By M D Nalapat
President Donald Trump was decisive in changing US position on India.
Those involved with the successful campaign to ensure victory for India’s Dalveer Bhandari in the elections to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), say that more than the UK, which has no seat on the International Criminal Court at Hague for the first time in the history of that institution, it is Pakistan that has been devastated by India’s candidate prevailing over the UK’s Christopher Greenwood, who like Bhandari has already served a nine-year term on the court. Since June this year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally intervened to make his team swing into action to secure a second term for the courtly judge, Rawalpindi GHQ concurrently made the Government of Pakistan go into diplomatic overdrive to ensure that Bhandari lost. Islamabad’s hopes were raised after the candidate from Lebanon overtook the Indian candidate in the race for the lone “Asia” seat, thereby forcing a contest against the UK, a permanent member of the UN Security Council instead. Given that none of the “Permanent 5” (US, China, Russia, France and the UK) had ever lost an election to another country before, it was conveyed by diplomats to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the chances for a Bhandari victory were “not substantial”. Modi, however, decided to go ahead with the contest, despite the risk of losing, arguing that it was important that India oppose the tradition of a privileged P-5 member always prevailing over an ordinary member of the UN, such as India. Reform of the archaic UN system has been made a foreign policy priority of the PM, and part of the proposed alternative construct (to the 1944 Bretton Woods architecture that has been left unchanged since then) is to ensure adequate weightage to the General Assembly, rather than have this huge body constantly defer to the Security Council (specifically the P-5) in matters coming up for decision within the UN system. Hence, rather than waste much effort on the Security Council (which could be expected to follow the tradition of supporting one of their own against other countries), India’s UN envoy, Syed Akbaruddin was told to concentrate his efforts within the General Assembly, which he began doing from 20 June onwards, once briefed on the importance that Modi was placing on this election.
Those spoken to say that the matter involving Kulbhushan Jadhav’s capture by the Pakistan army on trumped-up charges was critical in making PM Modi aware of the need to ensure that India not lose its seat at the ICJ, which was why campaigning began in earnest only after the Jadhav case got referred to the ICJ. In contrast, the Lebanese candidate, who was elected rather than Bhandari earlier in the polling process, had begun his campaign more than three years before, and had during this period secured the support of enough members of the General Assembly and Security Council to enable him to move past the Indian candidate in the balloting.
UNGA DEFEATS UNSC FOR THE FIRST TIME
The Modi government refused to succumb to informal pressure by the P-5 and by some other countries to withdraw from the contest and therefore make the election of five judges unanimous. According to those involved in the ICJ campaign, pressure from London to withdraw was continuous up to the final days of the contest, peaking during September. These efforts got reduced only after it became clear that Modi was firm that India would remain in the contest, even against a P-5 member such as the UK, and even when there was a significant risk of India losing. Among the Asian countries, the most steadfast in defence of the British candidate was Japan, which to the end backed Christopher Greenwood in line with Tokyo’s policy of marching in lockstep with the victors of the 1939-45 global war. Another factor was the British royal family, which is close to the Japanese royal family. Indeed, several countries across the globe that have monarchs as titular heads of state—especially in the Arab states—backed the UK solely on the grounds of the latter being a monarchy like themselves. In contrast, the Commonwealth link failed to secure any advantage for London, with most of the members of that grouping, especially from Africa, remaining with India. Throughout, Pakistan worked in tandem with the UK in order to seek the defeat of India, expending considerable effort in the process.
On the Indian side, once in mid-June the Prime Minister gave the command to go full steam on the Bhandari nomination, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Ministers of State V.K. Singh and M.J. Akbar, Foreign Secretary Subramaniam Jaishankar and UN Representative Syed Akbaruddin worked seamlessly in convincing UN General Assembly members that the hour had arrived to show the UN Security Council that it could not have a monopoly of power over an institution with nearly 200 active members, an argument that resonated with members uneasy with the sense of entitlement and arrogance in functioning of the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council, who as a group have been resisting reform of the UN for close to two decades. Sushma Swaraj made nearly 60 calls to UNGA members, while both Singh and Akbar worked hard within their zones of responsibility to ensure support for Bhandari. Both Foreign Secretary Jaishankar and Permanent Representative Akbaruddin followed the Prime Minister’s lead and worked long and hard to ensure the shock defeat of the UK candidate, the first time a UNSC candidate from the P-5 had been bested by a candidate from the UNGA. As expected, both Australia as well as New Zealand put ethnic linkages first and stood by Greenwood over Bhandari to the last, although Canada under Justin Trudeau was more circumspect.
Prime Minister Modi gave himself the task of tackling the core of Greenwood’s support, which was the P-5 in the UNSC. He personally brought up the ICJ matter to each of the five leaders of the countries involved. Interestingly, not even China (which has for long tied itself to the Pakistani bandwagon) refused Modi’s request to support Dalveer Bhandari, although almost to the end, Beijing gave its diplomatic backing to the UK. Until pulled up by President Donald Trump himself, who has invested considerable effort in forging an alliance with India, the Permanent Mission of the United States in the UN worked daily in seeking the defeat of Bhandari. This was despite it being headed by Nikki Haley, whose earlier avatar of Namrata Randhawa was Indian in ethnicity. Ambassador Haley personally gave complete backing to Greenwood over her ethnic cousin Dalveer Bhandari, until the final stages, when it took a command from the White House to make her change her stance.
President Trump intervened on India’s behalf when it became obvious that 2/3rd of UN General Assembly members favoured India. Unfazed by such support, the UK sought to invoke the conference route, whereby the much bigger UN General Assembly would have only the same representation as the Security Council. However, both Moscow and Washington opposed such a move, aware that it would not only anger Delhi, but provoke resentment within the UNGA, which since the time of the George W. Bush war and subsequent occupation of Iraq has been forced to assume a powerless role.
Among the factors that worked against Greenwood was that the jurist was an enthusiastic backer of that war, justifying on shaky legal grounds Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to march behind Bush in launching the 2003 war that sent Iraq into chaos. This ever faithful “human poodle” of US policymakers was subsequently rewarded by a well-paying UN position in recognition of the way in which he followed Washington’s lead on the Iraq war without hesitation.
MUSLIM COUNTRIES BACKED INDIA
Besides the monarchies, another bloc that stood by the UK was Eastern Europe, where questions of ethnicity are still important. In contrast, several western European countries broke away from the UK and gravitated towards India. These were led by France, which under the youthful Emmanuel Macron has been trying to assume a global leadership role as during the De Gaulle era, and in the process cultivating the developing countries. President Macron was the second among the P-5 leaders to sense the groundswell of resentment against the UN Security Council for usurping the powers that ought to have remained with the General Assembly, which is the actual but largely ignored heart of the UN system. He was preceded by India’s all-weather friend, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who early in the process signalled Moscow’s unwillingness to damage Moscow’s cordial relations with India by backing a UNSC member-country candidate, who saw his Indian competitor increase his UNGA lead over him with every round of voting, to the level where another round would have led to a 2/3rd vote for Bhandari against Greenwood.
Finally, only China was left by the UK’s side, but even Beijing understood that backing the UNSC candidate over the UNGA’s favourite would damage its standing as a champion of the developing countries. Beijing, therefore, joined with the US and Russia in opposing the move by London to take the contest to a UNGA-UNSC conference with three members from each side. The UK judge’s politically motivated support for the Iraq war on specious grounds was disseminated extensively among UNGA members by numerous delegations, and played a role in most of the Muslim-majority countries ignoring the increasingly frantic efforts of GHQ Rawalpindi, acting through the civilian government in Pakistan, to secure the victory of the UK judge. Greenwood’s term was ending, but he wanted a fresh innings in the ICJ. Of the 58 Muslim-majority countries, more than 40 eventually backed India over the UK, many out of disgust at Greenwood’s role as an apologist for the 2003 Iraq war launched by Bush and Blair after giving false evidence to the UN through Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Now that the UNGA has shown that it has the capacity to challenge the dominance of the UNSC if it has the requisite numbers, Prime Minister Modi is quietly looking at UN reform, including ensuring for India a permanent berth in the UNSC. The victory of Dalveer Bhandari was the opposite of what took place in 1971 during the Bangladesh crisis, when almost the entire UNGA voted against India. In the ICJ episode, that was reversed, with almost the entire UNGA (183 members exactly) voting with the candidate enjoying the backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.