Two major processes dominated my assignment as India’s Ambassador to the United Nations in New York between April 2013 and December 2015. One was a growing momentum for reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the face of the increasing breakdown of international peace and security across the five continents, especially following the catastrophic UNSC resolution on Libya in 2011. The other was the negotiation and adoption of the ambitious Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The convergence between these two processes forms the backdrop to the current challenges faced by the UN.
When I began to participate on behalf of India in the UNGA’s Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) on UNSC reforms from April 2013, the process was deadlocked on how to table the issues for text-based negotiations to begin. World leaders had unanimously given a historic mandate at the 60th anniversary Summit of the UN in 2005 for ‘early reform’ of the UN Security Council. They considered this an ‘essential element’ of overall reform of the UN to make the Council ‘more broadly representative, efficient and transparent’ to ensure the ‘legitimacy and effectiveness of its decisions’.
Reforming the UNSC required amending the UN Charter. That had been done only once before, in December 1963. The UNGA had adopted a resolution by a two-thirds majority vote to amend the provisions of the UN Charter and expand the UNSC. Even though two of the permanent members had voted against the resolution, and two had abstained, by 1965 the UN Charter had been amended. This followed the ratification of the UNGA resolution by the constitutional processes of two-thirds of the member-states, including all five permanent members, as required under Article 108 of the UN Charter.
The experience of the 119 member-states who have served as non-permanent members in the UNSC since 1945 has clearly established that unless they have equal rights when adopting Council decisions, their presence does not make any substantial difference to their participation in the UNSC. With this lesson in mind, India was among the countries seeking ‘equitable representation’ in the reformed UNSC.
In 2007, the UNGA had unanimously decided on an IGN platform for negotiating how to implement the 2005 Summit mandate for UNSC reforms. In 2008, the UNGA unanimously adopted a decision identifying five areas for negotiations, including the question of the veto.
To move the process into text-based negotiations, in my view, needed a specific target. In my first intervention in the IGN in April 2013, I proposed a deadline of adopting a UNGA resolution by the 70th anniversary of the UN in 2015. At the High-Level Segment of the UNGA Debate in September that year, many heads of delegation mentioned this idea. That galvanised the process.
The next hurdle was to put a written document on the table of the IGN. It was only following the election of the Africa Group’s nominee Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa of Uganda as the President of the 69th Session of the UNGA (PGA) from September 2014 that we were able to generate momentum on such a document. Two factors played a big role in this outcome. One was the convergence of pro-reform positions of the 54-member Africa Group with the 33-member Caribbean (CARICOM) group, supported by a broad coalition of developing countries from the Asia-Pacific under the L-69 platform. Sierra Leone as spokesperson of the Africa Group played an important role in this convergence of positions. The other was the determination of the new Chair of the IGN, Ambassador Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica, to bring as many member-states as possible into the process. He painstakingly created through correspondence a text contributed by 122 member-states setting out their positions on the five areas of UNSC reform. On 14 September 2015, the UNGA unanimously adopted the decision of the PGA to use the document as the basis for text-based negotiations in the IGN. UNSC reform remains under discussion in the IGN, however, some criticise the lack of progress since 2015.
The UNGA negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were more complicated, as the mandate given by world leaders at the 2012 Summit held in Rio de Janeiro required expanding the scope of the SDGs to cover economic as well as environmental issues, and introduced the concept of ‘multi-stakeholder’ negotiations. This meant including views of businesses, academia, and civil society into the process. We were fortunate in having two co-chairs, Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya representing developing countries, and Ambassador Csaba Korosi of Hungary representing the developed countries. They managed to successfully steer the negotiation of the 17 SDGs between mid-2013 and July 2014 in the UNGA.
I believe that our success in adopting the 17 SDGs which form the core of Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development was due to the fact that we were able to agree on the universal application of the SDGs, as well as the fact that our implementation of the SDGs would be determined by our national efforts. India’s interest in Agenda 2030 lies in the implementation of its ‘overarching’ objective, which is Eradication of Poverty under SDG 1. This meant lifting more than 270 million people in India above the World Bank’s ‘poverty line’ of US$1.29 a day, out of the total 670 million such people across the globe. The addition of specific economic SDGs such as clean energy, employment, infrastructure, and ‘smart’ urban development gave Agenda 2030 a resonance with many developing countries like India, which had clearly defined national governance objectives in these areas. The key to implementing Agenda 2030 will now depend on financial flows including from the private sector, and an agreement on the use of technology, including digital technology, for sustainable development.
In the Preamble to Agenda 2030, world leaders have acknowledged that there ‘can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development’. This is the core challenge before the international community today, as the principle of international cooperation on which the UN is founded is being increasingly challenged by the growing unilateralism of major powers.
Ambassador Asoke Mukerji is former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations and distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. In this blog post he shares his personal reflections on his time as Ambassador to the United Nations.