G20 Summit: On Ukraine war, a fine balance in declaration’s language

Sep 10, 2023 12:44 AM IST

The declaration emphasised the importance of refraining from the threat or use of force for territorial acquisition

New Delhi The most controversial element of the G20 Delhi Declaration, which had kept alive speculation about whether an agreement was possible at all, was Ukraine. But the Indian presidency, in a balancing act interspersed with remarkable drafting and negotiating skills, managed to pull it off.

World leaders at the G20 summit (AFP)
World leaders at the G20 summit (AFP)

Interestingly, the section on geopolitics, which has eight paragraphs, compared to two in Bali on Ukraine, is titled: “For the planet, peace and prosperity”. It begins by recognising the “immense human suffering and the adverse impact of wars and conflicts around the world”, a seemingly innocuous and obvious statement but one laden with implications that sets the stage for the section.

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It then specifically mentions Ukraine, recalls the Bali discussions, leaves room for all members to reiterate their national positions, and refers to the UN resolutions on the issue (which, overwhelmingly, criticised Russia — but this fact isn’t mentioned in the statement, unlike Bali).

While stressing that all States must abide by the UN charter, the breakthrough paragraph reads, “All states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition against the territorial integrity and sovereignty or political independence of any state”. It is striking that instead of specifically pointing out Russian aggression, the text makes a generic principled statement about “all States”, which can allow Moscow to claim, even if incorrectly, that its own territorial integrity and political independence is under threat and gives it a face-saver. But the reference to acquisition of territory, and the very next line which speaks of unacceptability of the use or threat of nuclear weapons, is a signal to Moscow that allows the West to claim the paragraph is directed at Russia.

The text then goes on to reaffirm that the G20 is a forum to discuss international economic cooperation but also recognises that “geopolitical and security issues” can have “significant consequences for the global economy”.

The Declaration offers an elaborate description of the consequences of the war by pointing to its impact on “global food and energy security, supply chains, macro-financial stability, inflation and growth”, and how this has complicated the policy environment for countries, “especially developing and least developed countries which are still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic disruption which has derailed progress towards the SDGs”.

In the next line though, in what is likely a deference to the Russian position, the text says that there are “different views and assessments” of the situation.

By offering Russia room, India then brings in a section on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which deals with promoting Russian food products and fertilisers to the world markets but, more critically, ensuring safe transportation of grain and foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports. The text call for the agreement’s “full, timely and effective implementation to ensure the immediate and unimpeded deliveries of grain, foodstuffs, and fertilizers/inputs from the Russian Federation and Ukraine” as essential to meet demand in poorer countries, especially in Africa.

Given that Moscow has often been responsible for obstructing the deal, this is a demand from the global system on Russia, as is the next paragraph which calls “for the cessation of military destruction or other attacks on relevant infrastructure” and expresses concern about the impact of the conflict on security of civilians and in terms of “hindering an effective humanitarian response”.

The section then reiterates the point from Bali about the need for all states to “uphold the principles of international law including territorial integrity and sovereignty, international humanitarian law, and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability”. It calls for the “peaceful resolution of conflicts”, and need for efforts to address crises through diplomacy and dialogue, the Indian position since the start of the war.

And it goes on to appeal, for the first time, “all relevant and constructive initiatives that support a comprehensive, just, and durable peace in Ukraine that will uphold all the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter for the promotion of peaceful, friendly, and good neighbourly relations among nations in the spirit of ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’.”

America’s demand on Ukraine is for a “just and durable peace” while Moscow believes that Ukraine undermined neighbourly ties by inviting the West to its backyard. The language in the declaration isn’t enough for a deal, but neither is the conflict ripe for a resolution. But by finding a common language, and ending with Modi’s call of “today’s era is not of war”, India’s diplomacy on Ukraine opened room in the declaration for movement on substantive issues.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry later criticised the text as “nothing to be proud of” for not mentioning Russia. “It is clear that the participation of the Ukrainian side (in the G20 meeting) would have allowed the participants to better understand the situation,” spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko posted on Facebook.

He, however, thanked Ukraine’s allies for doing their part to advance Ukraine’s position in the declaration. “Ukraine is grateful to the partners who tried to include strong formulations in the text.”

Rarely have eight paragraphs mattered so much in recent global diplomacy.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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