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After the G20, Can India Make Progress on UN Security Council Reform?

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After the G20, Can India Make Progress on UN Security Council Reform?

It’s the holy grail of Indian diplomacy, and the prospects look brighter than ever before.

After the G20, Can India Make Progress on UN Security Council Reform?

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, president of the Security Council for the month of December 2022 and external affairs minister of India, briefs reporters after a Security Council meeting on a global counterterrorism approach, Dec. 15, 2022.

Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The recently concluded G-20 Summit in New Delhi proved that India is on a sharp upward trajectory in its quest for global leadership. The Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the summit was hailed as a major diplomatic victory for India and is a fitting reflection of the priorities that India proposed. Among those priorities: the inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member of the G-20, the need to hear and recognize the concerns of the Global South in the group, the pursuit of inclusive and human centric development, advancing climate preservation through a “just transition,” and a new model for financial inclusion for the developing world that involves remodeling the priorities of international financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and multilateral development banks.

The fact that the G-20 summit able to issue the Delhi Declaration at all – which required 100 percent consensus among the members – was an outstanding outcome given several disagreements and conflicting views, prominent among them being the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Prior to the summit, even the optimists had been skeptical about the prospects for a joint communique.

The G-20 Summit is now over and the stage has moved to the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York. One of the common threads that was heard on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in New Delhi was the unequivocal support for U.N. Security Council (UNSC) reforms and for India to be included as a permanent member of the UNSC, sooner rather than later. U.S. President Joe Biden endorsed this view on the eve of the G-20 Summit. He was later followed by the French president, African Union president, U.K. prime minister and even Turkey’s president, who all endorsed the idea.

U.N Secretary General Antonio Guterres, too, during the G-20 summit spoke of the need for urgent reforms of the UNSC, stating that “the present composition of the Security Council represents the world after the Second World War. Today’s world is different.” He added that he “fully understand[s]” India’s aspirations and that “we need to adjust the composition of the Security Council to the realities of today’s world.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched in when he stated that “a mid-20th century approach cannot serve the world in the 21st century. So, our international institutions need to recognize changing realities, expand their decision-making forums, relook at their priorities and ensure representation of voices that matter.”

The call for long-overdue UNSC reform is therefore loud. Three factors, among many, are behind the growing momentum toward urgent reforms. The rise in global stature of countries like Brazil, India, Japan, and Germany is definitely one factor. Another is the completely fractured nature of the UNSC in its present form, where the five permanent members never seem to agree on any major issue effecting world peace (the Russia-Ukraine war being the latest example). The third factor is the growing outcry against grossly inadequate representation in the UNSC. There is no representation at all from Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean within the permanent members while the small continent of Europe accounts for two permanent seats.

In fact, the “G-4” countries – Brazil, Germany, Japan, and India – have long championed UNSC reform. The G-4 met at the sidelines of U.N. General assembly on September 21 and warned that the longer it takes to reform the UNSC, the more its effectiveness will be called into question. They added that the Security Council’s inability to address contemporary global challenges in an effective and timely manner “reinforces the urgent need for its comprehensive reform so that it better reflects contemporary geopolitical realities.” They also voiced strong concern over the persistent absence of meaningful progress in the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN).

The IGN owes its formal launch to Decision 62/557 adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on September 15, 2008, on the question of equitable representation and increase in the membership of the Security Council. The decision stipulated steps to commence intergovernmental negotiations on Security Council reforms. Decision 62/557 mentioned that the IGN should refer to five key issues: categories of membership; the question of the veto; regional representation; the size of an enlarged Security Council and working methods of the Council; and the relationship between the Council and the General Assembly. The IGN officially started in early 2009 and has continued since then in each informal plenary of the U.N. General Assembly. Yet there has been no meaningful change in the 14 years since.

During the ongoing U.N. General Assembly session, the “L-69” grouping of developing countries, in a meeting hosted by India, gave a renewed call for the reform of the UNSC through the inclusion of both more permanent and non-permanent members in the council. The L-69 is a grouping that includes countries from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Pacific Island states. In 2007-08, the group had tabled a document that actually kick started the IGN process. The L-69 reiterated their expectation that the ongoing IGN process on UNSC reform will commence negotiations based on a single consolidated text, with the aim of delivering concrete outcomes within a fixed time frame.

In fact, the crux of the matter is the “single consolidated text.” The IGN process (or any other process) can only move forward once there is a clear document put before the U.N. General Assembly. Until then, it is only a talk shop and nothing else, something that India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar highlighted when he was recently asked about UNSC reforms. Jaishankar stated that he is yet to see a consolidated document in black-and-white being placed on the table.

Later, during an interaction with students and faculty of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) on  September 17, the Indian minister added a note of warning: “What would happen if they do not reform? People will find solutions outside. And this is a message the U.N. has to understand. They will become anachronistic, and develop the danger of heading towards not extinction, but a little bit of irrelevance.”

With such a bold public stance coupled with its rising stature in the world, India has the opportunity to do something historic and path breaking in years to come. UNSC reforms could be one of those achievements. If India could rally a fragmented G-20 (with the G-7 on one side and the China-Russia camp on the other) and still get the Delhi Declaration done, then reform of the UNSC is possible.

On one hand, India has pitched itself as the voice of the Global South, bolstering its support in the developing world. The 54 countries of the African Union are grateful to India for their inclusion in G-20. There is adequate support within West and Central Asia for New Delhi as well, although India has to be wary of China’s influence too. ASEAN nations too strongly support India’s candidacy for permanent membership, as do most of the Latin American countries. Meanwhile, India’s support from the United States and European countries is also riding high, providing a rare window of opportunity where New Delhi could win agreement from Global North and South.

However, unless India can get a single text document to be tabled, discussed and voted upon, we will not know which countries actually support New Delhi – and which might back out at the moment of truth.

Among the P5, China is the single nation that is likely to oppose India’s candidature as a permanent member or UNSC reforms in general. However, like at the G-20 Summit, if Beijing is cornered or left out as the only one opposing or undecided, it may ultimately fall in line.

A crucial test of China’s support in the world will be the forthcoming third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF), scheduled to be held in Beijing in October 2023, which also marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has claimed that over 90 countries are likely to attend the meeting. However, with Italy pulling out of the BRI (as announced during the G-20 Summit in Delhi) and a large number of countries in Asia and Africa showing interest in the IMEC project, a cross-continental infrastructure project launched by the United States, India, Saudi Arabia, the EU, and others on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit, it will be interesting to see how the BRI conference in China ultimately pans out.

UNSC reforms require adoption by a vote of at least two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly and ratification by at least two-third of the members – including all UNSC permanent members. It is a tough ask but not impossible. India has shown time and again how it is able to deftly bridge differences and bring conflicting issues to a satisfactory resolution, the joint communique at the G-20 summit being the most recent example. It enjoys broad support across the globe. It is the fifth largest economy, poised to be the third largest in a few years; has world’s largest population; is world’s largest and most vibrant democracy; and has world’s third largest army. With Modi topping global leadership ratings regularly and enjoying close personal rapport with many world leaders, there is adequate political support to be tapped.

If India is able to get a single text document ready and tabled soon, which includes a proposal for inclusion of the G-4 and some other nations from the continents and regions presently neglected in the permanent membership, the reforms could move forward under the sheer weight of numbers. China, once again, may find itself being left out with no option but to relent and let India and others enter the holy portals of UNSC permanent membership.

It is crunch time, both for India and the U.N. India must capitalize on the momentum and support gained so far, while for the UNSC, it is either reform or rupture.