UNSC: Forum of little diplomacy and more grandstanding
Exclusive: The Security Council was not conceived to be platform for great power conflict solutions. With great power competition now in play, the Council’s inadequacies are on display. The Ukraine resolution will be moved in the UNSC this evening
The Security Council is considering the Ukraine issue for the fourth time in less than four weeks. The last three deliberations were rich in terms of expression of views, something which UN diplomats are skilled at. Some moments made for some good theatre. Punch lines designed to strengthen one narrative or the other were aplenty. Alas, the poverty of outcomes has shown up the design flaws of the body.
Conceptually, the Security Council was not conceived to be the platform for providing solutions to great power conflict. The activism of the Council in the post-Cold War era pushed this shortcoming to the periphery. Great power cooperation on issues that did not undermine their core interests meant the P-5 acted in concert. This worked in less tumultuous times. With great power competition now in play, the Council’s inadequacies are on display.
So what accounts for the effort to have a resolution that is sought to be voted upon in the Security Council condemning the Russian Federation’s foray into Ukraine? We need to see it for what it is. It is, in large part, an act of public diplomacy rather than of serious diplomacy.
Russia-Ukraine crisis: LIVE coverage
The Council has a long tradition of such drama. In October 1962, the then US Permanent Representative to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, dramatically unveiled evidence of Soviet missile silos in Cuba after asking his Soviet counterpart to deny that the USSR had missiles in Cuba. In February 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed illustrations of alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction equipment to press home the urgency of the WMD threat from Iraq. Later, to his credit, Secretary Powell acknowledged it as a ‘blot’ on his career. At the last meeting on Ukraine, in the absence of diplomatic progress, it was the Ukrainian Ambassador’s theatrics that made news headlines.
Read: Russia expects India’s support on UNSC resolution on Ukraine: Russian DCM
What then is the prognosis for the Council’s deliberations this time around on the issue of Ukraine. First, there is no hope for any resolution condemning Russia to pass. Russia will inevitably veto any resolution on the matter. Some cite a little-used provision of the UN Charter that requires members of the Security Council to abstain from voting on substantive issues when they are a party to a dispute.
There were such instances in the past. India as non-permanent member abstained five times when the India-Pakistan Question was discussed in 1950-51. However that practice has not been resorted to even once since 1960. It is unlikely to be resuscitated now. Russia had in the last instance participated and exercised its veto in the Security Council on the Crimea issue in 2014.
Why then is the West persisting with a Council resolution that is destined to fail? It hopes to show that Russia has little or perhaps no support in the Council for its actions in Ukraine. A lack of outcome in the Council will open the doors for action in the General Assembly, where no resolution can be vetoed. As in the case of Crimea in 2014, once the Council fails the General Assembly will be activated.
Read: Will Russia hold talks with Ukraine? Putin ready to send officials, says Kremlin
The overwhelming odds are that any such effort will pass with a very large majority in the General Assembly. It will not have the binding nature of a Security Council resolution but will reflect global sentiments and strengthen the global narrative against the Russian move.
Since this is primarily an exercise in narrative building and public diplomacy, India needs to tailor its stance as a non-permanent member of the Council accordingly. Without being cynical, we need to see what we can make of a difficult situation for India. The history of Indian responses on such matters in the past has been non-condemnatory. It is true that each instance is different but there is a certain trajectory of our public articulation, especially where Russia is involved.
Add to this the circumstances that a significant number of Indian students find themselves in the conflict zone. Finally, the strength of our long-standing links as well as intent of continuing strong ties with Russia indicate a resort to the tried and tested default option of abstention as the path forward. Abstention is no form of support to any of the protagonists.
Read: Govt to bear expenses of evacuation of Indians stranded in Ukraine
However, the evolution of events since the last meeting of the Security Council also necessitates that what we have said three times before cannot alone suffice now. Even as we reiterate our core focus on a peaceful settlement, India’s statement needs to factor in the multiple audiences that need to be addressed, not those in the Security Council chambers or in India alone.
Without being condemnatory, it is important to convey in a non-prescriptive manner our commitment to principles that all of us, including Russia, have stood for and joined in common cause before. Articulating principles without being prescriptive is not unknown.
Also, expressing disappointment without being disagreeable is par for the course in diplomacy. The events in Ukraine are a failure on many fronts. It is not merely an event but the culmination of a brewing crisis, where none is without fault. Hope we say so.
(Syed Akbaruddin is India's former Permanent Representative to United Nations)