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The diplomatic dance for the horseshoe table

By Manjeev S Puri

India will serve a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) from January 2021. This will be the nation’s eighth time at UNSC.

Other than the Permanent 5 (P-5), UNSC has 10 elected members, five from Asia and Africa, two each from Latin America and Western Europe & Others (WEOG) and one from East Europe. Five of these elected members retire every year.

There are five regional groups at UNSC, representing Asia, Africa, Latin America and in a hark-back to the Cold War, Eastern Europe, apart from WEOG that includes the United States (US), Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.

Most regional groups, other than WEOG, usually endorse their candidates ahead of the election. This time, we were the candidate for the Asian seat and obtained 182 out of 193 votes in the UN General Assembly. From WEOG, Norway and Ireland knocked out Canada for the group’s two seats.

While the election is hotly contested, the election process is fascinating. The ballot is a blank sheet. You are supposed to know who is running, and write in the name of the country of your choice on the ballot. Of course, you can vote for your own country.

India last served on the UNSC during 2011-12. The team was led by ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, now minister in the Narendra Modi government (full disclosure: He is also a cousin). I was his deputy. Then, too, we were the only candidate from Asia and obtained a record 187 votes from 192 members. We had previously been on UNSC in 1991-1992 and were seeking to return after a gap of 19 years and a bruising defeat at the hands of Japan in 1996. India’s effort was to marshal the maximum number of votes.

The widely publicized story after the election was of the Pakistani ambassador, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, having shown around his ballot apparently marked in favor of India. There were others who took photos on their phones and showed them to us, signaling their support.

We missed five votes. Obviously, some were political. But strange things also happen. One African country received a vote on the Asian slate. Unbelievable, but the Ambassador wrote his own country’s name on the ballot, thinking that he had signed his support for India. Then, too, Canada was bested in the WEOG by Portugal and a late-entrant Germany.

A diplomat from a small country told me that while he was awaiting instruction on his two votes, he was sure one would be Germany; after all, his president rode in a Mercedes.

Elected members head Security Council committees. The P-5 refer to these as “goodies”. For us, obtaining the Chair of the Counter Terrorism Committee (CTC) was important. Strangely, the British opposed this saying that we were invested in the matter. But, playing the diplomatic game in New York, Delhi and London, India prevailed. During India’s chairmanship, we established the concept of “zero tolerance” for terrorism. Counter-terrorism will rightly be a focus for India during our forthcoming term on UNSC.

With multilateralism under pressure, particularly as a result of Covid-19, UNSC, too, has its challenge set. India’s term on UNSC will also coincide with India hosting Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and G-20 summits. India should use the opportunity to push its case on Security Council reform to open up the horseshoe table that seats the UNSC.

(Both the Op-Eds appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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