A changing UN might offer India a new role

Come September”, as a classic Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida film was titled, may well be the description of the annual high-level segment meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This year it kicks off on September 25, as usual with the Brazilian President being the first to speak, followed by United States President Donald Trump, and so on. However, going by the information available so far, most peculiarly, the heads of government of both India and Pakistan will not be attending. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the UN General Assembly is understandable as he prepares for crucial state elections followed soon by the Lok Sabha polls that will decide his future. But it is quizzical for Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan to ignore a first-ever multilateral foray to meet a range of global leaders. Perhaps he is doing so for optical reasons, preferring to be seen as focusing on critical domestic issues. He may also have chosen not to box himself into an anti-India corner, as his supporters, particularly in the Army and right-wing clerics, would have expected a toxic anti-India diatribe. Finally, he may have no appetite for Western leaders dishing out a loud anti-jihadi message.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, speaking prior to Pakistan’s new foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on September 29, shall address the General Assembly. Hopefully, unlike last year, she will rise above Pakistan-bashing to present the Indian vision for multilateralism at a time when the UN is under increasing financial pressure and has its peacekeeping agenda marginalised.  The United States has decided to reduce its UN peacekeeping contribution from 28.5 per cent of its total budget to 25 per cent. Washington is also slashing its contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is a human development agency for five million registered Palestinian refugees. The last is in keeping with President Trump’s softer line on Israel without seeking concessions for any resolution of the Palestinian dispute. The US has already withdrawn from the Paris Accord on climate change, Unesco, the Human Rights Council, etc. Thus like during the days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there is a concerted attempt to financially squeeze and diplomatically degrade the UN, as Mr Trump seeks “value” for his money.

It is in the interest of aspiring powers like India that at a moment of global power transition, the UN remains not only relevant but committed to its reform agenda, particularly the reform of the UN Security Council, to reflect contemporary reality. India must thus energise the G-4, consisting of Brazil Germany, India and Japan, to negate this US attempt to cripple multilateralism. A complicating factor may be the India bashing by the UN high commissioner for human rights and now the UN naming India as targeting human rights activists. India must realise that as an aspirant for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council high table, it is vitally important to keep domestic politics aligned with liberal values. While permanent members like China can get away with blatant breaches such as the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, including herding them into re-education camps en masse, or Russia can send GRU agents abroad for hamhanded targeting of defectors, India is best served internationally by abiding by its ancient value system of tolerance and non-sectarianism.

India has sensibly retained, in the latest round of diplomatic transfers, its UN-honed diplomat Syed Akbaruddin as the permanent representative to the UN in New York. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the first former head of government to hold that position, is shepherding the mother ship of multilateralism at a particularly difficult juncture for the organisation. In a recent interview he has decried the challenge to the liberal, democratic order globally. As the world transitions from a US-led order to perhaps a multipolar system, the Secretary-General needs the cooperation of all key powers. But he concedes that more than ever before the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are divided. The US has sanctions against Russia, supplementing action already taken by Britain and France over Russian actions ranging from suspected interference in the conduct of the US presidential election to nerve agent poisoning of former Russian operatives in the UK. The US has also started a trade war of sorts with China, alleging Chinese theft of US intellectual property and cutting-edge technologies. Even Europe is suddenly closely examining Chinese investment proposals. Germany has woken up after the Chinese takeover of Kuka, a robotics company. Suddenly, the Chinese vision to become a technologically advanced nation by 2025 is no longer seen by the developed Western nations as benign. The US has just announced fresh tariffs on Chinese goods of about $200 billion before the US-China trade talks. On the other hand, there is a growing Sino-Russian strategic convergence, demonstrated by Chinese troops participating in the latest and massive Russian military exercises involving almost a third of the Russian Army.

This lack of cohesiveness is impacting the UN’s ability to play a role in resolving international crises like over the northern Syrian city of Idlib, where a large civilian population is trapped amid 30,000-odd deadly Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda or other Sunni radical Islamist groups. There is even less role visible for  the UN to resolve the larger Syrian imbroglio, or bring antagonists to the negotiating table in Afghanistan or in Yemen, where there is unmitigated civilian bloodletting by the Saudis and Emiratis.  The Secretary-General is consequently turning his attention to other issues, like climate change or digital and cyberspace cooperation. India can play a role in shaping the multilateral discourse on these issues. This is perhaps not a year for bold, visionary moves. Nor should India turn the UN podium into an election rally for domestic audiences by India-Pakistan rhetoric. Ms Swaraj gets one last opportunity to show her intellectual heft, constrained so far by health issues and an overbearing PMO.

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