UNSC Watch: Big Powers Hold Up Torch of Multilateralism While Taking Jabs at Each Other

There was a fundamental disagreement at the meeting between the US, China and Russia on what the post-World War II rules-based order meant.

New Delhi: With the entire world under the shadow of COVID-19, the global pandemic should have ideally led to a united response from world bodies.

However, as the United Nations Security Council’s high-level debate showed last week, everybody scrambled to support the concept of multilateralism – but the devil was in the details when it comes to the control of these bodies and their role in taking punitive actions against states.

China took over the rotating monthly presidency with the Chinese ambassador laying out the priorities at the start of the week.

The Council taking a backseat on Myanmar – as noted by The Wire in the last column – was underlined by a Chinese envoy to UN, Zhang Jun. He made it clear that the Council would not be taking an activist role on Myanmar in the foreseeable future, giving the regional south-east Asian bloc, ASEAN, a wide berth to take the driver’s engine.

“I think at this moment, my understanding is that the Council is mainly emphasising or supporting the diplomatic efforts of ASEAN countries and to support ASEAN to play a constructive role in this regard,” Zhang said at the media briefing on May 3 as China took over the reins of Council.

So far, Council members have met to discuss Myanmar in the last three months following the crisis over the military coup of February 1.

On the last day of April, the Council held a closed-door private meeting on Myanmar, which the UN Secretary General’s special envoy and Brunei’s second foreign minister Erywan bin Pehin Yusof addressed. The “press elements” issued by Vietnam after the Council’s meeting also supported the ‘five-point consensus’ reached by ASEAN at a special summit.

Also read: UNSC Watch: On Myanmar, Security Council Gives the Driver’s Seat to ASEAN

While the regional body has yet to announce the appointment of a special envoy, there are indications that an ASEAN delegation could visit Myanmar next week.

According to India’s public statements, New Delhi would prefer ASEAN to take the path of more engagement with the Myanmar government.

Coincidentally, the first signature event that China convened as Council president was an open debate on “upholding multilateralism and the United Nations-centred international system”.

Not surprisingly, there was a fundamental disagreement between the US, China and Russia on what the post-World War II rules-based order meant.

US secretary of state Anthony Blinken described the international commitments of nations as adhering to, among others, “UN Charter, treaties and conventions, UN Security Council resolutions, international humanitarian law, and the rules and standards agreed to under the auspices of the World Trade Organization and numerous international standard-setting organisations”.

He admitted that the United States’ actions in recent years have “undermined the rules-based order and led others to question whether we are still committed to it”. “Rather than take our word for it, we ask the world to judge our commitment by our actions,” Blinken asserted.

He then listed the Biden administration’s re-engagement on the multilateral front – rejoining the climate change accord, WHO, UN Human Rights Council, restarting Iran nuclear deal talks and contributing to COVAX to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

The top US administration official also asserted that “human rights and dignity” had to be at the core of the international order. “Asserting domestic jurisdiction doesn’t give any state a blank check to enslave, torture, disappear, ethnically cleanse their people, or violate their human rights in any other way,” added Blinken.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Photo: Reuters/Leah Millis/Pool

Demonstrating the yawning gap from the West, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated that all states should follow the “purposes and principles” of the UN charter as “they chart their foreign policies, respecting the sovereign equality of states, not interfering in their internal affairs, settling disputes by political and diplomatic means, and renouncing the threat or use of force”.

He reiterated the Russian stance that the West has advanced the concept of rules-based order as a “substitute of international law”. “It should be noted that international law already is a body of rules, but rules agreed at universal platforms and reflecting consensus or broad agreement. The West’s goal is to oppose the collective efforts of all members of the world community with other rules developed in closed, non-inclusive formats, and then imposed on everyone else,” he asserted.

He cited the proposed US idea of a Summit for Democracy and the Franco-German initiative of ‘Alliance for Multilateralism’ as examples of the “closed, non-inclusive format” platforms advocated by the West.

Chairing the open debate, Chinese State Councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi also underlined the necessity of non-interference in multilateralism, albeit in his own words. “We should respect diversity instead of seeking one’s own supremacy. Every country has its unique history and culture, and needs to take a path of development suited to its own realities,” he said.

Wang Yi asserted that “splitting the world along the ideological line conflicts with the spirit of multilateralism and is a regression in history”.

Russia and China had also formed their own club, Group of Friends in Defense of the UN Charter, in February 2019. It includes North Korea, Iran, Syria and UNSC non-permanent member St Vincent and the Grenadines.

Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla affirmed that India was “committed” to upholding the rules-based international order. This order, he stated, was “underpinned by international law, premised upon respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all Member States, resolution of international disputes through peaceful negotiations and free and open access for all to the global commons”.

Also read: UNSC Watch: India Joins Russia, China in Disputing OPCW’s Latest Report on Syria

Shringla stated that while the UN had kept the peace since World War II, “it has been found wanting in its ability to garner a concerted response to tackle the world’s most complex challenges”.

He added that the “lack of a coordinated global response” to the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the weakness of the multilateral system, which urgently requires comprehensive reforms. Shringla also pointed out that UNSC reforms were at the core of India’s call for reforming the global multilateral system.

Along with India, there was also references to multilateral reforms – in varying degrees – by the UK, France, Ireland, Kenya, Niger and Vietnam. Kenya, Niger, Ireland and India, specifically, mentioned Africa’s under-representation at the high table.

The ‘ideological’ split in the Council was again apparent at the open briefing on the Syrian chemical weapons issue on May 6.

India reiterated that the second report of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team that accused the Syrian military of conducting a 2018 chemical weapon attack “falls short of expectations”. These ‘expectations’ were listed as “impartial and objective investigation by the OPCW to establish the facts and reach evidence-based conclusions in incidents of any use of chemical weapons strictly in accordance with the provisions and procedures embedded in the Chemical Weapons Convention, and in conformity with the delicate balance of power and responsibility enshrined under it”, as per India’s permanent representative to UN, T.S. Tirumurti.

As The Wire had reported earlier, India had first criticised the OPCW investigative report at an Arria-formula meeting last month, organised by Russia. Based on the second IIT report, OPCW suspended the rights and privileges of Syria under the convention. India had abstained at the vote.

This week in UNSC

The Council’s inaugural video conference on Monday is from the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD), followed by discussions on Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon during the rest of the week.

According to Security Council Report, the UNSC will likely adopt two resolutions – one on renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) and extending the mission’s support for the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM). The other will be to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia.

Besides, the 1970 Libya sanctions committee, which India chairs, will be holding a closed meeting on Monday.

Outside the Council’s formal timetable, there is a scheduled Arria-formula meeting on delivering justice to victims of war crimes, addressed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad and international human rights attorney Amal Clooney.

This is a weekly column that tracks the UNSC during India’s current term as a non-permanent member. Previous columns can be found here.