India became the accidental catalyst for a successful UN rebellion against the hegemony of the permanent members (P5) of the Security Council by facing off Britain with overwhelming support of the rest of the countries in the General Assembly and getting Dalveer Bhandari re-elected to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) -- despite an initial humbling loss to Lebanon.
When Britain withdrew its candidate, Christopher Greenwood, after a prolonged standoff backed by the P5, it was the first time the non-P5, represented by the Assembly, really prevailed over the Council. In the previous instances, when candidates with Council majorities stepped aside, none of them had been from the P5 and it was never a challenge to the P5's claim of a right to representation on the ICJ bench. This was an ominous defeat for the entire P5.
There is symbolism in India defeating Britain. India is not the colony it was in 1945 nor is Britain a globe-spanning imperial power. Whether it is military might, purchasing power parity GDP, population, growth prospects or an expansive world outlook, India has outstripped the United Kingdom. Yet, Britain holds on to its veto-wielding permanency on the Council, while India is shut out.
India's role in the rebellion was not one that New Delhi had sought, but was thrust on it by fortuitous circumstances that also saved face for India, which initially lost the Asian seat. Now the question before India -- and the UN's proletariat, the rest of the non-P5 nations -- is how to harness the groundswell of opposition to the Council's overlordship and change the power structure of the UN starting with a reform of the Council to make it more representative of the world of the 21st century. The permanent seats on the Council were the spoils of World War II taken by the victors but the 1945 scenario has no relevance to 2017.
The Council alone has a broad role to "maintain international peace and security" through its authority to determine aggression, impose sanctions, and launch military action -- which the P5 can individually block or allow through their individual vetoes.
For long, the simmering resentment of the P5's hold over the Council has been building, especially given that its mandates are now focused on regions like Africa and the Middle East that are under-represented in a body with six Europeans, in addition to having no permanent members.
The reform initiative for the Council has been stalled for more than two decades and the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN), as the reform process currently under way is known, has been unable to move forward mainly because of the opposition of a small group known as Uniting for Consensus (UfC) led by Italy, with Pakistan as an important member. Their opposition to a negotiating text -- or an accepted agenda framework -- has put the process mandated in 2008 in a Catch-22 trap: Discussions cannot take place meaningfully without a negotiating text leading to a consensus or a decision, while those opposed to reforms blocked it saying there couldn't be such a document unless there was a consensus first.
The revolt of the non-permanent members could increase the pressures for the hold-outs to get on board when the stalled IGN discussions begin again, especially if the African and Arab nations push for reforms.
For some background to the election, India had sought to keep the Asian seat on the ICJ that Dalveer Bhandari had won in 2012, but lost to Lebanon's Permanent Representative at the UN, Nawaf Salam, a lawyer-turned-diplomat.
Under the rules for election to the ICJ, a candidate has to get a majority in both the Council and the Assembly. Salam was elected in the fourth round of balloting in the Council and the fifth round in the Assembly, along with ICJ President Ronny Abraham, Vice President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf of Somalia and Judge Antonio Augusto Cancado Trindade of Brazil, on November 9.
But while Bhandari got a majority in the Assembly, he lost in the Council to another sitting judge, Britain's Christopher Greenwood. The geographic allocation of ICJ judgeships and the P5's representation were by tradition rather than by statute, allowing Bhandari and Greenwood to contest the remaining seat. The deadlock persisted through the next six rounds of the run-offs between them that continued on Nov 13, with Bhandari getting close to a two-thirds majority in the Assembly and Greenwood in the Council.
The P5 put aside their ideological and geopolitical battles to close ranks around Britain as its loss could threaten their own privilege of having a judge from each of their countries on the ICJ.
Greenwood's supporters stooped to dirty tricks with the third election meeting set for Nov 20. To create disarray in the ranks of the non-P5, rumours were floated that Bhandari would withdraw or that India would agree to a joint conference made up of three each from the two chambers to pick a candidate. But the support for India only got stronger.
Britain and its supporters next considered a legally questionable strategy of stopping further rounds of voting and forcing a joint conference through a Council resolution.
But in the face of the Assembly's resoluteness, Britain folded on Nov 20 conceding: "The current deadlock is unlikely to be broken by further rounds of voting."
There are two other lessons for India. The whole exercise firmly established that its lot is with the non-aligned and developing nations, most of which make up the Group of 77, who rallied to support it. India may have slowly been diluting its ties to these groups, which have themselves lost their ideological edge and cohesiveness. But these groups still share a commonality of interests, maintain their identities despite their heterogeneity and are a voting force. The United States may have a 100-year vision for India as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently said, but for now its priorities are with Britain.
Although it's a case of all's well that ends well, the initial strategy of going against Lebanon's Salam was flawed for two reasons. India did not announce Bhandari's candidacy for re-election till June this year while Salam had been campaigning for about two years and had sealed the backing of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an influential group with 55 voting members in the Assembly. France, a permanent member, had also formally nominated him -- and in turn polled the most votes in the Assembly. India had less time to campaign for Bhandari and line up commitments in the Council. Announcing his candidacy after the OIC endorsement also did not sit well with some OIC members.