External Affairs

The Crucial 48 Hours Before the Vote That Changed Everything

In some ways India’s victory at the International Court of Justice is a reflection of “change” at the UN, however small.

File photo of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Credit: Reuters

File photo of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Credit: Reuters

Washington: India’s successful campaign to win the last seat on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is arguably its biggest victory in a multilateral contest ever. Given the number of players and shifting alliances, its significance can’t be overstated.

It is also the first time the wall of the five permanent members (P-5) at the UN has been breached.

The 48 hours preceding the vote for Dalveer Bhandari in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the UN Security Council (UNSC) were crucial. In those hours, India “broke” the P-5, the Americans weighed in, others began to waver and the British started to see the writing on the wall. Some members of US President Donald Trump’s family are believed to have played a role in shifting the US bureaucratic position.

And that’s when the game of bluff began in earnest. The Indian side knew the shaky state of the British but London didn’t know that India knew.

On Friday, the British had proposed the obscure idea of a “joint conference” mechanism to break the stalemate between their candidate, Christopher Greenwood and Bhandari. After assessing the legal opinion, which was against using the mechanism, the Indian diplomatic team went to town.

“The US helped in the effort,” an insider revealed. Another well-informed source said that the American shift probably made others rethink their positions. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister who recently visited New Delhi, had been pressed about the ICJ election and didn’t need a fresh briefing.

It appears that the White House got in touch with the British and let it be known that it was a fight that must see a good end – good for all, not for the British. “They were told to sort it out. The message was that both India and Britain are friends of America,” the insider revealed. It was another way of saying the White House didn’t want a blood bath.

The Indian phone lines were busy all weekend. It was the whole of the government approach. By the time Monday morning rolled around, the Indians were confident and unflinching. They already knew the British didn’t have the full support of the P-5 in the UNSC to push their case. As one UN observer said, “It’s a numbers game after all.”

Contrary to speculation that Trump might have discussed the ICJ issue in his meeting with US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley when the two met at noon on Monday for a regularly scheduled meeting, the deed was already done. The American signal had already gone.

Interestingly, the US State Department bureaucracy had fed Haley the usual “geographic distribution” line on how to deal with India’s campaign. The Asian slot was filled since the Lebanese candidate, Nawaf Salam, had already won, the bureaucrats argued.

The tired, traditional reasoning showed just how out of touch the bureaucrats can be with their political leadership at times. The Bureau of International Organisation Affairs at the US State Department has long counted India’s UN votes against US resolutions as a means to punish India.

India's Permanent Representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin (eight from right) and others seen with Judge Dalveer Bhandari (tenth from left) following Bhandari's reelection to the International Court of Justice. Credit: Twitter/Syed Akbaruddin

India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin (eight from right) and others seen with Judge Dalveer Bhandari (tenth from left) following Bhandari’s reelection to the International Court of Justice. Credit: Twitter/Syed Akbaruddin

When India’s UN Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin and Britain’s ambassador Matthew Rycroft met for that crucial meeting at high noon on Monday, things soon became testy. It was a stare down contest of sorts. Akbaruddin knew he faced a paper tiger no matter what the bluster and arguments.

Rycroft tried to scare the Indian side into believing he had the votes, not knowing his precarious position was already a known fact. He primarily wanted to assess if he could push India to drop out in the age-old tradition of the West calling the shots for the rest. When it became clear that India would do no such thing, he chose to change strategy and withdraw the British candidate. And the world heaved a sigh of relief.

Retreat, London deemed, was the better part of valour mainly because Britain was on “the wrong side of history” on this, as a UN insider noted. The choice for Britain was to contest and lose the open vote in the UNSC on its proposal to use a joint conference mechanism or retreat gracefully. It was a case of “forced grace” not amazing grace.

India was confident that Bhandari’s vote count in the UNGA would only increase with time and Britain’s would decrease. In such a scenario, not even the P-5 who vote for each other could stand the “moral pressure” coming from the UNGA.

The British were trying to derail the process as developments were taking place on three tracks – the voice of the majority in the UNGA was getting louder, the voice of the powerful minority in the UNSC was getting weaker and Britain’s invocation of the obscure joint conference mechanism was set to send the two chambers into a real fight to say nothing of the legal rabbit hole.

London’s move to propose a joint conference mechanism was brazen as it was desperate. It would have suspended the voting process – a thoroughly undemocratic ploy, which the US had difficulty with, especially because that vote would be open.

India successfully pushed the first track to influence the second, as the third track died a slow death. In the end all 15 UNSC members – the five permanent veto-wielding powers and 10 elected members – voted for India. Interestingly, China joined in, choosing not to be the loner.

This massive diplomatic campaign by India was extensive but private unlike New Delhi’s very public bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which ended in failure.

Akbaruddin and his team at the UN put in the hard work while Indian missions all around pressed the case with their host countries. “I am a foot soldier and was privileged to be a part of a global team effort. This comes once in a generation,” Akbaruddin told The Wire.

In some ways India’s victory is a reflection of “change” at the UN, however small. India along with other developing countries has been demanding that the UN reflect the times, not a frozen order.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.