Germany and Japan a P-5 seat have expanded the reference by making it a part of what they called the larger UN Reforms, even at times adding nations like Brazil and South Africa to the list. The closest the US was ready to consider was a P-5 status without veto, tantamount to that of a ‘permanent observer’.
Close to a decade now, barring the customary mention in the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) address, and a possible passing mention in bilateral talks with friendly nations, New Delhi has not said much in recent years. Today, when the West wants to woo India on Ukraine, their B and C Teams are making such feel-good statements.
Power of the powerless: It is incredible how, barring the US, post-War, the rest are hanging on to a legacy without earning or deserving it. The UK has been a has-been nation for much of the UN’s history. Russia recently has only used its veto to defend itself on the Ukraine War not only in the UNSC but also in the General Assembly, where a massive majority of member nations condemned it—twice in as many months.
This is not all. In the unipolar world, the US bluffed its way through the General Assembly, and defied the Security Council to launch the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) war’ on Iraq and had a kangaroo-court hang Saddam Hussein. The question is not whether Saddam was a sinner or not. It is about the relevance of the UN system and the respect that veto powers have for it.
Obvious justification: If there is still a need for a high table with high priests to sit in judgment over lesser mortals, why not have an elected, rotational model, with, say, fixed terms of five years, instead of two or three years as applicable to most UN affiliates? The number of permanent members and number of consecutive terms too could be debated and decided. The scheme has worked, and worked fairly well, in the UNHRC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
There is an obvious justification. Three of the five P-5 members are from Europe, if they still consider Russia to be a European nation, and not a ‘distant continent’ from the Ice Age. The US alone earned its seat for helping Allies to win the two great wars. China, and before that Taiwan, then Formosa, was there by default, representing Asia.
As a colony, India became a Charter-Member at the funding of the UN in 1942. So did many other colonised nations. Maybe, but for the two great wars, possibly no UN body would have been there to begin with.
Elected, rotational: All of Asia now has only one P-5 member, and China is antagonistic towards all other regional powers. But the region as a whole tops the list in terms of size, population, maritime traffic, military and nuclear hotspots than any other.
Africa, to the UN founders, was/is non-existent. Hence, they have their mini-UN in the African Union (AU) with 55 member nations. They still need the UN system to help alleviate hunger, poverty, malnutrition—a penalty that the erstwhile colonial powers pay to atone for their past sins and ‘clear their conscience’ .
There are also other organisations like the geographically undefined Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which goes beyond the Gulf-Arab region. There is then the European Union (EU), which hopes to replace the US as much as a military power as an economic powerhouse if and when the opportunity presents itself. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has both economic and political roles, but the way the group is going about Myanmar’s membership after last year’s coup, makes it still unsure.
In this overall background, the question that needs to be asked, loud and clear, is about the desirability of rotational/ dynamic permanent membership with fixed terms, renewable or not. It may sound simple and simplistic. But if the argument gains ground, it would capture the imagination of nations that feel left out and are made to feel inadequate. If nothing else, the P-5 would sit up and—and do what needs doing.
Policy Analyst and Commentator, Chennai