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Reforming the UN

The context in which the UN was born in 1945 has changed. The engine of growth has shifted to the Asia-Pacific. While China finds a place at the high table India is denied this privilege in spite of its impressive GDP


Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his virtual address to the United Nations on its 75th anniversary iterated the demand for the reform of the UN system ~ in its responses, in its processes and its very character. The United Nations was born in the aftermath of World War II as a multilateral body of sovereign countries to provide collective security. The Charter of the UN clearly enshrines its laudable objective. It has created several agencies for the promotion of world peace and common development.

The most important of its outfits is the Security Council consisting of the five permanent members ~ the USA, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France and China, which reflected the prevalent global distribution of power. India played a very critical role in communist China becoming a member of the Security Council. Although a nascent democracy, India also played a significant role in the peaceful settlement of the Indochina imbroglio and also in the Korean Peninsula within the framework of the United Nations, when the cold war was at its peak. Over the years since its birth the UN and its affiliated agencies have played positive roles in preventing and mitigating conflicts, in fighting the menace of AIDS and in eradication of poverty despite its being dominated by big powers.

In recent times, however, there is erosion of its credibility and efficacy which were highlighted by Prime Minister Modi in his address. He bemoaned that ‘the original mission of the UN remains incomplete.”. It has miserably failed in preventing conflict and civil strife in many parts of the world particularly in the continent of Africa resulting in the suffering of innocent civilians including children and women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is dominated by China and its role in the management of Covid-19 has raised serious concerns. Similarly, China has defied the ruling of the International Arbitral Tribunal with regards to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the South China Sea issue.

The context in which the UN was born in 1945 has changed. The geo-economics and geo-politics have now shifted from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. The engine of growth has now shifted to the Asia-Pacific. While China is one such country which finds a place at the high table, being a member of P-5, India is denied this privilege in spite of its impressive GDP which has been halted recently due to Covid- 19 and other structural impediments. According to IMF report of October 2019, with its $2.94 trillion economy India has become the fifth largest in the world overtaking the United Kingdom and France ~ two members of the Security Council. According to a study of HSBC some time back, India is likely to become the third largest economy in next ten years overtaking Japan and Germany. It is an anachronism that the composition of the Security Council does not reflect the changing economic heft of India. Besides being a nuclear power and its economic prowess, India’s strategic profile has been enhanced in the recent past. India is now an important member of the G-20 and is going to take over the Presidency in 2022. India is now the member of both the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Agreement. In the security parameter and in terms of defence capability, India has attained comparable standing with the P-5, when it acquired the Nuclear Triad capability. In August 2016, India commissioned INS Arihant, its first nuclear powered indigenously built submarine.

With all these capabilities, India continues to be a peaceloving, democratic country always willing to extend a helping hand to other countries in the neighborhood and elsewhere. During the pandemic, it reached out to all the countries, when the country itself was fighting the virus. It augurs well, however, that most developed countries including all the members of the Security Council – the USA, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and France ~ except China have supported India’s bid for the Security Council. China’s stance has always been evasive and non-committal. It had earlier even created hurdles at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to give waiver to India for the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was only at the behest of USA that China agreed for the waiver.

The growth engine of the economy has shifted. It is time that the Security Council reflects the aspirations of emerging economies like India, Brazil and South Africa. Reform of the UN is urgent. Aspiring countries need to reach a consensus. While the process of globalisation after the end of the cold war has bestowed opportunities to this apex body to address global challenges, rise of extreme nationalism in many parts of the world including developed countries like the US and UK and the process of deglobalisation have put the UN system to greater stress and strain. When the US declared that it would cut America’s contribution to the UN by 40 per cent, it created quite a stir not only at the UN headquarter, but also the world over.

UN needs to address the conflict situations in the world in terms of both prevention and mitigation of conflict. There are also common problems like climate change in which UN needs to play a proactive role. The UN in tandem with the Inter-Parliamentary Union can play a constructive role in mitigating the adverse effects of climate change and removal of poverty. Terrorism is yet another burning issue, which UN must address on an urgent basis.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is yet another set of challenges before the United Nations. There are altogether 17 SDGs. Although these goals are primarily to be achieved by the countries, the UN has a certain role to play in goal 13 relating to climate change. India and other developing countries support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) to protect the interests of the developing countries.

It may be mentioned that the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of Third International Conference on Financing for Development (13-16 July 2015) which was adopted by the UN General Assembly stipulated that developed industrialized countries ought to provide 0.7 of their GDP to the developing and underdeveloped countries as Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). But today only a handful of countries with the exception of UK are honoring this commitment. The contribution of larger countries like the USA, France and Germany are well below the 0.7 per cent goal.

In the Paris Agreement, which also relates to SDGs, there is a commitment by the developed countries to provide $100 billion per annum to meet their index. The developed countries both in terms of development assistance, as part of SDGs as well as the Paris Agreement, are very far from fulfilling their obligations. India’s proactive initiative of International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure will help realize some of the laudable objectives of SDG. India’s membership of the UN Security Council is long overdue and the world community should help realize it for the collective interest of the world at large.

The writer is a senior fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi