Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India and United Nations

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Dilip Sinha
    Venue: Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bodhgaya
    Date: July 10, 2019

The UN will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. How has the organisation performed? What is its relevance in today’s world? What is India’s approach to the UN? How does India view the organisation and what expectations does it have of it?

The UN no longer enjoys the kind of enthusiasm, whether in India or the rest of the world, it did in the early years after the Second World War and at the end of the Cold War. But the organisation remains important and relevant in this globalised world.

I will begin with the seminal role played by India in the early history of the organisation. India has a special place in the evolution of the UN. India was instrumental in reorienting the UN from a security organisation to a developmental and promotional body. In the early years, India was almost alone in this. It achieved this extraordinary feat through its tireless efforts in the General Assembly since it was a member of the Security Council only twice in the 1950s and 1960s. Few countries Asia and Africa were independent when the UN was set up. India was joined slowly by these countries as they became independent and the group of developing countries, as they came to be called, acquired their full strength in the early 1960s when the countries of Latin America joined them to form the G77.

The United Nations with its 6 organs, several subsidiary bodies and about a dozen specialised agencies has an all-encompassing reach in today’s world. It is difficult to think of an aspect of our life that is not in some way regulate or, at the least, touched by an international organisation which is part of the UN family. I will, however, concentrate on the security-related work of the UN in which the Security Council is the main organ, supplemented occasionally by the General Assembly.

It is important to remember that the UN is a general security organisation, the second such organisation after the League of Nations, in human history. In fact, it started as a wartime alliance. It was formed at the peak of the Second World War, on 1 January 1942, against the Axis Powers. After the war, it was converted into an international organisation and maintaining international peace and security was its primary goal. It was given a council for addressing economic and social issues, the Economic and Social Council. But this was a recommendatory body created only because the founders of the UN were aware of the economic and social causes that had contributed to the Second World War through the rise of Hitler in Germany. This is clear from the Preamble to the UN Charter:

"We the peoples of the United Nations determined:


• to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

• to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

• to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

• to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

The most powerful organ of the UN is the Security Council, which originally had eleven members. Despite its enlargement to fifteen in the 1960s, it remains in the control of its five permanent members. It was to be given a military force and a Military Staff Commission to be used against any country that threatened international peace and security. Its procedures were kept simple and powers absolute. This was in sharp contrast to the other organs of the UN, which could only make recommendations. Even the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice was neither compulsory nor comprehensive. The Security Council was, however, emasculated by the permanent members who refused to place troops at its disposal. The newly-formed UN had to look to areas other than security for its fame and relevance.

The United Nations is known today as a champion of democracy and human rights. It has over one lakh peacekeepers in war-ravaged countries. Yet, none of this was envisaged in when the UN was formed. The word democracy does not figure in the UN Charter. Few of the founding members of the UN were democracies and some of them, like India, were not even independent. Human rights were referred to in passing and decolonisation was not one of the goals set for the world body. Peacekeeping was a later innovation, opposed by some permanent members and left to the neutral and non-aligned countries to provide troops for.

Resetting the course of the organisation so soon after it was formed was a difficult and contentious task that took several years. It was done in the face of stiff opposition from the established powers, the permanent five of the Security Council. India, fresh from its historic and inspiring peaceful freedom struggle led by people with a world-view far ahead of the times, was the moving spirit behind this transformation.

India’s foreign policy in the early years of the United Nations espoused challenges like decolonisation, apartheid, nuclear disarmament, equity in the international economic order and in North-South relations, non-alignment in the cold war, South-South cooperation and democracy. Very few countries supported India at that time. When the Second World War got over, there was a rush among the victors, the permanent five, to recover the colonies that had been conquered by the Axis powers. France wanted to recover Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and Britain was determined to take back Malaysia and Singapore and other colonies in Asia. Netherlands wanted to recover Indonesia. The US seized islands in the Pacific. Russia seized all of East Europe. The UN did not have a policy to check this.

India was one of the first countries to raise its voice against European colonialism and made the UN the platform for its campaign. In 1960, by which time there were sufficient numbers of countries from Asia and Africa, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on decolonisation, the ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’. The resolution declared that subjecting people to alien subjugation constitutes denial of human rights and is an impediment to attaining world peace. The resolution was made possible by 19 newly-independent states joining the UN that year. It was adopted by 89 votes to none, but there were 9 abstentions, three of them permanent members of the Security Council – the US, Britain and France.

The situation was no different on disarmament. The UN Charter mentions disarmament as one of the goals of the organisation but the Cold War started an arms race among the permanent five. The invention of nuclear weapons made this race even more dangerous for the world and India’s voice was among the few to be raised against it. India refused to join the nuclear club even when China went nuclear in 1964. The permanent five made some token concessions to the growing clamour for nuclear disarmament and eventually sealed their hegemony with the discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, which legitimised their nuclear weapons while making it illegal for others to possess them.

India started its international campaign against apartheid even before becoming independent. In 1946, it got the General Assembly to adopt a resolution against racial discrimination in South Africa. This was in the teeth of opposition from the South African prime minister, Jan Smuts, who had helped draft the Preamble to the UN Charter just a year before. India continued the opposition to apartheid, leading to the imposition of sanctions against South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now, Zimbabwe).

India was in the forefront of the UN taking the lead in reforming the global economic order and making development its key goal. It was instrumental in the setting up of UNCTAD in 1964. A declaration for setting up a new international economic order was adopted by the UNGA in 1974. This included monitoring achievement of the agreed target of official development assistance (0.7% of GDP), transfer of technology, debt relief, preferential market access, South-South cooperation, regulating transnational corporations, protecting commodity exports and a greater voice for developing countries in international monetary and trade institutions.

Peacekeeping, with an annual budget for 2018-19 is $6.7 billion, almost three times the regular budget of the UN, is certainly the most important function being performed by the UN today. India has consistently been a major contributor to UN peacekeeping. India has provided about 240,000 personnel in 49 of the 71 UN peacekeeping operations so far. Currently, Indian personnel are participating in 9 out of 14 peacekeeping missions. The largest being to MONUSCO in DR Congo.

The other major activity of the UN is imposing sanctions on countries, organisations and individuals. The sanctions are mainly to prevent the illicit supply of weapons to countries facing armed conflict and the flow of funds to organisations and individuals indulging in terrorism. They are also directed against countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons. India has been supportive of sanctions, especially against terrorism.

However, there are certain aspects of UN activism after the Cold War that India has been reticent to endorse. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Security Council, not having an army of its own, authorised member states to take military action to liberate it. After the success of this operation, the Council authorised a dozen more such military actions with varying objectives – in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, DR of Congo, Albania, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic. This phase of Security Council activism, however, came to an end soon after the invasion of Libya in 2011 because of differences between the three western permanent members, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, on the one side and Russia and China on the other.

India has been cautious in endorsing this aggressive concept, referred to as the Responsibility to Protect. The end of the Cold War was supposed to herald a new era of peace based on democracy and human rights. But an aggressive programme of enforcing these through military interventions led to acrimonious differences among members of the UN. The military operations authorised by ambiguous resolutions of the Security Council were led by the US and its western allies with the notional participation of some other countries. Russia and China had their reservations on some of the operations but they did not veto them.

These military interventions went well beyond the security structure envisaged for the Security Council. They also raised expectations, set unachievable targets and inevitably led to disappointment.

India had strong reservations on these military interventions because of their intrusive nature and the resort to force. But it supported some for their humanitarian necessity. Resolutions authorising such military actions came up five times in the Security Council during India’s membership and India abstained on most of them:

1. Korea: India voted for Resolution 82(1950) but abstained on Resolution 84(1950).

2. Bosnia & Herzegovina: India abstained on Resolution 770(1992).

3. Somalia: India voted for Resolution 794 (1992) on a US-led force.

4. Libya: India abstained on Resolution 1973(2011).

5. Mali: India supported Resolution 2085(2012) for an African-led force.

India believes that on human rights and democracy, the UN should play a promotional role that seeks to strengthen national commitment and capacity and offers national best practices as inspiration. It opposes any intrusive action to enforce them.

On terrorism, India has pressing for the adoption of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that can increase international cooperation and the effectiveness of the UN in combating cross-border terrorism. Currently, only specific acts of terrorism, such as hijacking and taking of hostages, are prohibited by separate international agreements.

India is also keen on the UN exercising responsibility in meeting the global challenges of development, especially poverty eradication and climate change. India is supportive of the UN efforts to promote the Sustainable Development Goals, as it was of the Millennium Development Goals earlier.

India is an ardent advocate of UN reform, particularly of the Security Council. It initially eschewed any ambition of becoming a permanent member of the Council. However, when UN reform was taken up by the General Assembly in 1992, Germany and Japan sought permanent membership. India also soon staked a claim.

India eventually joined hands with the two and Brazil to form the G-4, which seeks expansion in both permanent and non-permanent seats. India maintains that the aim of the reform should be to increase the effectiveness of the UN in dealing with: international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction including nuclear disarmament, and transnational organised crime including the trafficking in narcotic drugs, humans and arms.

India’s claim to permanent membership is based as much on the size of the country, its population and economy as it is on its firm commitment to the principles of the UN: peace, democracy, human rights, international cooperation, development assistance.

India was also one of the first countries to take an international dispute to the Security Council. This was the invasion of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan in 1947. India complained to the Security Council which adopted Resolution 47 on 21 April 1948 asking Pakistan to withdraw, following which a plebiscite would be held to decide which country the state would accede to. Pakistan, however, refused to withdraw its forces and progressively increased its demands after an alliance with the United States. The Security Council adopted 18 resolutions in all on the issue. The last one in 1971. Since the Simla Agreement of 1972, India does not regard the UN resolutions as applicable any longer. However, India continues to allow the presence of UN military observers, the UNMOGIP, in J&K since 1949.

What does the future look like for the United Nations? The UN survived the Cold War mainly because neither the US nor the Soviet Union wanted to walk out. They instead blocked each other’s initiatives to the detriment of international peace and security. The permanent members continue to treat the UN with disdain. Their main endeavour is to prevent it from taking any action against their own strategic interests. The UN’s security-related activities are thus confined to gentle actions like peacekeeping and sanctions.

How long can this continue? Can the UN survive the new East-West confrontation? This question is not difficult to answer. The permanent five have no reason to disturb the current global power structure and as long as it has their support it will continue. But the fear for the UN is not its extinction but irrelevance. The UN must be the organisation for smaller powers to turn to for their security and the protection of their rights. Its inability to address their security concerns makes them indifferent to it and turn to the big powers instead. A UN that is deadlocked by the veto of the permanent members in the Security Council is of little use to the rest of the world.

A more representative and democratic Security Council will be a more boisterous and cumbersome body but it would be a more meaningful forum for diffusing global security tensions. Reform of the Security Council and of the UN is essential for stemming the continued irrelevance of the organisation in its primary role of maintaining international peace and security. For India, sustained efforts for its reform, no matter how frustrating futile, will be more rewarding than the two-year non-permanent membership it gets periodically in the Security Council.