‘We’ll seek a reformed multilateralism at UNSC'

India will be voice of developing world in UN Security Council, keep calling for reformed multilateralism: T S Tirumurti

Multipolarity of the world is not reflected in the way multilateralism is now working, says T R Tirumurti

T S Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. Credit: T R Tirumurti

India is set to start its eighth two-year-term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council on January 1, 2021. T S Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, tells DH’s Anirban Bhaumik that New Delhi would continue to be the voice of the developing world during its stint in the Security Council. Tirumurti, who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1985, also shares his thoughts on failures and successes of the United Nations over the past 75 years. The ace diplomat, who served as Secretary (Economic Relations) at the Ministry of External Affairs before being appointed as New Delhi’s envoy to the UN, says that the Inter- Governmental Negotiations on expansion of the Security Council has been going on for more than a decade without any progress because some nations, who do not want reform in the UN system, used it as a smokescreen to hide behind it. He, however, adds that India will continue to seek expansion of the Security Council in particular and the overhaul of the UN system in general, as reform is the only way to keep multilateralism alive.

What is the significance of India taking its place as a non-permanent member of the UNSC at this juncture?

This will be the eighth time that we take our seat in the Security Council as an elected member. The very first time we were in the Security Council was in 1950-51, during the Korean war. We were in the Security Council in 1972-73 immediately after Bangladesh was liberated, and we pushed for its admission into the UN. We have also used our successive tenures in the Security Council to speak out for developing countries, especially Africa. We were vocal opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The last time we were in the UNSC, the crisis in Libya and Syria had just started. The world has now become more multi-polar and countries like India need to start playing a larger role in the decision-making structures of the world, including in the Security Council if they are to be made effective. As we get into the UNSC again, we will use the prestige and experience of being the largest democracy in the world for the benefit of the world.

What will be India’s priorities in the Security Council?

We will bring an Indian perspective to the pressing issues of the Security Council. It is rooted in India’s experience in dealing with conflicts in a respectful, accommodative and inclusive manner. India will reiterate and reinforce its commitment to the principles that we have been articulating: Reformed multilateralism, rule of law, and a fair and equitable international system. We will continue to serve as the voice of the developing world. We will speak in support of peace, security and development and speak out against the enemy of humanity – terrorism. We will also focus on maritime security, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, promotion of technology with a human face as well as issues related to women and children.

Why did the UN fail to rise up to the occasion when the pandemic swept the world and triggered a global crisis?

The UN and its organisations were slow to react to Covid-19. In some ways, plurilateral bodies like G-20 were more responsive, for example on debt repayment, etc.

The Security Council belatedly endorsed the call of the Secretary-General for a global ceasefire, with the express provision that fighting terrorism will be exempt from this call. In many ways, the strong differences between member-states manifested itself during this period and paralysed the UN. Some even took advantage of Covid-19 to pursue aggressive policies and even enhanced support to terrorism, as Pakistan has. Fortunately, some of the other UN organisations have got back on their feet and reached out to countries, especially those that are most vulnerable.

What progress has been made on the issue of expanding the Security Council?

It has been over 15 years since the World Summit Document adopted in 2005 called for early reform of the Security Council. The world has changed even more in these 15 years. But, sadly, the UN is still stuck in the same place – not even in 2005, but in 1945. Procrastination is no more an option, though it’s a strategy for some reform-reluctant member-states. The overwhelming majority of the UN members firmly support comprehensive reforms of the Security Council. An expansion of the Security Council in both the permanent and non-permanent categories is indispensable to make this body more representative, legitimate and effective. An immediate and time-bound text-based negotiation is critical. However, the so-called inter-governmental negotiations process, which has gone on for more than a decade, has not made any progress and, in fact, on the contrary, provided a smokescreen for those handful who do not desire reform to hide behind it. We will be working with like-minded partners – and we have many – and look at options to overcome these obstacles.

What is the future of multilateralism centred around the UN?

Multilateralism is in danger today not necessarily because countries do not believe in the concept, but rather because they don’t see it delivering the result they desire. This is very different from what the situation was in 1945 when countries saw multilateralism as being in their interest and founded the UN. This is primarily because the multipolarity of the world is not reflected in the way multilateralism is now working. Frustration with this inability to reflect multipolarity has only fostered unilateral tendencies. This is clearly not desirable. The only way to make multilateralism attractive again is to ensure that it serves the interests of all countries, big and small. What we need, in other words, is reformed multilateralism. Usually, crises afflicting our world have changed or have had the potential to change the way we do business with each other. I do hope that we use the current crisis of the pandemic to bring about genuine reform in multilateralism. 

The United Nations is celebrating its 75th anniversary next year. Looking back, how does India view the United Nations and its journey over the past 75 years?

When the UN was formed in 1945, there were 55 member states. Half the world, including most of Africa, was colonised. Today, there are 193. To give you a sense of the composition of the Security Council on 1st January 2021, out of the 15 members, 7 were not members of the UN when the Security Council first met in January 1946. Only 8 members, India along with US, UK, France, Russia, Mexico, Norway and China, will be among the founding members of the UN. This small fact is enough to tell you how much the world has changed over the past 75 years since the founding of the UN. 

Indeed, the UN did serve its original purpose of preventing another World War; it has overall maintained global peace; it has provided a platform for even the smallest of countries to have a voice in global politics. It has made a huge difference while tackling some of the burning issues of the day like decolonisation, apartheid. In fact, India was the first Chair of the Decolonization Committee. The UN has given us the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN has achieved much and let’s acknowledge it. 

However, the UN failed to prevent smaller conflicts all over the world; it failed to prevent being used as a tool in Cold War power politics; it turned a blind eye to serious crimes against humanity, including genocide in what was then East Pakistan in 1971; divisions are appearing among countries in the name of UN Alliance of Civilizations, which gives voice only to select religions; UN has not been able to effectively transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding; and last but certainly not the least, it has not been able to tackle terrorism with resolve. When sponsored and supported by States, terrorism becomes another means of waging war. 

Therefore, it is in our hands collectively to make the UN relevant again.

Can you please give an update on the progress made in the negotiations on expanding the Security Council? 

The World Summit Document adopted in 2005 called for early reform of the Security Council.  It has been over 15 years since that document was adopted. The world has changed even more in these 15 years. But, sadly, the UN is still stuck in the same place – not even in 2005, but in 1945. Procrastination is no more an option, though it’s a strategy for some reform-reluctant member states.

The overwhelming majority of the UN member states firmly support comprehensive reforms of the Security Council. An expansion of the Security Council in both the Permanent and non-Permanent categories is indispensable to make this body more representative, legitimate and effective. An immediate and time-bound text-based negotiations is critical. That’s what we have called for and continue to pursue. However, the so-called Inter-Governmental Negotiating process, which has gone on for more than a decade, has not made any progress and, in fact, on the contrary, provided a smokescreen for those handful who do not desire reform to hide behind it. We will be working with like-minded partners – and we have many of them – and look at options to overcome these obstacles.