UPSC Exam: RSTV - India ' s World: UN Reforms : A Wishlist


This debate is centred on the United Nations and its 72nd UN General Assembly, where the much needed political will was generated to push for UN reforms. More than 120 countries including India supported the demand for a series of reforms to the UN and its bureaucracy to make the world body stronger, responsive and more representative of today’s geo-political realities. The 10 point declaration expresses support for UN reforms to simplify procedures, decentralize decision making with greater transparency, efficiency and accountability.

Challenges for UN reforms

The UN Secretary General himself expressed concern over fragmented structures, byzantine procedures and endless red tapism at the UN. But in a scenario where the UNSC wields all the power, a genuine effort at broad reforms seems unlikely. The question of UN reforms is not limited to the question of expanding the UNSC but also includes discussions on – the veto power, geographical quotas, appointment of the Secretary General, voting procedures etc. The biggest concern for India and other like-minded countries is that even after 25 years of discussions on this topic there has been no consensus to initiate text-based negotiations which would provide transparency and clarity to the process.

How relevant is the UN?

The UNO which was established in the aftermath of the Second World War to deal with global challenges has often been criticized for not delivering on its mandate. This raises the question of its relevancy in today’s world. This is because the UN does not reflect contemporary geo-political realities and fails to take cognisance of new emerging powers which are capable of shouldering the responsibility. Hence India is specifically pushing for governance reforms at the UN and not just procedural and managerial reforms.

The P-5 and UN reforms

The P-5 members of the UNSC have varying opinions regarding UN reforms and this further complicates the process. The US under Trump has clearly expressed its dislike of multilateralism and Trump has time and again spoken against multilateral institutions, be it WTO, TPP, NATO, UNFCCC or even the UN. During his 2016 election campaign, Mr. Trump complained about the U.S. paying a disproportionate amount of money to the UN. This clearly shows that UN reform is the least of priorities for the US. Russia has been conspicuous by its absence at the UNGA summits and the fragile ties between Russia and US could play spoilsport at the UN. China is strictly opposed to any UN reforms and expansion of the UNSC, it opposes the entry of arch rivals – India and Japan into the elite club and hopes to be the sole representative for Asia. Britain and France are finding it difficult to be on the same page post Brexit and their issues at EU has an impact at the UNSC as well. In recent times, this lack of coherence amongst the P-5 is more pronounced and could impede the pace of UN reforms.

The P-5 countries have varying reasons to put the reforms process on the backburner. The US and Russia will be concerned about managing any possible new entrants to the UNSC and influencing them to back their respective geo-political strategies. China, Britain and France will be concerned about ceding space to emerging powers from Asia, Africa, South America and even Europe and thus they are vary about losing their significance at the UN and would like to maintain status-quo. This zero sum approach of the P-5 creates hurdles to the reforms process which cannot be surmounted easily.

India’s balancing role between its narrow national interests and responsibility as a rising power

India is well aware that UN reforms will not happen in the short to medium term and hence the issue for India is to figure out what kind of voice it needs to have in the reforms process. For example, India being one of the largest Troop contributing countries to the UN Peacekeeping forces it would like to have a greater say in the deployment and roles being performed by these forces. At the same time, India being a rising power it should also consider the possibility of deploying its troops under the UN banner and its concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (under this concept the UNSC authorizes the use of force against rogue states) and should not limit itself to contributing troops to the UNPKF.

Moreover, the UN is no longer limited to maintaining peace and security in the world. Its mandate today includes migration, climate change, sustainable development etc., all of which are a core concern for India. Hence, India would like greater participation at the UN high table and it would also like to set right the imbalance in power between the UNSC and UNGA. India’s immediate demand would be for the UNSC to adopt text-based negotiations, which have been long due, for UN reforms which includes managerial, administrative, bureaucratic and structural changes.

India’s chances

The position taken by the G-4 (India, Japan, Germany and Brazil) and the L-69 group of developing countries over UN reforms has the support of close to 110-115 countries out of 193 member states. This ensures a simple majority at the UNGA for any reforms resolution but unfortunately the 1998 decision of the UNGA makes it necessary to secure a special majority (129 votes) for these sorts of amendments to the UN charter. So India should keep working towards weaning away countries to support its position over UN reforms.

India has also displayed a great deal of flexibility to garner popular support. For example, India has expressed its approval to withhold the exercising of the veto power by new permanent members up to a 15 year review period.

India needs to rally support at the UN for its initiatives by actively campaigning for core issues such as – counter-terrorism, climate change, global finance etc. India has already proposed a UN convention to combat terrorism; it plays a lead role in climate change negotiations and is actively working to reform the Bretton wood institutions (World Bank and IMF) which are also outdated institutions established in the post-second world war era.

Way Forward for India

India has clearly emerged as leader in South – South cooperation as witnessed during the India-Africa Forum summit which saw the participation of 54 out of 55 African Union countries. Even small and least developed island states of the Pacific and Indian Ocean region see India as a leader of South-South cooperation who can effectively represent their voice at the global high table. This shows that at some point in the next decade India’s influence will reach a high point and it will be suitable for India to push for a vote on UN reforms. But until then, India has to focus on building up this momentum and then force the P-5 to change their status-quo position on UN reforms.

That said, India should watch out for conflicting interests within the UNGA such as the Coffee Club which could derail the process. From a pragmatic viewpoint, UN reforms in the near term looks unlikely due to the stand of the P-5 and hence India should conserve its diplomatic capital at the UN and expend it on building domestic capacity and influencing the way in which UN functions and this perhaps will allow India to exercise the kind of influence it desires at the UN, with or without reforms.

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