India's Foreign Minister spells out India’s concerns about politicization of terrorist listings and stalling of proposed UN reforms
The 11-days that India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar allocated for his recent visit to the United States (US) to attend the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and numerous other multilateral and bilateral events were a sign of the increasing confidence and assertiveness that India is now displaying on the international stage. Apart from addressing the UNGA, which had the theme this session of ‘A Watershed Moment: Transformative Solutions to Interlocking Challenges’, Jaishankar engaged with a wide and disparate mix of power players, from the US to China and Russia in fora such as the Quad, the BRICS and other important groupings. He also had bilateral engagements on the sidelines, including with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and concluded his US visit with three days in Washington D.C. meeting key US interlocutors there to further consolidate the India-US strategic partnership. Across these engagements, what was perceptible was the willingness that India demonstrated to articulate publicly and directly both infringements of its core interests as well as issues of pressing global concern, even when these involved powerful countries such as the US and China. Jaishankar’s stress on UN reforms, the misuse of terrorist listings for political purposes by the likes of China and Pakistan, and the absurdity of the US quoting terrorist threats to Pakistan while giving hundreds of millions of dollars to it for F16 fighter jet maintenance stood out.
The UN noted that Jaishankar, in his address at the opening of the 77th General Assembly, had reminded his audience that India was celebrating 75 years of independence, which he described as a story of the “toil, determination, innovation, and enterprise of millions of ordinary Indians”. Jaishankar outlined India’s commitment to multilateralism, evidenced, he said, by the decision to supply vaccines to over 100 nations, provide disaster relief to those in distress, and partner with other countries, with a focus on green growth, better connectivity, digital delivery and accessible health. He informed the gathering that India was filling gaps in the humanitarian needs of nearby countries and regions, including the supply of 50,000 metric tons of wheat and multiple tranches of medicines and vaccines to Afghanistan, the extension of $3.8 billion worth of credit to Sri Lanka for fuel, essential commodities and trade settlement, and the supply of 10,000 metric tons of food aid and vaccine shipments to Myanmar.
On the war in Ukraine, raising the question of whether India sided with Ukraine or Russia, Jaishankar asserted that “India is on the side of peace and will remain firmly there. We are on the side that respects the UN Charter and its founding principles. We are on the side that calls for dialogue and diplomacy as the only way out”. He pointed out that with food, fuel, and fertilizer costs rising, it is in the interests of the international community to work constructively to find an early resolution to the war. Saying that the world was poised for “transformational change”, Jaishankar observed that in addition to the war, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate events had also added to the disruption the world was already facing. India, therefore, was pursuing climate action and climate justice, and stands ready to “support any collective and equitable endeavour to protect our environment and to further global wellness”. He announced that as it assumes the presidency of the G20, India will work with other members to address the serious issues of debt, economic growth, food and energy security, and the environment.
The UN also quoted Jaishankar’s assertion on the need to reform the currently “anachronistic and ineffective” UN Security Council (UNSC). He described it as deeply unfair, denying entire continents and regions a voice in a forum that deliberates their future. Jaishankar called for serious negotiations on the matter to be decisively addressed, and for serious negotiations to proceed sincerely, rather than being blocked by procedural tactics. He concluded by echoing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin and said, “We believe and advocate that this is not an era of war and conflict. On the contrary, it is a time for development and cooperation...It is vital that we continue to believe in the promise of diplomacy and the need for international cooperation”.
By the time his visit concluded on 28 September, the Indian EAM came across as more optimistic about the prospect of reforms in the UN. He told journalists at a wrap-up briefing that India believes US President Joe Biden’s promise at the 77th session of the UNGA of reforming the UNSC was different from past Washington pledges, even if no one country could make it happen alone. The Times of India quoted Jaishankar as saying, “My understanding is that the position that President Biden put forward is the most explicit and specific articulation of the US support for reform of the UN, including the Security Council. I don’t think it’s a reiteration of something, I don’t think... it’s business as usual. Now, how this advances, where it goes, I think, depends on all of us, the members of the UN, and where we take it. We have never thought that it was an easy process. But we do believe that the need for reform cannot be denied forever”. Referring obliquely to regional countries such as China, which is opposed to the UNSC candidature of both India and Japan despite both countries having eminently legitimate claims to the body, and Pakistan, which has strongly opposed India’s bid despite having no explicable or reasonable basis for doing so, Jaishankar said, “you also know where the reluctance comes from”.
The UN also quoted Jaishankar’s comments on terrorism and counter-terrorism in his address to the UNGA. The EAM said, “Having borne the brunt of cross border terrorism for decades, India firmly advocates a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach. In our view, there is no justification for any act of terrorism, regardless of motivation. And no rhetoric, however sanctimonious, can ever hide blood-stained hands”. What the UN did not quote was equally weighty. Jaishankar had added, “The United Nations responds to terrorism by sanctioning its perpetrators. Those who politicize the UNSC 1267 Sanctions regime, sometimes even to the extent of defending proclaimed terrorists, do so at their own peril. Believe me, they advance neither their own interests nor indeed their reputation”. This second part of his statement was directed against China, which on behalf of its close and unquestioning ally Pakistan, and as a veto wielding permanent member of the UNSC, has on multiple occasions blocked bids and proposals by the US, India and others to designate Pakistan-based terrorists under the 1267 sanctions regime of the Council. The latest such incident occurred this month itself when China put a hold on a proposal moved by the US and co-supported by India to designate Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) terrorist Sajid Mir, one of the main planners and executors of in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks who has figured prominently in several past EFSAS publications, as a global terrorist. Last month, China put a similar hold at the UN on a proposal by the US and India to blacklist Abdul Rauf Azhar, the brother of Jaish-e Mohammed (JEM) chief Masood Azhar and a senior leader of the Pakistan-based terror group. Before that, in June this year China had put a hold on a joint proposal by India and the US to list Pakistan-based terrorist Abdul Rehman Makki under the 1267 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee. These are just the most recent instances from a long list.
Jaishankar elaborated on India’s concern on this count at a media interaction in New York. He said, “We are trying to get across our message that terrorism is not political. It should not be used as a political tool, its consequences should not be made political. We do believe that in any process if any party is taking a decision, they need to be transparent about it. So the idea that something is blocked without assigning a reason, it sort of challenges common sense”. Underlining the message that it is “not inter-State politics which we are talking about”, Jaishankar added, “We hope that reason would prevail and people, first of all, would not arbitrarily or politically block… If you go into the UN and say does everybody consider terrorism a common threat, everybody will say yes. So we are saying well, if that’s what your position is, then why don’t your policies and your actions follow up on it”. The EAM informed that he had raised this issue at his other interactions as well. He said, “It came up in some of my meetings. I also mentioned it in my BRICS intervention”.
Jaishankar also related this problem to the fight against impunity, which has become a very valid and worrying problem of today that EFSAS has been highlighting for some time now, whether that be in relation to Myanmar or to Belarus or elsewhere. With the Chinese Foreign Minister listening, Jaishankar said during a ministerial meeting on Ukraine in the UNSC last week that the fight against impunity was critical to the larger pursuit of securing peace and justice and that the Security Council must send an unambiguous and unequivocal message on this count. He added “politics should never ever provide cover to evade accountability. Nor indeed to facilitate impunity. Regrettably, we have seen this of late in this very Chamber, when it comes to sanctioning some of the world’s most dreaded terrorists. If egregious attacks committed in broad daylight are left unpunished, this Council must reflect on the signals we are sending on impunity. There must be consistency if we are to ensure credibility”.
The question of impunity, although in a different context, was also raised by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the media briefing following his bilateral meeting with Jaishankar on 27 September. Attempting to justify the US decision of earlier this month to approve a $450 million F-16 fighter jet fleet sustainment programme to Pakistan, reversing the decision of the previous Trump administration to suspend military aid to Islamabad for providing safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, Blinken said, “To be very clear, this is a sustainment programme for F-16s that Pakistan has long had. These are old plans and systems that they already have. We have a responsibility and obligation to whoever we provide military supplies to maintain and sustain them”. This part was logical and perfectly understandable, but what he said next – “Pakistan's programme bolsters its capability to fight terror and terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan or from the region. It is in no one’s interest for them to go forward with impunity. This capability that Pakistan has can benefit all of us in dealing with terrorism” – came across as a little far-fetched and convoluted.
Pakistan, whose pro-terror credentials are well known and which took huge sums of money from the US to fight the Taliban and the Haqqani Network but instead extended support to the very same Haqqani Network to fight the US, is hardly likely to use US F16s to counter terrorism. Jaishankar, just a couple of days before, had made this same point when he raised concerns about the merits of the US-Pakistan relationship and had commented in an interaction with Indian-Americans that “Very honestly, it's a relationship that has neither ended up serving Pakistan well nor serving American interests. So, it's really for the US today to reflect on what the merits are of this relationship and what they get by it”. On the F16 sustainment programme he had said, “For someone to say I am doing this because it is all counter-terrorism content, and when you are talking about something like the capability of an F-16, which everybody knows, and you know where they are deployed and their use, you are not fooling anybody by saying these things”.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, commenting on the matter at his daily news briefing had made the point that “We don’t view our relationship with Pakistan, and on the other hand, we don’t view our relationship with India as in relation to one another. These are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each. We look to both as partners, because we do have in many cases shared values. We do have in many cases shared interests. And the relationship we have with India stands on its own. The relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own”. Price had added, “We also want to do everything we can to see to it that these neighbours have relations with one another that are as constructive as can be possible. So that’s another point of emphasis”. These views and perspectives, again, were clearly understandable, but not so much what Price said in response to another question. The spokesperson betrayed a less than accurate appreciation of history, even recent history, of the US’ engagement with Afghanistan when he claimed that “it was not in Pakistan’s interest to see instability and violence in Afghanistan. It is not in Pakistan’s interest to see instability and violence in Afghanistan”. Many knowledgeable scholars and experts on the region would, not without solid justification, retort that no other country has heaped as much instability and violence on Afghanistan as Pakistan has.
Time will tell how the issues discussed at the 77th UNGA session and its sidelines, especially with regard to reforms in the UNSC, will pan out, but through its confidence and assertiveness India has signaled that it will stand up to be counted every time its core interests are involved.