UNSC Watch: In New York, India's Balancing Act Between West and Russia Over Belarus

A weekly analysis on UN Security Council proceedings as India begins its two-year tenure at the body.

New Delhi: India’s juggling act was in display in New York, where a fellow United Nations Security Council (UNSC) member had called for an informal meeting on media freedom in Belarus, much to Russia’s displeasure.

The meeting on Friday (January 22) was held under the ‘Arria formula’, where a UNSC member state can organise a gathering on a particular subject and invite individuals from outside the UN system.

Organised by Estonia, the UK and the US, the meeting was co-sponsored by eight other non-UNSC members from the Western bloc.

Following the August 9 elections in Belarus, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were first to impose sanctions against the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and 29 Belarusian officials for allegedly rigging the polls that declared him victorious with 80% of the vote.

The principal opposition presidential candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania after the elections, where she formed a so-called transitional government. Just like on Friday, she had spoken at the earlier ‘Arria formula’ meeting on human rights in Belarus, also organised by Estonia, in September 2020.

Russia had been vehemently opposed to organising the event but did not boycott the event, even though Council members are not obligated to attend this type of meeting. Among the former soviet states, Belarus is arguably Russia’s closest ally, though the relations had shown signs of strain.

India’s balancing act

Balancing both sides, India’s statement at the meeting gave away the contour of the presentation. “We also take note that while today’s theme of the Arria formula meeting is not on the agenda of the Security Council or may affect international peace and security, the issue of media and journalistic freedom is extremely vital for functional democracies,” said India’s deputy permanent representative to UN, Nagaraj Naidu.

India’s reference that the topic does not impact international peace and security echoed Russia’s argument. “Are you deliberately creating a precedent of discussing in this format internal country-specific situations which do not even slightly jeopardise international peace and security? Because if you do, there are many more interesting cases to study,” said a combative first Russian deputy permanent representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy.

Also read: UNSC Watch: Now in Security Council, India Gets a Taste of Polarised Division in an Open Debate

The Indian diplomat also noted, “As the world’s largest democracy, with the most diverse and vibrant media, India, therefore welcomes any discussion on protecting and promoting the freedom of the media.”

While referring to constitutional protection to free press, he pointed out that “the right to express freely and without any fear is critical in open democracies like India”. Naidu also noted that “anti-democratic and other malign actors have been quick to perceive opportunities to spread disinformation and fuel polarisation”.

“Disinformation campaigns that crowd out credible information, alongside other manipulation techniques, have thus emerged as a significant threat to media freedom,” he added.

India also asserted that these disinformation campaigns were increasingly used for “foreign interference in the internal affairs of other countries”. “In June last year, India, along with 12 other like-minded countries co-sponsored the Cross-Regional Statement on ‘Infodemic’ in the context of COVID-19, the first of its kind of a statement by UN member states to counter the increase in hate speech and misinformation during the pandemic,” stated Naidu.

During the initial months of the pandemic, there had been a lot of media reports related to the arrests of foreign Tablighi members for allegedly violating COVID-19 restriction orders. During the last few months of 2020, Indian courts released nearly all the jailed foreign Tablighis. The court orders also observed that there had been a sustained media campaign to give the impression that Tablighi Jamaat had contributed to spreading the virus.

Naidu also asserted that information technology companies have a special obligation to ensure “that the platforms they have deployed are transparent and their users are not misinformed”.

While this was par for the course on the topic, the senior Indian diplomat also pointedly said that it has “has never been in support of initiatives that target or single out a specific member state”.

With a nod at Russia, he stated, “We strongly advocate the use of a cooperative, inclusive, transparent and peaceful dialogue process rather than finger-pointing to discuss issues of friction. We need to bring a more cooperative framework of working methods on such issues in order to have effective results”.

Naidu walked a fine line by concluding that India enjoys a “comprehensive partnership” with Belarus and called for a “constructive engagement by the international community with the Belarusian government”.

India has, officially, never issued any comment on the Belarusian elections.

Also read: India to Chair UNSC’s Taliban and Libya Sanctions Committees, Panel on Counter-Terrorism

Arria formula meetings

The ‘Arria formula’ meetings were named after a Venezuelan diplomat, Diego Arria, who as Council president in March 1992, invited a Croatian priest to give an eyewitness account about the ongoing war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These are not supposed to be held inside the Council chambers, but in a conference room. The event was held virtually under the post-COVID working methods but was not aired live on the UN video network, but on Estonia foreign ministry’s YouTube channel.

India has never organised an ‘Arria formula’ meeting during its last two terms after they became prevalent, as it has publicly expressed “reservations” on the format.

In his book, The Horseshoe Table, India’s former permanent representative to UN, Chinmaya R. Gharekhan wrote while no members missed those informal meetings, they became “headaches” at times.

He recounts that in 2003, Pakistan wanted to arrange a meeting with Kashmiri militants under the Arria formula. “Pakistan was at the time a member of the Security Council. Nearly all other members had agreed to attend. The Indians had a hard time, in New York and in Washington to sabotage it. They succeeded in preventing it, thanks to timely and crucial support of the Americans,” wrote Gharekhan, who had been permanent representative during India’s term at UNSC in 1991-21.

Second term for Guterres?

Earlier last week, China became the second permanent member to publicly support a second term for UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres. UK had been the first P-5 to immediately welcome Guterres’ announcement on January 11 seeking a second five-year term. United States would likely take a position on this crucial decision only after the new US permanent representative is confirmed by the Senate. India has not yet decided on its position, sources told The Wire.

Highlights for week four

On January 26, there will be an open debate on the Palestine issue. This may be the first time the new Biden administration could clear the air on the new Israeli settlements. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu had approved the construction of 800 new houses in West Bank, just three days before US President Biden’s inauguration. Unlike his predecessor, Biden is likely to take back the US to the traditional position of opposing settlements.

As Council president, Tunisia will be chairing a briefing on the implementation of resolution 2532, which calls for a universal ceasefire to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous meetings on the pandemic, US interventions had been sharply critical of WHO and China. Consequently, observers will be waiting to listen to the nuances in the US statement, especially on China, during the meeting on Monday.

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.