The last few weeks have been a momentous time at the United Nations in so many ways. In the aftermath of the Palestinian application for state recognition, the spotlight fell on the most enduring alliances in world affairs — the one between Israel and the United States. But there were other interesting happenings at the United Nations Plaza in New York as well. Arch-rivals India and Pakistan joined ranks as temporary members of the Security Council after Pakistan garnered 129 out of 193 votes in the General Assembly — exactly the two-thirds majority required to win the seat.
While the all-powerful veto from the five permanent members of the council (United States, Russia, China, UK and France) renders the temporary members relatively powerless, the UN Security Council pedestal is nevertheless important in times of crisis. The Security Council is the only UN body with ‘teeth’ to sanction armed intervention and votes of temporary members can make an important policy statement about world affairs. They can also be used as a means of leverage for soliciting aid and have regional repercussions for alliances between states.
It is also significant that China and India both supported Pakistan’s bid from the Asian region against regional friend Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan and India will be on the council together for one year since India’s term will expire at the end of 2012 while Pakistan’s will continue for another year. There have been three previous times that the two countries have served together on the council: 1968, 1977 and 1984. The geopolitical landscape was very different then — the Cold War was still hot and the power of multinational globalisation had not been fully unleashed on the subcontinent.
The United Nations is not as popular in India as it is in Pakistan. Recall that Pakistan loves to brandish non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, which is exactly why many Indians resent the forum. It is now high time that the importance of multilateralism be considered more objectively during this opportunity for Pakistan and India to serve together on the Council. Let us not let positional divisions of yesteryears prevent us from moving forward in fostering greater consensus on issues of substance. Pakistan is well-served by a suave but highly approachable UN ambassador, Abdullah Hussain Haroon who is reported to be on good terms with his Indian counter-part. So I am hopeful that this period of Indo-Pak service on the Security Council will be well-utilized for promoting regional peace as well.
Finally some words about UN governance through ‘country-voting’ that has come under much attack in recent days due to the UNESCO admission of Palestine. The democratic process by which countries are given an opportunity to vote should be respected. This is among the few places where the weak can voice their views. To dismiss the verdict of the majority as inherently flawed — as the United States is doing in its uncompromising opposition to Palestinian membership — is misguided. If we are to operate under a nation-state model of fractured governance, we have to play by its rules. It is also quite offensive and patronising to suggest that poorer and smaller countries are somehow inherently biased against Israel or other causes with which the dominant powers may disagree. One can be a supporter of Israel's right to exist and sympathetic to Jewish aspirations while also strongly critiquing the intransigence of Israeli government policies. Let's hope that Pakistan and India will not fall into this polarizing trap that Israel has ensnared itself and America into, and show due respect to the voice of the world on matters that they might not concur with completely through the United Nations.
Hopefully human societies will evolve to the point where we can have a hybrid form of global governance whereby the positive attributes of nationalism such as language, cuisine and the arts can be retained but the negative aspects of tribalism that lead to exclusion and conflict will be eroded. The European Union is a prototype for such a model but it is incomplete and asymmetric.
A multinational community without covetous countries was Gene Roddenberry’s vision in “Star Trek” and while that may always remain in the realm of science fiction, we must still yearn for such an ideal. In the words of Carl Schurz, a distinguished US Civil War general: “Ideals are like the stars, we may never reach them but like the mariners of the sea we chart our course by them”.
Originally published in Pakistan's Express Tribune in abbreviated form, November 7, 2011