At the high table

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At the high table

India must think big as it takes a step towards a non-permanent seat on the UNSC


Why in news?

  • India’s candidature for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been endorsed unanimously by the Asia Pacific group, which comprises 55 countries, including Pakistan.

India endorsed for non-permanent seat at UNSC

  • By winning the unanimous endorsement of the 55-nation Asia-Pacific Group at the United Nations Security Council, India has cleared an important hurdle in its quest for a non-permanent seat for 2021-22.
    • The decision of the grouping this week was taken as India was the sole candidate for the post.
  • In the next step, all 193 members of the UN General Assembly will vote for five non-permanent seats in June 2020, when India will need to show the support of at least 129 countries to go through to the UNSC.
    • It will then occupy the seat at the UNSC for a two-year period, as it has previously on seven occasions since 1950-51.

“Clean slate” candidature

  • The endorsement means that India has a “clean slate” candidature – that is there is no other contestant from the group – for the elections that will be held for five non-permanent members next year, for the 2021-22 term.
  • Each year, the General Assembly elects five non-permanent members out of a total of 10, for a two-year term.
  • These 10 seats are distributed among the regions thus:
    • five for African and Asian countries;
    • one for Eastern European countries;
    • two for Latin American and Caribbean countries;
    • two for Western European and other countries.
  • Of the five seats for Africa and Asia, three are for Africa and two for Asia; there is an informal understanding between the two groups to reserve one for an Arab country.
    • The Africa and Asia Pacific group takes turns every two years to put up an Arab candidate.
  • Elections for terms beginning in even-numbered years select two African members, and one each within Eastern Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
    • Terms beginning in odd-numbered years consist of two Western European and Other members, and one each from Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Asian contests

  • Unlike Africa, which has formalised a system of rotation of its three seats according to the region, the Asia-Pacific grouping often seen contests. Last year, there was a contest between Maldives and Indonesia.
  • Irrespective of whether a country is a “clean slate” candidate and has been endorsed by its group, it needs to secure the votes of two-thirds of the members present and voting at the General Assembly session (a minimum of 129 votes if all 193 member states participate).
    • Formal balloting takes place at elections to all the main UN bodies.
  • When contested, the elections for non-permanent seats can be fraught and can go on for several rounds.
    • In 1975, there was a contest between India and Pakistan, which went to eight rounds.
    • Pakistan won the seat that year.
    • In 1996, India lost a contest to Japan.
  • India has been a non-permanent member of the Security Council eight time previously: 1950-51, 1967-68, 1972-73, 1977-78, 1984-85, 1991-92 and 2011-12.
    • For the 2011-12 term, India won 187 of 190 votes after Kazakhstan stood down from its candidacy.

Candidature for 2021-22: Reasons

  • There are several reasons why India decided to pursue its candidature for 2021-22.
    • The government at the time had felt it was necessary to have India’s voice at the high table as many times as possible, and therefore began the process for another seat shortly after it had ended its previous tenure in 2011-2012.
    • By rotation, that seat would have reached India only in the 2030s, and India had to reach out to Afghanistan, which had put in its bid already for the 2021-22 slot, to request it to withdraw.
    • Afghanistan did so because of the special relationship between the two countries.
    • India has a unique role to play at the UNSC, given the near-complete polarisation among the permanent members (P-5 nations), with –
      • the U.S., the U.K. and France on one side, and
      • Russia and China on the other.
    • India’s ability to work with both sides is well known.
    • The year 2022 also has a sentimental value attached to it, as it marks the 75th year of India’s Independence, and a place at the UNSC would no doubt add to the planned celebrations that year.
    • Since 2013, when it first announced the bid, the government has run a quiet but consistent campaign towards this goal.

Way ahead

  • It is significant that despite the poor state of bilateral relations with Pakistan, and the many challenges India has faced from China at the UN, both the countries graciously agreed to the nomination.
  • From this point on, it is necessary for the government to think beyond the campaign for the UNSC, and work out a comprehensive strategy for what it plans to do with the seat.
  • In the past, India has earned a reputation for ‘fence-sitting’ by abstaining on votes when it was required to take a considered stand on principle, and the seat will be a chance to undo that image.
  • Given the twin challenges of a rising China, and the U.S. receding from its UN responsibilities, India must consider how it will strengthen the multilateral world order amid frequent unilateral moves by both the world powers.
  • An even bigger challenge will be to nudge all five permanent members on the one issue they have unitedly resisted:
    • towards the reform and expansion of the UNSC, which would include India’s claim to a permanent seat at the high table.

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