UNSC is not fulfilling its primary mandate - Hindustan Times
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UNSC is not fulfilling its primary mandate

Mar 20, 2022 05:57 PM IST

The Security Council’s objective was to stop a conflict by addressing its cause. But, for years now, it has taken on the subsidiary pursuit of being a humanitarian council. India needs to consider if this is the change it wants

The crisis in Ukraine has undermined the credibility of the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Geopolitical realities have, demonstrably, exposed the Council as not being “fit for purpose” to address the security challenges of the 21st century. The collateral damage suffered by the office of the UN secretary-general is another unintended consequence. Antonio Guterres, an otherwise sophisticated diplomat, finds himself in the crosshairs of a permanent member. History shows that such situations don’t always end well.

It is not in the interest of the five permanent members to neuter the Security Council completely. They can work out other uses for it. They could prefer it to be an option to address issues where their primary interests are not at stake (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
It is not in the interest of the five permanent members to neuter the Security Council completely. They can work out other uses for it. They could prefer it to be an option to address issues where their primary interests are not at stake (Shutterstock)

The UN’s role in peace and security has, perhaps, never been as weak as it now is. The fallout of the wounds inflicted on the Council means its role will diminish further. The quest to find diplomatic solutions outside the UN framework on crucial matters will accelerate. If the past is prologue, the Council’s fate may increasingly resemble that of such bodies in previous situations of great power rivalry.

However, trust the venerable 75-year-old organisation to be resilient. The Council will, when called upon, continue ratifying solutions worked out elsewhere. It is not in the interest of the five permanent members to neuter the Council completely. They can work out other uses for it. They could prefer it to be an option to address issues where their primary interests are not at stake. This will extend their entrenched legal hegemony. In matters of international peace and security, it will not be a high court, but a petty crimes tribunal. And yes, it shall remain a platform for public diplomacy, to be used by its members, as and when needed.

Changes in roles are not easily discernible. The objective of the Council was to stop a conflict by addressing its cause. Hence, the Council was required to focus on rooting out the cause rather than primarily attend to problems which arose as a result of the conflict. However, for years now, a trend has been noticeable. Where the Council was not able to fulfil its primary mandate and do away with the causes of conflicts, it turned to ameliorating the consequences of conflicts. From the 1990s onwards, the Council expanded its focus on facilitating humanitarian assistance in situations of armed conflict.

Conceptually, such efforts are a “band-aid”. They stem the overflow while the injury is addressed. In real terms, all the Council has done for years in major crises is to stick a band-aid and do nothing more. The situation in Syria is the most recent example. There is little to show in terms of a diplomatic solution, but much to highlight in terms of humanitarian efforts.

This approach, though limited, suits the UN Secretariat too. It provides greater space for international civil servants to play active roles. Once frameworks are established, they can work with non-governmental actors in the humanitarian space. They can be “truth tellers” and “conscience keepers”. Also, it provides them an opportunity to distance themselves from the failures of the Council — a member state body — distinct from a global meritocracy of talent.

Looking ahead, in all probability, the failed Council will try out the avatar of a humanitarian council. It will seek to facilitate humanitarian assistance — in Ukraine and elsewhere. Those who support this stance argue that the competence of the Council’s humanitarian incarnation is intrinsic to the role provided in Article 39 of the UN charter relating to addressing “threat to the peace”. Such a role takes into account judgments of the International Court of Justice and ensures the customary duty to respect international humanitarian law.

This expansionary role was not what the Council was designed for. Addressing a subsidiary pursuit is different from taking over the mantle of a humanitarian council, especially after failing to meet the principal goal of maintaining international peace and security. With the main purpose not being satisfactorily fulfilled, can the pursuit of subsidiary objectives be an adequate substitute for the Council’s importance? Is such a metamorphosis into a new role a form of reform or an effort to evade change?

The Council’s DNA is that of a political body. Humanitarian concerns are never the sole factor for decision-making. Geopolitical and economic interests are always in the mix. Experience indicates that whatever issues the Council members address are through their national prisms. Opting for the Council’s oversight as a norm rather than an exception will further subject the principles of humanitarian assistance — humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence — to political choices, rendering them meaningless.

Russia, jostling with France and Mexico over their respective draft resolutions of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, during the last few days, is testimony to the politicisation of humanitarian relief. That neither effort has the requisite support to be passed by the Council is a blessing in disguise. Humanitarian support provided through diktats backed by punitive threats can complicate a complex situation.

India is on the Council for the next nine months. This should not cloud our understanding of the implications for the longer-term. It is not as if humanitarian assistance has not been provided previously through the UN without the Council’s oversight. India needs to consider if yesterday’s failed Security Council transforming into tomorrow’s humanitarian council is the change we want.

Syed Akbaruddin served as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, and is currently dean, Kautilya School of Public Policy

The views expressed are personal

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