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Goodbye, Mr Chips: On leaving the United Nations

By Rajeev Srinivasan
May 17, 2005 15:24 IST
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What made the League of Nations fail? Because it ceased to provide value to its members. It was based on the utopian idea that nations would prefer to cooperate and work with each other rather than to compete ruthlessly. Jaw-jaw, as arch-imperialist Winston Churchill once said pithily, being better than war-war. On the face of it, this is rational, but I suspect game theory alters the perceptions of individual States.

Many people are familiar with the paradigm of the Prisoner's Dilemma, wherein the best outcome is for the two participants to cooperate with each other, but since neither has any idea if the other party will betray them, the temptation is to betray the other party. The result is that both parties end up losing big. In a way, the League of Nations, and its more recent incarnation, the United Nations, were both based on the idea that level-ish playing field would increase the incentives for cooperation.

This turned out to be a fiction in the case of the League of Nations; alas, I believe it is turning to be a fiction in the case of the United Nations as well. I hate to say this, especially considering that I am acquainted with Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary General for the organisation. However, I believe that the UN has shown itself to be wanting.

For years I have watched, with some bemusement, the spectacle of conservative American politicians thundering that the UN was useless. They meant it was not a willing vehicle for pushing their agendas, but on the other hand, the UN has had a hand in preventing many wars and generally propagating the principle of multilateralism, or so I used to think.

Now I am not so sure. Maybe the thundering Americans are right. The UN has been powerless to stop various conflicts: the long-running wars in southern Africa, the holocausts in Cambodia and Rwanda, the genocides in Tibet and in the Sudan, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and Pakistan/Bangladesh, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What exactly is the UN's raison d'etre? Shouldn't it be out there doing something?

Somebody once suggested that the UN should have its own armed forces, perhaps Gurkhas demobbed by the British in Hong Kong. The UN has hired peacekeepers from sundry nations. India has provided far more than its fair share, and has put its soldiers in the line of fire in many tense spots. Incidentally, let us note that the UN has compensated them differentially: white soldiers make more money than Indians for the same peacekeeping duties; and sometimes white contingents refused to serve under Indian commanders, for example under General Satish Nambiar in Yugoslavia.

What's in it for India?

This is an example of a subtle, and perhaps not so subtle, systemic discrimination. A more egregious instance, and something that really rocked my faith in the UN, was Secretary General Kofi Annan's statement in late April about India's candidacy for the Security Council. Here are reports from the Financial Timesand the Times of India 

'It is a fact and a reality that it is not going to be possible to remove the veto from the five. It is utopian to think that we can do it. Many member states would want to do that but it is not possible,' said Annan.

'I believe enlargement without veto is a major step forward,' Annan said on Thursday. 'Let us not get so focused on the veto. What is important is to have effective representation to make the council more democratic and ensure voices of all the regions are heard,'Annan said.

Annan is suggesting a clear apartheid. India, Japan, Germany and Brazil (the G-4 aspirants) will forever be second-class permanent members without a veto in the UN Security Council, while the existing Security Council permanent members, the US, the UK, France, Russia and China (the P-5) would be first-class, veto-holding members.

The G-4 in fact pay more money to the UN than the P-5 and also offer more personnel for peacekeeping and bureaucratic duties. Strictly speaking, the US is supposed to pay more than Japan (20% of the UN budget) and Germany (10%), but last I remember, the US owed a large amount that it showed no intention of paying. Incidentally, veto-wielding China pays just 1% of the budget!

Indians have been dying for the benefit of others (I call this Gunga-Din-ism, after Kipling) for some time now. In the wake of the 60th anniversary of Victory-Europe Day in World War II, there have been reports about the sacrifices of Indians in what were basically two imperial wars. Indians received more Victoria Crosses (the ultimate valour award for people dying for Britain, like the Param Vir Chakra) than Britons themselves. And given that it would have taken an Indian ten times more effort to be considered worthy of this as compared to a Briton, this is truly stupendous.

About a million and a half Indians participated in these long-running wars, and 300,000 died. Marne, Burma, Libya, Iraq… the roll call of Indian campaigns is long. And just as Australians realised after Gallipoli, Indian soldiers have been just so much cannon fodder for the British, and now for the UN. Enough already!

This row about some nations being more equal than others is replicated in the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There too the same usual suspects, the P-5, are the 'haves'; everyone else is a 'have-not'. The neutral observer wonders why on earth has-been powers such as the UK and France deserve to have the veto or nuclear weapons. Naturally, the NPT is unraveling, with nations like North Korea publicly withdrawing from it.

Not that North Korea is a role model: the US is, for unilateralism. Whenever it sees a treaty or an organisation that it doesn't like, the US stays away and tries to sabotage it. For instance, the Law of the Sea, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court. It is undermining WTO with bilateral trade treaties. Similarly, when it doesn't want to honour a treaty obligation, the Americans simply ignore it: for instance, in the supply of nuclear fuel to the Tarapur reactor in India.

Following in America's footsteps, I think the G-4 should now unilaterally withdraw from the UN. Or at least threaten to do so. If the G-4 does not want to show a united front on it, India should on its own just walk out of the United Nations if it doesn't get what it wants, the Security Council seat with a full veto. American salespersons ask: 'What have you done for me lately?' Indeed, what exactly has the UN done for India lately?

It is true that India made a colossal blunder in turning down a Security Council seat when it was offered to it on a platter in the 1950s. The original P-5 were the US, the UK, France, the Soviet Union, and Taiwan. Given that Taiwan didn't control much of China, and 'Red China' was out of favour with everybody, there was a proposal to give an 'Asian' seat to India. Here is what transpired then, according to official records.

From the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Series II, Volume 29, Minutes of meeting with Soviet Leaders, Moscow, 22 June 1955, page 231, here are the minutes of the conversation between Jawaharlal Nehru and Soviet Premier Marshal Bulganin, as quoted in Claude Arpi's Born in Sin: The Panchsheel Agreement (Mittal Publications, Delhi, 2004, ISBN 81-7099-974-X):

'Bulganin: While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India's inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council.

Nehru: Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in the USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it. Further, we are opposed to pushing ourselves forward to occupy certain positions because that may itself create difficulties and India might itself become a subject of controversy. If India is to be admitted to the Security Council it raises the question of the revision of the Charter of the UN. We feel that this should not be done till the question of China's admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.'

Those were the halcyon days of Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai. To paraphrase Jyoti Basu, in hindsight, this was a 'historic blunder'. India has wasted incredible amounts of energy trying to rectify this blunder and get itself into the Security Council. But it's quite apparent that if India ever gets a seat it will be a worthless seat. It reminds me of Woody Allen's observation that he'd never want to be a member of any club that would actually admit him.

Again, going back to the NPT as well as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it hasn't particularly hurt India that it has stayed outside these discriminatory treaties, despite much wagging of fingers by others. Similarly, certain neutral States have remained outside the UN: if I am not mistaken, Switzerland famously doesn't join anything, and is not a UN member. Just as Norway has refused to join the European Union.

India has been over-eager to join various motley crews, for instance the banana-republic kaffeeklatsch of the Non-Aligned Movement. Championing various causes for the 'Third World' may have given an ego-boost to certain Indians, but it won India no brownie points. For instance, a resolution condemning India for intervening in the genocide in the then-East Pakistan in 1971 won by a resounding 104 votes to 11. So much for NAM gratitude to India, a pious fiction believed only by South Block. Similarly ungrateful is the UN.

On top of all this is the enormous waste of the UN bureaucracy. By latching on to the generous mammaries of the UN welfare state, many consultants have become wealthy. Graham Hancock's damning 1989 expose, Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, estimated that most of the $60 billion plus that comprised governmental, UN, and World Bank or IMF-type 'aid' was siphoned off. Mostly by elites in poor nations with their Swiss accounts, special interests (like agribusiness in donor countries, which dump their subsidised excess produce), but also, startlingly, the aid agencies' own personnel budgets, which waste as much as 80 per cent of the funds for lavish (first-class) travel, salaries, and perquisites. Similarly with the UN's extremely generous salaries and benefits.

Is there any good reason to keep on paying through the nose for a body that doesn't do India any good or give India any respect?

It's time for India to say, 'We're out of here!' if the UN continues to treat it shabbily. The return on investment to India of being in this failing body is not high; it is falling apart anyway under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Therefore, India should give the UN an ultimatum, and walk out if it is not satisfied.

Comments welcome at my blog

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Rajeev Srinivasan