It’s hard to find a happy diplomat at the United Nations Security Council these days. Western officials grumble about the difficulty of negotiating with India, Brazil and South Africa (the IBSA countries) over the Syrian crisis, to say nothing of China and Russia. The non-Western powers, they suspect, are all plotting to frustrate the U.S. and Europe.
Piffle, reply the supposed plotters. The bleak mood in the Council is a result of the West’s distortion of the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya. If NATO hadn’t used that as a basis for regime change, there might be real cooperation over Syria. Even the unhappiest European officials accept that other powers’ anger over Libya is genuine.
Does anyone gain anything from the stalemate? Russia arguably does. Earlier in the year it failed to halt Western interventions in not only Libya but also Côte d’Ivoire. As Russia’s main claim to leverage at the UN is its willingness to act as a spoiler, these set-backs made it look a shadow of itself. On Syria, its blocking power returned as it resisted – and in October vetoed – EU and US efforts to pass a resolution sanctioning Syria.
For China, the benefits have been less clear, as it prefers to look pragmatic on the Security Council. Nonetheless it felt obliged to side with Russia over Syria. But the real losers have been the IBSA countries, which have often looked trapped between the West and the Russo-Chinese axis as they have tried to respond to events in the Middle East.
India found itself particularly exposed this August when it took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council. Temporary members of the Council often see their month in charge of deliberations as an opportunity for good publicity, but the August slot is cursed. In many years it represents four weeks of diplomatic dead-time, with senior officials either on vacation or gearing up for the General Assembly circus in September.
There is sometimes a summertime crisis to enliven matters, such as the 2006 Lebanon war and the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict. But in such cases the Security Council president is often sidelined. Who now recalls that Belgium held the post in August 2008?
For India, it was clear that Syria was likely to be the predominant crisis during its August presidency (although fighting in Sudan also rumbled on without escalating into a first-order international crisis). The EU had been pushing for some sort of resolution aimed at Damascus since June in response to mounting reports of Syrian army attacks on civilians.
Although the IBSA countries were all known to oppose a resolution at first, human rights organisations had mounted a sustained campaign to change their positions. One activist told me that he expected South Africa to crack first, as unlike Brazil and India, it had voted in favor of the use of force in Libya. But by most accounts Brazil proved to be the most flexible, opening talks with the Europeans on finding a compromise in the Council.
These talks came to fruition at the very start of August with the agreement of a Security Council statement on Syria. This demanded the government halt its repression but also implied that anti-government forces had responsibility for violence too. India’s Permanent Representative, Hardeep Singh Puri, had the pleasure of reading out the statement, and Indian officials claim some credit for its agreement. Nonetheless, most of those who followed the negotiations closely affirm that the Brazilians were the instrumental actors.
Having opened its presidency with this minor diplomatic coup, India could do little to top it. It organised a thematic debate on peacekeeping at the end of the month that generated zero excitement (although as one veteran UN official pointed out to me when I complained, the Council’s “ritualistic approach to thematic debates has long deadened the mental cells.”) A fair assessment of India’s performance by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis concludes that the Security Council presidency was competently run but “inadequate for India to advance its claims to a permanent seat in the Council.”
Even those analysts who took a close interest in India’s behavior were soon distracted by the flood of big news stories that came out of the Council in September. These included not only the fight over Palestine’s decision to request full recognition at the UN, but renewed debates over UN sanctions on Syria. While the Europeans were willing to compromise on the language of the resolution, Russia and China were fiercely opposed.
Attention switched back to India, Brazil, and South Africa. As before, Brazil was widely rumoured to be the IBSA country closest to cooperating with the West. India, by contrast, was reported as being the closest to the Russian position – at one point perhaps even closer than China. When the EU finally decided to force a vote on the issue on 5 October and the Chinese and Russians used their vetoes, the IBSA countries abstained. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice referred to the three powers having prioritised “solidarity”. She may have hoped that Brazil would forget about solidarity and align with the West.
The fact that IBSA voted as a bloc can be interpreted as a success – it is generally recognised that the trio of powers have been significant swing voters in the Council this year. But this may only be a temporary phenomenon. Brazil is approaching the end of its two-year term on the Council, and South Africa continues to have a greater stake in acting as the leader of the African bloc than in aligning with India. IBSA’s brief moment of importance in the Council could soon be forgotten, and India’s leverage duly reduced.
Meanwhile, the IDSA analysis that India’s Council presidency offered an “inadequate” case for a permanent seat may be too cautious. For the US and many European countries, IBSA’s abstention over Syria is an argument against Security Council reform. Critics of reform have long argued that increasing the number of permanent members to include Brazil and India would lead to paralysis. They can now say Syria proves that.
If the net result of this year’s disputes in the Council is to further delay reform, Indian policy-makers will surely grow less interested in the UN. They will still have good cause to criticize the inequities of the UN system. But they should also recognise that in handling this year’s crises they have missed opportunities to make the case for change.
Richard Gowan is Associate Director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.