In many ways, the Security Council meeting on February 25 — the fourth this month on Ukraine — was akin to the latest episode of the ‘sacred drama’ at the United Nations. As an irreverent UN watcher Conor Cruise O’Brien put it more than 50 years ago:
“Since the United Nations makes its impression on the imagination of mankind through a spectacle presented in an auditorium with confrontations of opposing personages, it may be said to belong to the category of drama. Since the personages, individually or collectively, symbolise mighty forces, since the audience is mankind and the theme the destiny of man, the drama may rightly be called sacred.”
The trappings of a sacrosanct ritual were all there. Before entering the Security Council chambers, European diplomats and the Ukrainian Representative stood together with the Ukrainian flag in front of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, a tapestry about the Spanish Civil War. Since this anti-war masterpiece is strategically located in the passageway leading to the Security Council, it served the purpose of diplomatic signalling of solidarity with Ukraine against the horrors of the hostilities unleashed in Europe following recent Russian actions.
Even while all this was going on, the Council meeting was delayed by a couple of hours as backroom deliberations led to changes in the initial draft of the resolution. The reference that the situation in Ukraine “constituted a breach of international peace” and that Russia had “committed aggression” against Ukraine were excised. Consequently, the determination that the resolution was to be adopted within the framework of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which deals with collective action in response to threats to international peace and security, was dropped. Also, instead of ‘condemning’ Russian actions, the draft was toned down to’ deploring’ them.
These changes may well have ensured that China did not join Russia in vetoing the resolution. Instead, like the other two Asian non-permanent members – India and UAE – China too abstained. All European, African and Latin American members voted in support of the US initiative for 11 positive votes in the 15 member Council. In one way, all this did not matter. Russia, as expected, vetoed the resolution. In another way, the West’s goal of ensuring that Russia was isolated in its ‘nay’ was met. Abstentions don’t count. Russia’s veto was enough to end the substantive part of this episode. There were the usual theatrics, with the Ukrainian Ambassador inviting the Russian Ambassador “to pray for salvation” and pausing for a minute of silence during his statement. After the meeting ended, to complete the final rituals, the UN Secretary-General made a media statement that the UN had today not achieved its primary objective to end war but insisted that “we must never give up.”
Analytically, from an Indian perspective, there was an embellishment of our stance. An affirmation of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that we have always stood for and; a nod to international law and the UN Charter; were all welcome additions. These add to what had become a rather sparse and repetitive narrative. Also, a willingness to term the events as ‘deeply disturbing’ helped in etching out a more nuanced approach. It now stands distinct from the Chinese rationale. Though China voted differently from Russia, its narrative was in several ways close to its “no limits” partner Russia. India making an effort to craft out a distinctive point of view will help in being able to nudge the efforts towards dialogue and diplomacy without being seen as a camp follower by any of the main protagonists.
Now that the initial shoals have been navigated, India requires to keep broadening elements of our narrative. The developments in Ukraine need not be seen only as a ‘UN issue’ or a matter of our citizens in a conflict zone or impacting on our bilateral ties with key interlocutors. A more holistic approach that integrates all these together would serve us better. The demands of global diplomacy in a crisis that impacts so many requires being responsive and accommodative of evolving circumstances without being judgmental or inflexible.
What lies ahead? The failure of the Security Council to adopt the resolution now enables the co-sponsors to float a similar resolution in the 193 member General Assembly. The US has already signalled its intent to do so. The co-sponsors of the failed attempt had swelled to 81. It means the next effort in the General Assembly will pass comfortably. There are no vetoes in the General Assembly.
Nevertheless, the break up of those who joined as co-sponsors thus far shows that 46 of the 81 co-sponsoring states are from the West European and Others Group and the East European Group that together have a total of 50 members. By the time the vote is scheduled, the likely affirmative vote will grow significantly to be in three figures. For that to play out in the next episode of the sacred drama, we still have a few days to go.
(The writer is India’s former Permanent Representative to the UN & currently Dean, Kautilya School of Public Policy.)