When the world meets
The UNGA is as much a meeting of minds as a hotbed of dissent, writes Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Recently I attended the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. India is the only country which sends its MPs to attend the UN’s General Assembly sessions. Some countries send representatives of the ruling party but India is the only nation which sends a delegation that includes MPs, cutting across party divides. This official delegation is something that is appreciated in the UN. It provides a good opportunity to know first-hand the working of this unique international body as well as understand its dynamics, pressures and pulls which, in a way, create the great UN dilemma.
Apart from the General Assembly, the session operates through six committees. These are the disarmament, economic and social affairs, and human rights committees, followed by the political and decolonisation committee, one dealing with UN management and budget and the final, all-important legal committee that deals with international terrorism. In the sessions immediately preceding, the General Assembly elects the president for the subsequent session. Accordingly in the 60th session, Her Excellency Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, a distinguished jurist from Bahrain, was elected as the chairperson of the 61st session. Similarly, chairpersons of different committees are also elected in advance. The first fortnight of September is thus taken up by the speeches of heads of States, the ripples of which are felt throughout the world. This year, comments made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez against President George Bush were really nasty — but, surprisingly, he received the loudest ovation.
Forcing the UN to reform
The world has changed beyond recognition in the wake of increasing globalisation and opening up of frontiers. But there is a marked reluctance on the part of veto-wielding countries of the Security Council to reflect this change in the UN. This provokes hostility that leads to an increased eloquence in the demand for reforms. No one has any concerns over South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon’s selection to the post of the UN Secretary General, with the open backing of the ‘veto club’. I met Shashi Tharoor in the UN, who seemed satisfied that he had come a close second. However, non-Security Council countries are exploring ways to appraise the new Secretary General of their worth — for a smooth support from the General Assembly.
Similarly, no effort is spared to remind the Security Council that it ought not to exceed its jurisdiction. The occasion arose when I had the honour to address the General Assembly on the report of the working of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
In fact, these tribunals have their own significance as they are the first international tribunals formed after the Nuremberg tribunal, post-WW II. Though these were established by the Security Council a few years ago, my speech inter alia questioned the very authority of the Security Council to notify these, because the authority for such an action was vested in the General Assembly alone, as per the charter. When I asked our officers in the Indian Mission what the rationale was for this belated challenge, I was told that it is important to remind the Security Council about the limits of its authority — otherwise encroachments would continue. They were right, because after my speech, I was given the thumbs up sign by many delegates.
The need to have a comprehensive convention on international terrorism continues to provide enough heat in the deliberations of the Sixth Committee. The compelling need for such a convention was a key focus of my address. This was followed by the representative from Pakistan, for whom terrorism of the State alone was the most lethal. In the General Assembly India tellingly replied to this, condemning State terrorism which simply means ‘State-sponsored’ and ‘State-prompted’ terrorism. The war of words goes on.
It must be acknowledged that the brilliant diplomats posted in the Permanent Mission of India in the UN played an extraordinary role. The daily morning briefings and the free and frank exchanges with them were very educative — something unusual for the rather reticent foreign service.
Iran has the last laugh
The North Korean nuclear test generated its own heat in the whole proceedings. It was a sight to see the entire international media waiting for some news about sanctions against North Korea. The resolution was passed but after enough brinkmanship from Russia and China — the only two countries with vital stake in North Korea. But Iran seemed to have the last laugh. But for the North Korean misadventure, all eyes of non-proliferationists would have been sharply focused on Iran alone.
India presented a working paper on nuclear disarmament. The need for negotiating a global agreement among nuclear weapon States on ‘no first use’ and a legally binding agreement on non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon States was reiterated. And the war of words goes on.
Ravi Shankar Prasad is former Union Minister and National Spokesperson, BJP