The Guest Column

3rd November 1996

Lanka triggers battle of Asian giants in UN


Stanley Kalpage

Delegates to the 51st annual session of the UN General Assembly held their breath when the result of the polling for the non-permanent Asian seat vacated by Indonesia was announced. Japan had triumphed in the first round of voting by 140 votes to 42. Never before had India suffered such a humiliating defeat in any election at the United Nations. India's diplomats at the UN had moments earlier predicted a win for India with the required two-thirds majority in the very first round of voting. Japan was equally certain of victory.

Japan was determined to enhance its claim to a permanent seat in the Security Council. Its victory will usher in Japan's demarche into international affairs. Its economic strength has already been established and, along with China, it now aspires to the political leadership of Asia into the 21st century.

What had gone wrong for India? After all, India's extensive diplomatic presence throughout the world makes it easy for it to influence the outcome of voting at the UN. Instructions are usually sent down to the country's representative in New York on how the country should vote. Evidently, according to Indian diplomats, some 130 countries had indicated in writing as well as verbally that they would cast their votes for India.

Economic clout?

The first reaction on Indian diplomats was that the election was "a sad but true pointer to the influence and strength of money power in international diplomacy". But the size of the margin of defeat was so large that simple facile explanations will not do. Searching questions will have to be asked on the colossal misjudgement of its ministry of external affairs in assessing IndiaÕs current strength at the United Nations.

Also there is no substance in the argument that this year's contest for the seat vacated by Indonesia was "in fact an unequal fight between the economic clout of an industrial power and the much vaunted record of a leading Third World country which supports the world organisation's activities on behalf of international peace and security, multilateralism, and desarmament and development." One recalls the "unequal fight" in 1978 when Bangladesh, backed by the non-aligned movement, trounced Japan. The non-aligned movement had then stood staunchly behind one of its smaller members.

But that was when the non-aligned movement's solidarity was not in doubt. Non-aligned countries at the United Nations acted unitedly as a strong, cohesive force. How many so-called leaders of the non- aligned movement today even mention the movement and its goals in their policy statements during the General Assembly's annual debate? The movement lacks leadership and is utterly divided. This week at the United Nations the story was that "when you are wined and dined, you forget to be non-aligned".

In the 15-member Security Council, the once powerful "non-aligned caucus" has a potential membership of seven - three from Africa, two each from Asia and from Latin America and the Caribbean. With the entry of Korea this year and now the election of Japan, the strength of the "non-aligned caucus" had been reduced to five. This number is inadequate to prevent the industrialised countries from passing any resolution moved by them for they can easily muster the nine members required for an affirmative vote.

Defensive diplomacy

India's defensive diplomacy at the United Nations has been evident for some time. For one, India has been too pre-occupied in countering the charges consistently made by Pakistan about human rights violations in Kashmir. There was a welcome departure this year when the "Gujral Doctrine" was followed: "be kind to your neighbours even when they abuse you."

Again, in the deliberations on the restructuring of the UN Security Council, for example, India's pre- occupation has been with securing a permanent seat in the Council for itself rather than with more fundamental questions, such as whether permanent seats, with or without the veto, are necessary in this day and age.

On the matter of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, first proposed by Sri Lanka in 1971, India has been dragging its feet for some years and is no longer interested in promoting the zone of peace concept in the Indian Ocean in the light of the changed international political situation. India is usually isolated when decisions are made in the Ad Hoc Committee.

Sri Lanka's withdrawal

Sri Lanka, it must be said, contributed to the clash of the Asian giants this year. The Asian Group had, over the past decade or so, worked out an equitable pattern of endorsements for the Asian non- permanent seat. Once in every five years the endorsement would go to a country from West Asia. In the three intervening years the endorsement would be given alternately to a country from South Asia, then to one from East Asia.

Sri Lanka sought the Asian Group's endorsement for the election in 1995 when it was South Asia's turn. When the Republic of Korea indicated a desire to contest, the then Sri Lankan government refused to withdraw and a contest seemed inevitable. Sri Lanka was virtually certain of the Asian Group's endorsement since no other South Asian country was in the contest. Intensive canvassing had assured Sri Lanka wide support in the 113-member Non Aligned Movement and among the 53-strong Commonwealth of Nations in both of which Sri Lanka, but not Korea, is a member.

Unfortunately, the present government withdrew Sri Lanka's candidature, stating that it was preferable to accept the offer of some 20,000 jobs than fight for a seat on the Security Council. This argument was hastily changed to indicate that Sri Lanka did not wish to contest an economic power. In the interest of the much vaunted "transparency", it might be interesting to know where Sri Lanka stood in the electoral contest between her two Asian friends. Did Sri Lanka abstain in the voting?

Eventually, Sri Lanka withdrew its candidature in March 1995 when it was too late for another candidate from a South Asian country to enter the contest. Korea was elected unopposed and joined Indonesia. Two countries from East Asia were now in the Security Council in one year. That was perhaps one reason why India contested Japan this year to prevent another East Asian country joining Korea next year. If the usual pattern had not been broken by Sri Lanka withdrawing from the contest in 1995, the generally accepted rule that no two countries from the same sub-region should be on the Security Council at the same time would have been ensured.

Sri Lanka has thus opened the gateway to future unseemly contests among Asian countries for the non-permanent seat which falls vacant each year. It will take many more years for a new pattern of endorsements to be introduced in the Asian Group again. The list of prospective applicants has entered well into the next century and bruising contests will be the order of the day.

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