The stage is set to realise the full potential of India’s current role at the United Nations — in the 76th General Assembly which opens in September, as a prominent member of the main UN bodies, and most of all, in the Security Council, where the country began its two-year elected term on January 1.
Voting will be held today in New York to elect a successor to the current President of the UN General Assembly (PGA), Volkan Bozkir. The Turkish diplomat-politician has been needling India even before he assumed office as the PGA, when he was only President-elect of the “chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN”. On one of his consultative global travels preparatory to taking office as the PGA last year, Bozkir described himself as “brother of Pakistan”.
A week ago, Bozkir said Pakistan was “duty bound” to raise Kashmir strongly at the UN and that Islamabad’s position was permitted by the UN charter and Security Council resolutions. His actions have been violative of the “basic rights and obligations of UN staff” laid out in the Staff Rules of the world body. Pakistan has been goading the PGA to facilitate a General Assembly debate on Kashmir, but Bozkir has been unable to oblige Islamabad because there is no enthusiasm at the UN for any such action.
Winds in the General Assembly Hall in the run-up to the voting favour the Foreign Minister of Maldives, Abdulla Shahid, who is expected to sail through as Bozkir’s replacement. To win, Shahid needs a simple majority of 97 votes if all the 193 UN members are present and voting on the agenda item of electing the next PGA. The grapevine in Turtle Bay, seat of the UN headquarters, is predicting between 120 and 130 votes for the top diplomat from the Maldives.
In the unlikely event that Shahid loses, the alternative will be Zalmai Rassoul, the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan. India has declared its support for the Maldives and will be voting for Shahid. But a victory for Afghanistan’s candidate will not in any way be disadvantageous for New Delhi, which has strong and friendly relations with Kabul. Whoever is the next PGA, as seen from New Delhi, he will be a huge improvement over the Turkish incumbent, who will hand over the reins of the General Assembly to his successor in mid-September.
Once that happens, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, TS Tirumurti and the two Deputy Permanent Representatives (DPRs) in New York, K Nagaraj Naidu and R Ravindra, can stop looking over their shoulders and devote themselves fully to India’s destiny at the UN, instead of putting out small fires lit by the Turks. The problem with countries of the size of Turkey, Egypt, Mexico and Nigeria in international organisations is that they think they are equal to India.
They are frustrated when they find that they cannot win elections in the General Assembly or other UN bodies like India does with very impressive margins. Their jealousy turns personal when their Permanent Representatives to the UN are pulled up by their bosses back home for not being able to compete successfully with India. Such resentment, which Tirumurti’s predecessors too had to guard against, will not go away merely because a Turkish diplomat has ceased to be the PGA. But when such countries are not in key roles, as Bozkir was, they pose little challenge to India.
A clear sign that Maldives will win handsomely in Monday’s election is that Shahid has already begun setting up his Secretariat, although the transition from Bozkir to himself will start only in mid-August. The Maldivian has requested South Block, seat of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), to release one of the Indian DPRs, Naidu, to head his PGA Secretariat. Indians make excellent Chef de Cabinet at the UN, mainly owing to their drafting skills in English. Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a Catholic priest from Nicaragua, who became the PGA in 2008, drafted Nirupam Sen, who had just left his job as Permanent Representative in New York, into his Secretariat. When Ban Ki-Moon became the UN Secretary General, the first appointment he made was that of Vijay Nambiar, Sen’s predecessor as his Chef de Cabinet.
If Kabul’s candidate loses the race to be the PGA on Monday, it will partly be the world’s vote of no-confidence in post-September Afghanistan, once American troops pull out of that country. In choosing Shahid over Rassoul, many countries will be taking into account what can happen to the government in Kabul devoid of the military might of the United States, which acts as a bulwark against its overthrow. The rationale for a vote against Rassoul may be a nagging worry in many capitals whether the UN can afford to have a PGA without a country in the sense there may be no government to back Rassoul if President Ashraf Ghani is overthrown after the US leaves.
A vote for the PGA is not only a vote for a country: the candidate’s persona and his credentials are important. Rassoul’s entire life’s work, although impressive, has been confined to Afghan affairs. Shahid, on the other hand, has been a member of the UN diplomats’ club, so to speak, because he has been active in every General Assembly from 1987 to 1994 as a multilateralist diplomat of his country. His role in the “Sixth Committee” of the General Assembly during this period is still remembered by many diplomats at the UN. Because the Sixth Committee is the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions in the General Assembly, that experience is seen as a major plus for him in the race for PGA.
In 2017, the UN introduced major changes to the process of electing the PGA, making it more transparent and involving civil society representatives, even individuals interested in global affairs. Candidates for the post now have to present their vision statements to the public and to conduct informal interactive dialogues with member-states. Shahid’s three-hour presentation on May 6 was that of someone who knows the UN well. The inclusive exercise persuaded many countries to throw their lot with Maldives in Monday’s vote.
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