India Calls for Reformed Multilateralism at the UN
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reasserted India’s commitment to the UN during the 75th anniversary commemorative events the world body held last year. Three major themes resonated in his repeated calls for “reformed multilateralism.” These were the urgent need to complete the process of democratization of decision-making in the UN Security Council (UNSC); the positioning of development issues at the forefront of the work of the UN; and transforming the functioning of the UN into a multi-stakeholder body to enable it to respond effectively to the challenges it faces.
The call for “reformed multilateralism” has become an integral part of India’s foreign policy, seeking to maximize the country’s participation in the multilateral system and to accelerate its transformation into one of the 21st century’s major powers. India has contributed significantly to creating the contemporary multilateral system. A century ago, over 1.3 million Indian soldiers volunteered to serve in the victorious Allied armies that won victory in the First World War; that enabled India to sign the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and become a founder-member of the League of Nations. Over 2.5 million Indian soldiers volunteered to fight with the Allied armies during the Second World War, and that enabled India to sign the 1942 Washington “Declaration by United Nations” and subsequently the UN Charter in June 1945 in San Francisco. As a country with one-sixth of the world’s population which is also a thriving democracy, India is a major stakeholder in a functional multilateral system.
Following his call for a multilateral approach to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity at the meeting of the UN’s Economic and Social Council on July 17, 2020, Modi made a strong pitch for reformed multilateralism “that reflects today’s realities, gives voice to all the stakeholders, addresses contemporary challenges, and focuses on human welfare” at the UN’s 75th anniversary summit on Sept. 21, 2020. The prime minister’s speech at the general debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Sept. 26, 2020, made clear the contours of India’s vision for “reformed multilateralism.”
At the core of this vision is India’s belief that UN member states “cannot fight today’s challenges with outdated structures. Without comprehensive reforms, the UN faces a crisis of confidence.” The only UN structure that obstructs the democratic principle of taking decisions by consensus or majority voting is the UNSC, where the veto powers of its five self-selected permanent members override democratic decisions.
The prime minister castigated the UNSC for failing to prevent conflicts, including civil wars, and terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of many ordinary human beings, including hundreds of thousands of children. Millions of people uprooted by conflicts have become refugees. He said that this had happened despite the significant contributions made by many UN member states to the UNSC to help maintain peace and security. The prime minister noted that India had contributed over 240,000 troops to more than 50 UN missions, with India’s brave soldiers suffering the highest number of casualties among UN peacekeepers.
In June 2020, India obtained 184 out of 193 votes in the UNGA and was elected to a two-year term on the UNSC for 2021-22. This marked the eighth time since 1949 that over two-thirds of the UNGA have endorsed India’s credentials to be elected to the UNSC. The prime minister said: “The people of India have been waiting for a long time for the completion of the reforms of the UN.”
He asked: “Today, the people of India are concerned whether this reform process will ever reach its logical conclusion. For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the UN?” Even during these very difficult times of a raging pandemic, India’s pharmaceutical industry has sent essential medicines to more than 150 countries. India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis. For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the UN? A country which is the largest democracy in the world ... How long will such a country have to wait, particularly when the changes happening in that country affect a large part of the world?”
India’s call for reformed multilateralism focuses on the links between peace, security, and development. An ineffective UNSC jeopardises India’s national efforts to achieve Agenda 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The relevance of this observation for the work of the UN in the coming decade was illustrated by the prime minister’s reference to some major development initiatives implemented by India since 2015. Showing how UN member states can “reform-perform-transform,” the prime minister listed the “transformational changes” in India over the past five years which have enabled hundreds of millions of people to enter the formal financial sector, become free from defecation in the open, and get access to free healthcare services. The empowerment of women through the promotion of entrepreneurship and leadership, access to micro-financing and paid maternity leave were integral to India’s nondiscriminatory development policies. India was “one of the leaders in digital transactions,” Modi said, and the policy of “Self-Reliant India” would become a force multiplier of the global economy once the current pandemic is over.
The prime minister committed India to “sharing experiences of our development” as a practical way to implement the principle of international cooperation on which multilateralism depends. This includes a commitment to increase the supply of essential medicines made in India to more than 150 countries to respond to the pandemic by leveraging India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity to “help all humanity.”
Based on its experience of implementing the SDGs, India advocated “a multi-stakeholder ground-based” approach to achieve global goals. This requires engaging “state and local governments, civil society, communities and people.” India’s international experience in implementing various global initiatives for a holistic approach to peace, security and development has similarly been sustained by a multi-stakeholder approach.
The UN has already adopted a multi-stakeholder approach for its activities under the Tunis Agenda to respond to the emerging digital order, and Agenda 2030 to achieve the SDGs. The call for “reformed multilateralism” based on democratic decision-making, prioritizing development, and including all stakeholders comes at a critical time for India’s foreign policy. India’s role as an elected nonpermanent member of the UNSC and the incoming Chair of the G20 during 2021-2022 provides a window of opportunity for the country to play a leadership role in reforming and transforming the UN.
• Asoke Kumar Mukerji was India’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in New York (2013-2015).
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