India in the UN Security Council: Monthly Recap for January 2021
Focus on Counter-Terrorism and Covid Response
As India began its eighth two-year tenure as an elected-member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), following is the first analysis in the ICWA series of ‘India in the UN Security: Monthly Recap’ by Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji, Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations.
On 1 January 2021, India began her eighth two-year elected term in the UN Security Council (UNSC). During her campaign for this election, India had identified four priorities. These were to implement a New Orientation for a Reformed Multilateral System (NORMS) to promote inclusive solutions for peace and security; to pursue result-oriented UNSC measures to counter terrorism; to make UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs) more effective; and to focus on securing a human-centric technology-driven world.
India’s adroit use of bilateral diplomacy to create a supportive network for pursuing her declared priorities within the UNSC is evident. India’s strategic partnerships with four of the five permanent members (P5) viz. France, Russia, UK and USA have been enhanced in recent years. India and Vietnam (an E-10 member during 2021) held a Virtual Summit on 21 December 2020, during which they adopted a Joint Vision document to guide the future development of their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. In December 2020, India announced the opening of her resident Embassy in Estonia (an E-10 member during 2021). Earlier, in September 2019, India had hosted the visit of the Prime Minister of St Vincent and The Grenadines (an E-10 member during 2020-21) to India as a special guest to participate in the UN Conference to Combat Desertification. India has assiduously maintained good bilateral relations with the other E-10 members like Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, and Tunisia.
On 4 January 2021, Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, participated in the ceremonial installation of the Indian flag in front of the UNSC chamber, a practice initiated by Kazakhstan in 2018 for incoming elected members of the Council. Speaking on the occasion, the envoy stressed that India represented the world’s largest democracy and one-sixth of humanity, whose interests and views would be reflected in the UNSC’s work, with a priority for “reformed multilateralism”. He stressed the inter-linkage between peace, security, and development in the agenda of the UNSC.
On 7 January 2021, under Tunisia’s Presidency, the UNSC agreed by consensus to elect India as the Chair of the Taliban Sanctions Committee, the Chair of the Libya Sanctions Committee, and the Vice-Chair of the Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC). India will become Chair of the CTC in 2022 after Tunisia completes its UNSC term in December 2021. India was elected one of the Vice-Chairs of the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Committee which will be chaired by Mexico, as well as a Vice-Chair (along with France and Russia) of the Working Group to monitor implementation of UNSC sanctions on Al Qaida and the Taliban. This Working Group, chaired by Niger, is also expected to consider setting up an international fund to compensate victims of terrorism and their families. These outcomes of India’s inclusive approach provide her with a platform to attempt to reform the UNSC’s ineffectiveness in countering terrorism so far.
India’s Chairmanship of the Taliban Sanctions Committee, where the two Vice-Chairs are Russia and St Vincent and The Grenadines, will be significant. Afghanistan had stepped aside from its candidacy in 2013 and endorsed India instead for election to the UNSC for the 2021-22 vacancy from the Asia-Pacific region. This fact, along with the evolving geo-political situation in and around Afghanistan, will require India to keep Afghanistan’s interests in mind while taking initiatives to enforce UNSC sanctions.
India participated in the UNSC meeting on 12 January 2021 to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar proposed an 8-point Action Plan to Counter Terrorism, highlighting the need to avoid double standards in the fight against terror. India called for closer cooperation with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), to use the FATF network of financial institutions to enforce UNSC sanctions. All the P5 members of the UNSC are members of the FATF, as is India. India’s success in implementing this approach will be determined by the position of the P5, who have displayed varying levels of ambivalence on prosecuting terrorism emanating from the Af-Pak region due to their regional and geopolitical interests.
As the newly elected UNSC Chair of the Libya Sanctions Committee, India’s participation in the UNSC meeting on Libya on 28 January 2021 provided an indication of her approach to enabling a solution to the Libyan crisis. Recalling her position when the UNSC adopted its ill-fated resolutions on Libya in 2011 which precipitated the current crisis, India reiterated the need for a politically negotiated solution which should be “Libyan-led and Libyan-owned”. India stressed the importance of implementing the UNSC’s sanctions regime to uphold the Ceasefire Agreement in Libya, which would facilitate the objective of “national reconciliation”. The approach of the UK, which is the “pen-holder” in drafting UNSC decisions on Libya, will determine how the UNSC is able to meet this objective.
On 6 January 2021, Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla participated in the UNSC meeting on challenges faced by countries in fragile contexts. He underscored India’s unconditional commitment to assisting African countries, in keeping with their priorities. In the immediate context of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, India began to roll-out her national vaccination drive on 16 January 2021. From 19 January, India began airlifting vaccines to her immediate neighbors in South Asia and countries in Africa such as Mauritius and Seychelles, while committing 10 million vaccines to Africa through the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI). India’s initiative illustrated the interlinkage between technology, sustainable development and the maintenance of peace and security in fragile contexts.
As an elected member of the UNSC from the Asia-Pacific region, India focused on integrating the ground realities of the conflicts in Asia into UNSC decisions on Asian issues already on the Council’s agenda. Three such issues during January 2021 were West Asia, Yemen, and Syria.
In the open debate on the Middle East held on 26 January 2021, India reaffirmed her strong support for a “just solution” of the Palestinian Question based on “peaceful efforts to achieve the two-State solution” while welcoming Palestine’s call for an international peace conference “with the participation of all relevant parties to achieve the vision of a sovereign and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel”. India also supported the process of political normalization of relations between Israel and some of the Arab League states under the Abraham Accords, and between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states following the rapprochement between Qatar and other GCC members. The incremental stabilization of these relations in the West Asia region will have a positive impact on India’s energy security as well as on the continued presence of India’s 8-million diaspora in the GCC countries.
The presence of two Norwegian UN envoys on the ground (Ambassador Geir Pederson for the Syria peace process, and Ambassador Tor Wennesland for the Middle East) can play a significant role in this context, especially with Norway being elected with India to the UNSC for the 2021-22 term. Norway’s current Ambassador in the UNSC, Mona Juul, had been a facilitator behind the successful Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine in the early 1990s.
On 14 January 2021, India joined the UNSC discussions on Yemen, which has been destabilized by conflict especially since 2015. UNICEF has called Yemen the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the population, including 12 million children, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The ineffectiveness of the UNSC to respond to this crisis has implications both for the sustainable development of Yemen, as well as regional security, including maritime security of the western Indo-Pacific. India articulated this perspective in her participation in the meeting, calling for a political solution which would be “Yemeni-led and Yemeni-owned” through an inclusive and peacefully negotiated settlement. The initiative for implementing this lies with the UK, which is the “pen-holder” for drafting UNSC decisions on Yemen.
On Syria, India’s participation in the two UNSC meetings (on 5 January 2021 to discuss the alleged use of chemical weapons, and on 20 January 2021 on the broader political and humanitarian situation) emphasized the need for the primacy of political dialogue to reach sustainable outcomes. The danger of terrorist elements exploiting the instability on the ground in Syria and some of her neighbors, with ramifications being felt further afield in Africa and Asia, was highlighted by India. As an elected member of the UNSC from the region, India endorsed UNSC decisions that would uphold “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process” which would preserve the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Syria.
During January 2021, the UNSC considered the situation in Mali and the Central African Republic. Over 27,000 UN peacekeepers out of the total of about 80,000 UN peacekeepers deployed globally are in UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs) in these two countries, which account for $2 billion of the total annual UN peacekeeping budget of $6.5 billion. Although India is not a troop-contributor to these two UN PKOs, she participated in the UNSC discussions on 13 January and 21 January 2021 to support attempts for a political solution to these two conflicts through peaceful dialogue. India conveyed her willingness to contribute “air assets” to UN peace operations in Mali while drawing attention to the need for strengthening inclusive democratic participation in the political process. The initiative to implement these calls lies with the P5, especially France which is the “pen-holder” on both these issues. Making elected African members of the UNSC part of the drafting of mandates on Mali and the Central African Republic will bring in ground realities to sustain any outcome of this process.
India’s first month as an elected member of the UNSC has demonstrated her ability to create space to pursue her declared priorities, particularly in countering terrorism. Her experience has shown the need for the UNSC to accept a more inclusive approach in taking decisions, both on thematic as well as country-specific issues on its agenda.
As a first step, this requires addressing the informal “pen-holder” arrangement among the P5, which has been actively used by France, the UK and USA so far. This arrangement, which is not in the UN Charter, allows the P5 to lead the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on substantive items on the UNSC agenda. Even designating an elected member on paper as a “pen-holder” cannot overcome the dominance of the P5 on UNSC decisions due to their veto privilege. A priority for India’s attempt at “reformed multilateralism” would be to phase out the “pen-holder” arrangement and replace it with equal participation by elected UNSC members in decision-making.