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India at the UN High Table

NEW DELHI – Indian diplomacy began 2011 with election to the chair of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee, a body of some importance to the country (and one which many thought India might not be asked to lead, given its strong feelings on the issue). Coming in the wake of India’s record margin of victory in the race for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, this news confirms India’s standing in the world and the contribution it is capable of making on the Council. With such endorsements, however, expectations are high, and India’s government will have to think about how they can best be fulfilled.

This is an unusual year at the UN high table. Several powerful states, whose growing global role has made them aspirants to permanent seats on a reformed Security Council, will serve alongside India. Germany and South Africa were elected as non-permanent members at the same time, while Brazil and Nigeria are halfway through their two-year-terms.

This also means that four international groupings will be represented on the Council in 2011: the Russia-India-China triumvirate, whose foreign ministers meet twice a year; the BRICs, which adds Brazil to the list; the India-Brazil-South Africa alliance of the three largest southern hemisphere powers; and BASIC, which brought Brazil, South Africa, India, and China together during the climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen last year. India is the only country that belongs to all four.

That not only highlights the extent to which India has become a fulcrum in global politics, but also points to the exceptional composition of the new Security Council. Half the members of the G-20, the grouping that is now the world’s premier forum on international economic questions, will be on the Council, dealing with issues of global peace and security.

The five permanent Security Council members – the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia – will not be able to take these members for granted. They have become accustomed in recent years to making deals among themselves and more or less imposing them on the ten non-permanent members. But the five big countries now also on the Council will expect to be consulted; their acquiescence on key questions cannot simply be assumed.

At the same time, the performance on the Council of those countries that aspire to permanent membership will be seen as a harbinger of what would come if they were to succeed. This puts the spotlight on India all the more.

One immediate implication of serving on the Council will be the need to take positions on matters that in recent years some Indian mandarins have preferred to duck –  for example, South Sudan, whose referendum on independence threatens to spark serious violence in an area where Indian UN peacekeepers are already serving.

Also during India’s first month as a Council member, the future of the UN peacekeeping operation in neighboring Nepal will be addressed. Before long, the Council will also have to consider the implications of the likely commencement of a US troop drawdown in Afghanistan, another area of direct importance to India’s national security.

Issues like sanctions on Iran, the stop-and-start Middle East peace process, and the world’s response to a likely change of leadership in North Korea, will almost certainly appear on the Council’s agenda as well. All are matters that call for creative and courageous thinking that transcends entrenched positions or reflexive solidarity with “non-aligned” countries.

India will also have to reconsider its traditional opposition to the Council’s tendency to broaden its mandate by taking on issues that India believes fall within the General Assembly’s jurisdiction. The Council has tended to stretch into areas like HIV/AIDS, climate change, and women’s empowerment, which inflate the term “peace and security” beyond recognition. And yet, as a member of the G-20 and the Security Council, India may well see an interest in bringing up issues of food security or energy security, which touch on both groups’ core concerns.

There are serious staffing implications with respect to Security Council membership as well. The need to acquire expertise on diverse issues and to participate in the adoption of roughly 60 resolutions a year (not to mention Presidential Statements on the same issues, which have less legal force but whose adoption requires unanimity) will test India’s capacity and negotiating skills.

Various sub-committees and working groups of the Council (including the Counter-Terrorism Committee) will also require full-time attention. In August 2011, India will preside over the Council by alphabetical rotation, and may find itself playing a key role in the election (most likely the re-election) of the UN Secretary-General, which must take place before the end of the year.

All in all, India’s place on the Security Council offers an extraordinary opportunity, after two decades of absence from the global high table, to demonstrate to the world what it is capable of. It should emerge from the experience with its reputation and credibility as a major global player enhanced. In any case, the world will be watching.