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The politics of the UNSC seat

November 19, 2010

Pakistan’s predictably strong reaction to the announcement reflected the depth of its opposition to a move that will seriously upset the regional balance of power. Resolutions adopted by both the Cabinet and Parliament conveyed Pakistan’s protest and said the move disregarded Pakistan’s principled position and sensitivities on SC reform.

Hours before US President Barack Obama’s address to the Indian Parliament last week the American ambassador in Islamabad informed the Foreign Ministry that his President was about to announce US support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council (SC). No indication was given to Pakistan earlier that a move with such far reaching strategic implications was in the offing.

In contention is not whether Islamabad could have influenced a decision that was America’s to make but that Washington could do so with little concern about the consequences for its relations with Pakistan.

President Obama’s endorsement did more than offer verbal support to India’s longstanding ambition for a seat at the big table. It confirmed that Washington is now embarked on a strategy to build India as a counterweight to China’s growing political and economic power. The nature of Obama’s Asia tour – to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan – and recent policy pronouncements, such as its offer to “mediate” ocean border disputes in South East Asia (while refusing to help resolve Kashmir) and on the currency dispute with Beijing, are all signs of a more overt policy to contain China.

To draw India closer behind Washington’s objectives Obama handed Delhi virtually everything it wanted from his visit: recognition of its global leadership, easing of controls on high-tech exports, endorsement of its role in Afghanistan and backing for India’s membership of four multilateral export control regimes.

Obama maintained silence on Kashmir other than anodyne statements about the need for India and Pakistan to resolve their differences. His support for a step-by-step process to first tackle the ‘easy’ issues endorsed the Indian approach to the dialogue. He lectured about human rights in Myanmar but couldn’t bring himself to utter a word about Kashmir, where stone throwing youth continue to demand ‘Azadi’ (freedom).

The strategic prize for India was Obama’s support for permanent membership of the SC. The principle that enlargement of the primary global security forum was not something to be unilaterally decided among select powers but based on an international consensus did not weigh on Obama’s mind.

This is at sharp odds with Pakistan’s position that SC reform should ensure fair representation for all 192 UN member states – large, medium-sized and small – and be determined by consensus to enjoy international legitimacy.

The gridlock on reform in the UN’s intergovernmental negotiations means that change will not come quickly or easily. But President Obama’s pronouncement marks a major policy shift by Washington which had so far only declared support for Japan’s permanent membership. India will now seek to leverage this by mobilising the Group of Four (Germany, Brazil and Japan or a broader coalition) to secure the endorsement of the UN General Assembly (GA), probably well before its next session.

The view that Islamabad should not react to what some describe as a “symbolic” US move overlooks the recent history of reform efforts at the UN. It is instructive to recall what happened in 2005. In March that year the UN Secretary General called for an early decision on UNSC reform. This spurred India along with the other G4 countries to mount what was described as one of the biggest lobbying exercises in UN history.

The G4 tabled a ‘framework’ resolution in July 2005. This called for four new permanent seats for themselves, two for Africa and another four non-permanent seats. The resolution was co-sponsored by 23 countries in the GA, which has to approve by third-thirds any proposal to amend the UN Charter. This must then be accepted by all five permanent members of the SC.

Calculating that adding veto-wielding members would be opposed by the P5 the resolution left this issue for the new permanent members to decide.

Opposing this was were nations grouped in the Uniting for Consensus (UFC) led by Pakistan and Italy and supported by Mexico, South Korea and Argentina among around 35 countries. The UFC’s alternate proposal rejected new permanent seats and instead called for increasing non-permanent members to twenty-four, elected on a regional basis.

The G4 sought support from the 53 member African Union in order to secure the required two-thirds. But their efforts foundered when an African Summit declined to endorse their position. Algeria and Egypt successfully insisted that the longstanding African position – demanding two permanent seats with veto powers to be selected by the African nations – ought to be reflected in the G4 resolution. G4 expectations that South Africa and Nigeria would deliver the Africans failed to materialise.

This led to the collapse of the G4 effort. Not being able to count on the votes of the African group, the G4 was obliged to withdraw their resolution. Even with the 80 or so votes that G4 nations claimed to have mustered, without significant support from Africa, they could not achieve a two-thirds majority.

Since then negotiations in UNGA’s inter-governmental group have swirled around rival reform proposals pressed by the G4, UFC and other countries.

After President Obama’s declaration, the G4 along with Brazil and South Africa will try to renew their offensive to change the dynamic at the UN. This promises a major diplomatic battle ahead between the G4 and its allies and the UFC countries, including Pakistan.

There is nothing inevitable about the outcome of reform maneuvers at the UN. But President Obama’s Asia tour has generated dynamics that will likely see Pakistan and China draw even closer together not only over Security Council reform but in response to solidifying Washington-Delhi ties that seem to be largely predicated on countering Beijing’s rising influence.

Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. A decision that would matter a lot for the region Dr Maleeha Lodhi, 19 November 2010

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