Call for reformed multilateralism at the UN

Issue 05, 2020

Call for reformed multilateralism at the UN

Asoke Kumar Mukerji |author

Issue 05, 2020

Over the years, India’s position at the United Nations has become more prominent. In the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent address at UNGA, Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji explores the country’s demands for a much-awaited reform of the global body

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi reasserted the country’s commitment to the United Nations (UN) during the 75th anniversary commemorative events of the world body this year. Three major themes resonated in his repeated calls for “reformed multilateralism”. These were the urgent need to complete the process of democratisation of decision-making in the UN Security Council (UNSC); the positioning of development issues at the forefront of the work of the UN; and transforming the functioning of the UN into a multi-stakeholder body to enable it to respond effectively to the challenges it faces.

A screengrab of PM Modi’s recorded video speech for the virtual UNGA session, held between September 15 and 30, 2020

The call for “reformed multilateralism” has become an integral part of India’s foreign policy, seeking to maximise the country’s participation in the multilateral system to accelerate its transformation into one of the major powers of the 21st century. India has contributed significantly to creating the contemporary multilateral system. A century ago, over 1.3 million Indian soldiers volunteered to serve in the victorious Allied armies that secured victory in the First World War, enabling India to sign the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and become a founder-member of the League of Nations. Over 2.5 million Indian soldiers volunteered to fight with the Allied armies during the Second World War, enabling India to sign the 1942 Washington “Declaration by United Nations” and subsequently the UN Charter in June 1945 in San Francisco. As a country with one-sixth of the world’s population and a thriving democracy, India is a major stakeholder in a functional multilateral system.

Following his call for a multilateral approach to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity at the High-Level meeting of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on July 17, 2020, Prime Minister Modi made a strong pitch for reformed multilateralism “that reflects today’s realities, gives voice to all the stakeholders, addresses contemporary challenges, and focuses on human welfare at the UN’s 75th-anniversary summit on September 21, 2020”. The Prime Minister’s speech at the general debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on September 26, 2020, provided the contours of India’s vision of “reformed multilateralism”.

At the core of this vision is India’s belief that UN member-states “cannot fight today’s challenges with outdated structures. Without comprehensive reforms, the UN faces a crisis of confidence.” The only UN structure that obstructs the democratic principle of taking decisions by consensus or majority voting is the UNSC, where the veto powers of its five self-selected permanent members overrides democratic decision-making. The Prime Minister castigated the UNSC for failing to prevent conflicts, including civil wars, and terrorist attacks resulting in the deaths of many ordinary human beings, including hundreds and thousands of children. Millions of people uprooted by conflicts have become refugees. He said that this has happened despite the significant contributions made by many UN member-states to the UNSC to help maintain peace and security. The Prime Minister recalled that India has contributed over 240,000 troops in more than 50 UN missions, with India’s brave soldiers suffering the maximum number of casualties among UN peacekeepers.

The United Nations headquarters in New York City with flags of member nations

In June 2020, India obtained 184 out of 193 votes in the UNGA to be elected to a two-year term in the UNSC for 2021-22. This marked the eighth time since 1949 that over two-thirds of the UNGA has endorsed India’s credentials to be elected to the UNSC. The Prime Minister pointed out that “the people of India have been waiting for a long time for the completion of the reforms of the United Nations”. He asked: “Today, the people of India are concerned whether this reform-process will ever reach its logical conclusion. For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?” In his remarks at the 75th anniversary summit, the Prime Minister referred to the “far-reaching” declaration adopted by world leaders and cautioned that unless the UN was comprehensively reformed, the vision of the declaration “in preventing conflict, in ensuring development, in addressing climate change, in reducing inequalities, and in leveraging digital technologies” would remain unfulfilled.

India’s call for reformed multilateralism focuses on the inter-linkage between peace, security, and development. An ineffective UNSC jeopardises India’s national efforts to achieve Agenda 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The relevance of this observation for the work of the UN in the decade ahead was illustrated by the Prime Minister’s reference to some of India’s major development initiatives implemented since 2015. Showing how the UN member-states can “reform-perform-transform”, the Prime Minister listed the “transformational changes” in India over the past five years that had enabled hundreds of millions of people to enter the formal financial sector; become free from open defecation, and get access to free healthcare services. The empowerment of women through promotion of entrepreneurship and leadership, access to micro-financing and paid maternity leave were integral to India’s non-discriminatory development policies. India was “one of the leaders in digital transactions”, PM Modi said, and the policy of “Self-Reliant India” would become a force multiplier of the global economy after the current Covid-19 pandemic is over.

The Prime Minister committed India to “sharing experiences of our development” as a practical way to implement the principle of international cooperation on which multilateralism depends. This included a commitment to build on the supply of essential medicines by India to more than 150 countries to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic by leveraging India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity to “help all humanity”. Based on its experience of implementing the SDGs, India advocated “a multi-stakeholder ground-based” approach to achieve the global goals. This required engaging “state and local governments, civil society, communities and people.” India’s international experience in implementing various global initiatives for a holistic approach to peace, security and development had similarly been sustained by a multi-stakeholder approach. The UN has already adopted a multi-stakeholder approach for its activities under the Tunis Agenda to respond to the emerging digital order, and Agenda 2030 to achieve the SDGs. The call for “reformed multilateralism” based on democratic decision-making, prioritising development, and including all stakeholders comes at a critical time for India’s foreign policy. India’s role as an elected non-permanent member of the UNSC and the incoming Chair of the G20 during 2021-2022 provides a window of opportunity for the country to play a leadership role to reform and transform the UN.

Asoke Kumar Mukerji

Diplomat Asoke Mukerji was India’s ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York (2013-2015)
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