UNSC Watch: India Continues To Draw a Line in the Sand on Security Council’s Domain

India again insisted that the UN Security Council should not encroach into areas of democracy promotion, human rights or gender justice.

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New Delhi: Even as there is increasing clamour for the United Nations to take on more thematic challenges to prevent conflicts, India continues to insist on the red line that the UN Security Council (UNSC) should not encroach into areas of democracy promotion, human rights or gender justice.

During last week’s open debate on preventive diplomacy in the Council, there was a sharp divide among countries that want it to take on newer, cross-cutting challenges with strong opposition from a vocal group led by Russia and China.

The open debate was part of a truncated workweek for the UNSC, as two days were devoted to the annual workshop for incoming non-permanent members. Therefore, the remaining three days were packed with consultations and discussions on Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

Under the UN Charter, the Security Council is in charge of the maintenance of international peace and security. The arguments start from here – with the division being on what issues come under this definition and the sequencing of instruments available with the powerful UN body to resolve a conflict.

Mexico, the president of the UNSC for November, had circulated a concept note on the open debate which asserted that the Council was the concerned body to deal with threats to international peace and security, “the United Nations system as a whole has a direct or indirect impact on the maintenance of peace”.

“The interlinkages with sustainable development and the rule of law cannot be questioned. This open debate offers an opportunity to explore how to strengthen those interlinkages through concrete actions,” said the three-page note.

This is not a discussion of semantics or esoteric diplomatese. Nearly every day, this debate occurs in world capitals or the corridors of the UN as new and old conflict hotspots require nations to constantly weigh up their strategic options on their response and long term interests.

The United Nations logo is seen on a window in an empty hallway at the UN headquarters in New York, US, September 21, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

In March this year, 17 countries, including Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea, formed the ‘Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations. It was seen as an initiative to push back against the threat of sanctions and use of force by Western countries through the UN system.

India is not a member of this grouping – but its views on the UN, as articulated at the UNSC open debate, are similar to a large extent.

“Adequate attention needs to be paid to the provisions of Chapter VI rather than Chapter VII becoming the ready recourse,” said India’s deputy permanent representative to UN, R. Ravindra.

The UN Charter’s Chapter VI calls for taking all steps for peaceful settlement of disputes, while the subsequent chapter authorised the UNSC to take coercive measures against countries.

Besides India, Iran also explicitly referred to the usage of Chapter VII during the discussions. 

The Iranian envoy asserted that Council’s practices show that the means provided in Chapter VI has been “rarely applied” and treated “as if they did not exist”. Iran has, of course, been the target of UNSC sanctions in the past.

“Conversely, the Council has too frequently, hastily and excessively resorted to coercive measures set forth in Chapter VII, without attempting its Chapter VI functions first, as is logically and legally expected of it, let alone exhausting them. In many cases, that trend has resulted in the further complication of situations, violations of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States, human rights abuses for entire populations and the like,” said the Iranian diplomat.

India is also big on ensuring that each UN body should remain within the bounds of its original mandate under the UN Charter. 

“There have been recent attempts to assume the work in this Council, which are better done in specialised agencies and organs created for the purpose. We do not favour this trend both as a matter of propriety and pragmatism,” said Ravindra.

This is the primary argument used by India to oppose a host of recent international initiatives, from the drafting of the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty to discussing climate change, in the UNSC. India has cited the Conference of Disarmament and the UNFCC as the right organisations to discuss these matters respectively.

In its statement, India spelt out which areas are not within the UNSC but could be discussed at the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Ravindra said: 

“The issues related to economic and social domain fall under the realm of sovereignty of Member States, who owe the responsibility of protection and welfare of their population. India believes that advancement of the rule of law at the national level is an essential tool for the protection of democracy, economic growth, sustainable development, ensuring gender justice, eradication of poverty and hunger and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

For India, climate change comes under the ‘sustainable development’ umbrella, which is not under the UNSC’s purview. However, the Council chambers have witnessed countries increasingly citing environmental disaster as a cause for conflict and, therefore, suitable to be a topic of discussion inside the UNSC.

Underscoring the contrast to India’s views, Ireland’s Byrne Nason summarised the position of the Western bloc, but also seems to be held by a substantial number of developing countries. He added:

“In conclusion, the inescapable reality that faces us all, individually and collectively, is that the contemporary challenges we face do not fit neatly into preordained, predefined boxes. The effects of climate change do not stop at the doors of this Chamber. Human rights do not belong only in Geneva. Those challenges cut right across all aspects of our work, from development and human rights to peace and security.”

At the open debate, India also brought up the need to reform the UNSC. “A composition that is rooted in 1945 detracts from its abilities to fully harness the capabilities of UN Member-States as of today. We need to show our collective commitment to reformed multilateralism,” the Indian representative said.

According to the independent research group Security Council Report, India had asked for the text to specifically include the phrase “reformed multilateralism” during the negotiations over the presidential statement. As per a “compromise”, the approved presidential statement on preventive diplomacy has no language related to the UNSC’s commitment to multilateralism.

This week in UNSC

The week began (November 22) with an open debate on small arms and light weapons, followed by briefings and consultations on Iraq and Libya. India’s permanent representative, T.S. Tirumurti, will speak at the briefing on Libya on Wednesday, as chair of the 1970 Libya Sanctions committee.

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.