India in the UN Security Council: Monthly Recap for May 2021
Focus on Asia, Israel/Palestine, Africa and Thematic Issues
With India in its eighth two-year tenure as an elected-member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), following is the fifth analysis in the ICWA series of ‘India in the UN Security: Monthly Recap’ by Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji, Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations.
For the first time after India’s entry into the UNSC as an elected member in January 2021, the Council was presided over by China, the only permanent member from Asia. India’s participation aroused interest, because of the ongoing public confrontation between the two Asian neighbors, and because it would provide an indicator of the ability of the UNSC’s three Asian members (China, India, and Vietnam) to influence decisions on the Asian issues on the UNSC’s agenda.
China announced four priorities for its presidency structured around two open debates and more than 20 meetings of the UNSC. These were upholding multilateralism; addressing African issues through the prism of conflict and post-pandemic recovery; focusing on major “political” issues on the UNSC agenda; and discussing how the increasingly complex challenges to international peace and security should be more effectively responded to by the UNSC.
During May 2021, the UNSC adopted 4 resolutions. Three of these were drafted by the United States and one by the UK. UNSC resolution 2574 (drafted by the UK) on 11 May unanimously extended the mandate of the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia until 31 October; UNSC resolution 2575 (drafted by the United States) adopted unanimously on 11 May extended the mandate of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) in Sudan until 15 November 2021; UNSC resolution 2576 (drafted by the United States) adopted unanimously on 27 May extended the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) to 27 May 2022 to facilitate Iraq’s national elections and assist in countering Covid-19; and UNSC resolution 2577 (drafted by the United States) adopted on 28 May extended the arms embargo and mandate of the expert panel to oversee South Sudan sanctions till 31 May 2022. India and Kenya abstained on the US-drafted resolution, reportedly questioning the efficacy of the sanctions for stabilizing the situation in South Sudan. China issued 5 unanimous Press Statements on behalf of the UNSC during May 2021.
India supported the successful adoption of two unanimous UNSC Press Statements on 3 and 10 May condemning separate terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, in which scores of school-children were killed along with other civilians.
On 6 and 26 May, India participated in the UNSC meetings on Syria to consider the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and the humanitarian crisis there. India stated that the Syrian authorities were cooperating with the team of experts from the OPCW. She felt that the “current report” of the OPCW fell short of “expectations” for an impartial investigation as required under the OPCW Convention. India called for constructive diplomatic efforts to keep humanitarian supplies flowing into Syria, to mitigate the crisis exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and drought caused by the fall in the water levels of the Euphrates River. Referring to the Syrian Presidential elections held on 18 May, India stated “such elections are within the purview of sovereignty, but distinct from the Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations” under UNSC resolution 2254 of 2015. The P5 were divided on the status of these elections during UNSC discussions in April 2021.
Countering terrorism in Iraq was a focus of India’s participation in the two meetings of the UNSC on 10 and 11 May. India asserted that the “perpetrators of crimes against humanity committed by ISIL affiliates should be brought to justice by their respective countries of origin”. Iraq’s counter-terrorism efforts needed “greater cooperation from the international community”, while “violations of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the pretext of counter-terrorism operations must come to an end.”
Between 6-22 May 2021, the UNSC engaged in intensive diplomacy to resolve the eruption of violence in Israel/Palestine. The fighting began after the initiation of an “eviction process” of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, militarily occupied by Israel during the 1967 War, and the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel from Gaza. The violence claimed the lives of at least 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, and 12 people in Israel, including two children and an Indian healthcare provider.
Faced with the reluctance of the traditional “penholder” (the United States) to initiate UNSC diplomacy to respond to the violence, China along with elected members Tunisia and Norway attempted to have the UNSC issue calls for restraint. Supported by Vietnam, Ireland, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, and in consultation with the other P5 members, China was eventually able to issue a unanimous UNSC Press Statement on 22 May, following the ceasefire reached on 21 May. The Statement specifically recognized the role of Egypt, the Quartet (USA, Russia, EU, and UN), and regional countries (like Turkey and Qatar) in reaching this outcome.
At the UNSC meeting on 16 May, India called on parties to the conflict to “refrain from attempts to unilaterally change the existing status-quo, including in East Jerusalem”, while reiterating her strong support for the diplomacy of the Quartet, “the just Palestinian cause” and her “unwavering commitment to the two-State solution”.
On 12 May, the ongoing conflict in Yemen was discussed in the UNSC, with UN envoys warning of a grave humanitarian crisis following the outbreak of fresh hostilities in the oil rich Marib region and a dislocation of humanitarian supplies through the port of Hudaydah affecting almost 5 million people. India stated that the political dialogue process, reiterated in a recent Saudi initiative, offered a “clear roadmap for return of peace and stability to Yemen” and should be pursued “without any pre-conditions”. At the same time, India supported the efforts of the United States Special Envoy and Oman (where the leader of the Houthi group is located) to broker an agreement so that the UN could implement its humanitarian operations.
A High Level UNSC Debate on Africa on 19 May provided the platform for External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar to highlight the urgent need for African permanent representation in the UNSC as part of reformed multilateralism, based on the Common African Position endorsed by India. He elaborated on India’s bilateral relationship with countries in Africa, visible in the 189 projects in 41 African countries established with Indian concessional financing, the digital education and health platforms established by India with 17 African partner countries, and the 43,000 educational and training slots provided in India for African experts.
The UNSC Presidential Statement was negotiated between the United States, UK, France, Norway, Ireland, and Estonia on the one hand, and China, Kenya, Tunisia, Niger and St Vincent and The Grenadines (A3+1) on the other. With Africa having received just 2% of the vaccine doses produced globally, and divergences on debt relief, market access and official development assistance issues, the unanimously adopted Statement compromised by stressing the need for equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines while “acknowledging” the WTO discussions on waiving intellectual property provisions for Covid-19 vaccines. Similarly, it juxtaposed the principle of “social cohesion” proposed by China with that of “economic good governance” proposed by USA in the context of Africa’s developmental efforts and adherence to human rights.
India’s participation in the two meetings on Libya (17 and 21 May) reflected her interest as chair of the UNSC Libya Sanctions Committee. Criticizing the UNSC’s referral of the Libya issue in 2011 to the International Criminal Court (ICC), India referred to the ineffectiveness of the ICC (of which India is not a party) when administering justice “primarily for political reasons”. This had allowed the continuing presence of foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, posing a threat to scheduled national elections on 24 December 2021. India urged “the international community” to uphold the Ceasefire Agreement and ensure the removal of foreign fighters and mercenaries following the deployment of the UN ceasefire monitoring mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
The worsening security situation in the adjoining Sahel region of Africa was considered by the UNSC on 18 May. Participating in the discussions, India called for “adequate and sustainable resources, training and logistics support” for the G-5 Sahel Joint Force created in 2017 by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger through the early establishment of a UN Support Office. India announced her contributions to strengthening the G-5 initiative and the role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by providing 10 military training slots to Chad in 2020, and an in-situ training program for 200 Nigerian Army personnel in 2021.
On 26 May, the UNSC issued a unanimous Press Statement on Mali drafted by France. Condemning the military coup, the UNSC supported a civilian led political transition with elections to be held within 18 months. It highlighted the role of the ECOWAS and the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to support this transition.
Among other African issues, the situation in Sudan and South Sudan preoccupied the UNSC during three meetings on 11, 20 and 28 May. India supported the deployment of UNITAMS to support the political transition in Sudan. On 10 May, the UNSC adopted a unanimous Press Statement on an attack on MONUSCO in DRC that killed one UN peacekeeper from Malawi. On 25 May, the UNSC welcomed the restoration of the political process in Somalia. India cautioned against the early withdrawal of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). India recalled that AMISOM, for which India had recently contributed $1 million to the UN Trust Fund, was playing “an important role in stabilizing the security situation and fighting the Al-Shabab terrorist group”.
On 7 May Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a high-level debate on “Upholding Multilateralism and the UN-centred international system”. This followed similar initiatives taken by China in 2015 and 2018 in the UNSC. China contextualized the discussion in the framework of the Covid-19 pandemic, which showed that “all countries are interconnected and share a common future.” The P5 was divided on the main thrust of this topic of the debate. China and Russia stressed the importance of state sovereignty and non-intervention and opposed unilateralism. The United States, UK and France countered by insisting that state sovereignty could not condone the violation of human rights within sovereign states.
Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, participating in the debate, highlighted “India’s call for reformed multilateralism” through “reform of the UN Security Council, reflective of the contemporary realities of today”. He added that the UNSC “must be made more representative of developing countries if it is to continue to engender trust and confidence in its ability to provide leadership to the entire world.”
On 24 May, the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement following a debate on support for UN Peacekeepers (ahead of the annual UN Peacekeepers Day marked on 29 May annually). The three priorities of the Statement were the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to peacekeepers, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on peacekeeping operations, and the vaccination rollout for peacekeepers. China had piloted UNSC resolution 2518 on 30 March 2020 focusing on capacity-building, safety, and security of peacekeepers. On 8 April 2021, China had announced the establishment of a “Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of Peacekeepers” together with Brazil, India, and Rwanda.
Participating in the discussion, India said she had pledged a helicopter for MINUSMA (Mali) and upgraded her hospitals in the UNMISS (in Juba, South Sudan) and MONUSCO (in Goma, DR of Congo) peacekeeping missions to promote the safety, security, and health of UN personnel. India had delivered 200,000 doses of Made in India COVID-19 vaccines for vaccinating all uniformed personnel deployed in various UN field missions, and close to 140,000 field personnel had already been vaccinated. To address the issues raised in the discussions on making UN peacekeeping effective and secure, India proposed that the UNSC draw up more clear-headed and realistic mandates, train peacekeepers on threats from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), upgrade the security infrastructure of peacekeepers’ camps, and empower Force Commanders to control UN air assets to respond to crisis situations or accidents. India announced that a new technology platform called UNITE AWARE for more effective UN peacekeeping would be launched in August 2021.
The UNSC annual debate on Protection of Civilians on 25 May focused on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on civilians caught in conflict zones. The UN stated 100 million civilians in conflict zones faced food insecurity compared with 77 million a year ago, while the “anaemic implementation” of UNSC resolutions had contributed to high levels of civilian casualties in Afghanistan (8820), Syria (2095) and Yemen (977).
India reiterated that the primary responsibility of protecting its civilians during conflicts was of national governments, while the UN should assist member-states to build “capabilities and capacities” to protect its civilians during conflicts. UN peacekeeping missions should be encouraged to adopt an “inclusive approach to national reconciliation, anchored in state sovereignty” to ensure protection of civilians during conflicts. Humanitarian assistance should “avoid politicization”, and follow “the fundamental principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence”.
The discussions and decisions of the UNSC during May 2021 illustrated India’s incremental success in meeting her declared objective of making UN peacekeeping more effective, including through advocating reforms on the ground and the use of new technologies. On the role of the UNSC in countering terrorism, while India was able to emphasize the continuing threat to international peace and security from terrorism in Asia and Africa, she was unable to take any initiative within the UNSC without support from P5 members to enforce UNSC decisions to counter this threat. It is noteworthy that despite engaging constructively on Asian issues, none of the three Asian members (China, India, Vietnam) were able to wrest the initiative for proposing solutions to these crises from the hands of Western P5 members like the United States or UK.