What Britain's defeat to India at UN means: A shift in global order

The changes in international cricket better reflect a changed world but the UN's power structure doesn't. The impact of the global shift finally touched the UN when Britain had to drop out in favour India after a failed showdown in the recent election for world court judgeship, writes Arul Louis for South Asia Monitor

Dec 5, 2017
By Arul Louis
If you want to understand the hotly-contested International Court of Justice (ICJ) election in which Britain dropped out in favour of India, step out of the United Nations and take a look at the International Cricket Council (ICC). The former Imperial Cricket Conference has changed both in location – to Dubai – and power structure – India is its financial engine – moving away from Britain, reflecting the global shift away from the realities of the 1940s. But those winds of change, which had hardly wafted into the the power structure at the UN, blew in as a gust.
There is, therefore, symbolism in India defeating Britain in a popular contest at the UN. India is not the colony it was in 1945 nor is Britain a globe-spanning imperial power. Whether it is military might, purchasing power parity GDP, population, growth prospects or an expansive world outlook, India has outstripped the United Kingdom. Yet, Britain holds on to its veto-wielding permanency on the Security Council, while India is shut out.
It was not just a defeat for Britain, but for the five permanent members (P5) who have hegemony over the other 188 members of the UN through their veto power. The UN charter gives the Council a broad authority to determine aggression, impose sanctions, and launch military action – all of which which the P5 can individually block or allow through their individual vetoes.
For long there has been a simmering resentment of the P5's hold over the Council has been building, especially given that its mandates are now focused on regions like Africa and the Middle East that are under-represented in a body with six Europeans, in addition to having no permanent members.
In this scenario India became the accidental catalyst for the successful rebellion of the international proletariat – the non-permanent members – against the hegemony of the P5 when it stumbled into that role by successfully facing off Britain and getting Dalveer Bhandari re-elected to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) despite an initial humbling loss to Lebanon.
When Britain withdrew its candidate, Christopher Greenwood's candidate on November 20 after a prolonged standoff backed by the rest of the P5, it was the first time the non-P5, represented by the Assembly, really prevailed over the Council. In the previous instances, when candidates with Council majorities stepped aside, none of them had been from the P5 and it was never a challenge to the P5's claim to representation on the ICJ bench. This was an ominous defeat for the entire P5.
India had sought to keep the Asian seat on the ICJ that Dalveer Bhandari had won in 2012, but lost to Lebanon's Permanent Representive at the United Nations, Nawaf Salam, a lawyer turned diplomat.
Under the rules for election to the ICJ, a candidate has to get a majority in both the Security Council and the General Assembly. Salam was elected in the fourth round of balloting in the Security Council and fifth round in the General Assembly, along with the ICJ President Ronny Abraham, Vice President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf of Somalia and Judge Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade of Brazil on November 9.
But while Bhandari got a majority in the Assembly, he lost in the Council to another sitting judge, Christopher Greenwood. The geographic allocation of ICJ judgeships and the P5's representation were by tradition rather than by statute, allowing Bhandari and Greenwood to contest the remaining seat, setting the stage for a power struggle between the Assembly and the Council.
The runoffs that followed were deadlocked. Bhandari reached a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, while Greenwood held an almost similar edge in the Council with neither chamber willing to give in.
Despite the fellow-P5 pressures – with a few dirty tricks to sow confusion in the Assembly – to push for using untested manoeuvres based on ICJ statues, Britain gracefully withdrew at the third election meeting on November 20 where a deadlock would have triggered them.
Now the question before India – and UN's proletariat – is how to harness the rebellion to change the power structure of the UN starting with a reform of the Council to make it more representative of the world of the 21st century.
The reform initiative for the Council has been stalled for more than two decades and the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) - as the reform process currently under way is known - has been unable to move forward mainly because of the opposition of a small group known as Uniting for Consensus (UfC) led by Italy, with Pakistan as an important member. Their opposition to a negotiating text – or an accepted agenda framework has put the process mandated in 2008 in a Catch-22 trap: Discussions cannot take place meaningfully without a negotiating text leading to a consensus or a decision, while those opposed to reforms blocked it saying there couldn't be such a document unless there was a consensus first.
Would the solidarity shown by the African and other developing countries give an impetus to break the deadlock? The coming IGN meetings will be the testing ground.
There are other lessons for India from this episode. The whole exercise firmly established that its lot is with the non-aligned and developing nations, and the Group of 77, who rallied to support it. India may have slowly been diluting its ties to these groups, which have themselves lost their ideological edge and slackened cohesiveness. But these groups still share a commonality of interests, maintain their identities despite their heterogeneity and are a force. The United States may have a 100-year vision for India as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said, but for now its priorities are with Britain.
Although it's a case of all's well that ends well, the initial strategy of going against Lebanon's Salam was flawed for two reasons. India did not announce Bhandari's candidacy for re-election till June this year while Salam had been campaigning for about two years and had sealed the backing of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an influential group with 55 voting members in the General Assembly. France, a permanent member, had also formally nominated him. India had less time to campaign for Bhandari and line up commitments in the Council. Announcing his candidacy after the OIC endorsement also did not sit well with some OIC members.
(Arul Louis, a journalist covering the United Nations in New York, is a non-resident senior fellow with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at

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