By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
When India breached a diplomatic glass ceiling on November 20, 2017, with Justice Dalveer Bhandari’s election to the International Court of Justice, it not just knocked Britain off a pedestal, it displayed an understated maturity in its approach and showed the efficacy of concerted diplomacy.
Defeating a nominee from Britain, a member of the P-5 (permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council) is a very big deal for India, which aspires to be a permanent member of the UNSC on the basis of its fundamental strengths and its international standing. However, while the election of Bhandari, a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, is a major diplomatic victory, this does not mean that a permanent seat at the UN’s high table, the Security Council, is imminent for India. But it does indicate that the barriers can be brought down.
Britain’s Christopher Greenwood, an international legal luminary of considerable repute, withdrew his candidature for re-election after it became clear that Britain would not be able to push its weight as a P-5 member and muscle its way out of a vote in the UN General Assembly. That the UNGA in this case prevailed over the UNSC is an indicator that the old order will increasingly have to defer to the majority.
Britain’s loss of the seat in the world court is perhaps the clearest indicator of its diminished stature and waning global influence. A major colonial power among the victors of the Second World War, Great Britain then helped shape post-war global multilateral institutions, ensuring pride of place for itself in the United Nations and international organisations like the ICJ.
This election, in which an ordinary UN member directly contested against a P-5 member and emerged victorious, is a rare occurrence and a clear reflection of how the post WWII institutions are incompatible with emerging power structures and will have to adapt to the realities of the 21st century, an idea that India has been steadily pushing.
Losing a seat to India, its erstwhile colony, and being unrepresented in the world court for the first time since the tribunal started functioning in 1946 is being seen as a sign of Britain’s diminishing influence, particularly after Brexit, when it voted to leave the European Union. Equally, it is a vote affirming India’s considerably enhanced global standing.
Presenting a brave façade after the major diplomatic setback, Sir Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s PR at the UN, wrote in the letter withdrawing Greenwood’s candidacy, “In taking this step, we have borne in mind the close relationship that the United Kingdom and India have always enjoyed and will continue to enjoy.”
While there has not been any quid pro quo with Britain, which is reeling under the impact of last June’s Brexit vote, India will certainly move to raise both its diplomatic, commercial and strategic ties with that country, including closing some significant trade deals.
For India, which pulled out all stops in its diplomatic efforts to ensure Bhandari’s election, it was vitally necessary to win, not only for the general diplomatic assertion of its global standing by defeating a member of the P-5 in a straight contest, but also particularly because it is fighting Pakistan in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case, which is awaiting a final verdict at the ICJ.
Pakistan arrested Jadhav last year and tried him as a terrorist, declared him guilty and sentenced him to death without allowing him basic access to any legal or humanitarian recourse. India rushed to the ICJ citing Islamabad’s violation of the Geneva Conventions as it sought relief and an immediate stay on Jadhav’s execution. The world court asked Pakistan to keep the verdict in abeyance pending the ICJ hearings.
New Delhi has been seeking to isolate Islamabad diplomatically, financially and strategically by having it declared as a terrorist state which does not abide by international norms. Having its nominee at the ICJ was therefore vital.
Should it succeed in getting Pakistan to lose the Jadhav case at the ICJ and further its international isolation, India would feel it had succeeded to a large extent in ensuring an aspect of its own security and strategic objective. Pakistan’s international isolation would also place China on notice, for overt support to yet another global pariah, after North Korea.
However the Jadhav case pans out, New Delhi can for the moment savour the taste of a victory which will find it considerably enhanced in stature and, as it did soon after independence as a beacon against colonialism, leading the way to breach more ceilings, like a permanent seat at the UNSC’s horseshoe table.
Akbaruddin, India’s PR at the UN and prime mover in the exercise to get Bhandari elected, best explained the significance of the victory for India, saying it was “a seminal day in Indian diplomacy, marking a shift in global perceptions of India.” How this translates into tangible gains in the near future remains to be seen.
(The author is Editor, India Review and Analysis. She can be contacted at email@example.com)