The United Nations is generally associated with war and peace, the maintenance of international peace and security, but the theme selected for the General Debate of the General Assembly in 2019 was “galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, climate action and inclusion.” This shows that the UN has begun to interpret international peace and security in a broad manner, encompassing not only conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peacemaking but also more unconventional threats to security like poverty, environmental degradation and social duties and discrimination. They are as much a threat to security as aggression, border conflicts and internal strife. It may be recalled that India was the first country to bring up apartheid in South Africa to the UN Security Council as a threat to international peace and security. Initially many countries objected to such an interpretation, but eventually, the UN took action as a denial of human rights was considered permanent aggression.
Today, many problems like poverty, environmental degradation and social disparities are recognised as transcending borders and requiring multilateral action. Only joint efforts of big and small countries can tackle them. Poverty and disease, like peace, are indivisible as we do not live on separate islands. When the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was asked at the time of its 70th anniversary about its greatest achievement so far, he said that the UN vaccinated all the children of the world against infectious diseases, which is the equivalent of preventing a Third World War.
The work that the UN has done in the case of the environment before our very eyes, at least, till the Rio Conference of 1992 was truly historic. The consensus reached at Rio on mandatory cuts of greenhouse gas emissions and the assertion by the developing countries of their right to enhance emissions for development was based on climate equity. Of course, the hopes raised by Rio were completely belied and the Paris Agreement, which has come as a substitute, making cuts voluntary, does not meet the minimum reduction of greenhouse gases necessary to save the globe. The only hope is that the developed countries will change their lifestyles to save the planet.
India has been an active participant of the UN General Assembly from its very inception. India’s faith in the UN has been steadfast, principled and strictly in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. As the UN grew and its agenda expanded over the years, India increased its involvement in the UN, giving prime importance to the global commons rather than to our national interests. India made its impact on every organ of the UN and its specialised agencies. India is among the biggest contributors of troops to UN peacekeeping operations. Some of the most seminal treaties, conventions and resolutions were contributed by Indian delegations to the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council and other bodies. The principle we have followed consistently was the one laid down by Prime Minister Nehru: “We have to work and work hard to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world,” he had said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi reflected the same sentiment when he said, “All our endeavours are centred on 1.3 billion Indians. But the dreams that these efforts are trying to fulfil, are the same dreams that the entire world has, that every country has and that every society has.”
India and the UN have evolved over the years, India emerging from a newly independent nation to a technologically advanced economic power, with the potential to be a part of a new multipolar world and the UN with an expanded agenda, which goes beyond war and peace to tackle terrorism, the environment, HIV/AIDS and so on. Lately, India itself has added Yoga as a means of enhancing the physical and mental health of the citizens of the world.
The transformation of India from a country which prides itself on its past to a 'New India' which is confident of its future was demonstrated best when we enhanced our gift to the UN over a few decades: from a precious 11th-century statue of the Sun God in the early 1980s to a Gandhi Solar Park to power the UN complex lately. When the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to offer India’s first gift to be displayed in the UN lounge in 1982, she selected an exquisite piece of the Early Kushan period, a standing Sun God with his consorts, seven horses and lotus flowers that bloom with the first rays of the sun. I recall the excitement on the arrival of this rare ancient work of art at the UN. The beautiful statue still attracts delegates and visitors alike.
A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the Sun God again, but this time inaugurating the Gandhi Solar Park with 193 solar panels, each representing a member of the multilateral body, at the UN Headquarters during the Gandhi@150 commemorative event to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and mark India’s global leadership in renewable energy.
The roof-top solar park was built at a cost of US $1 million. The park’s estimated annual output is 86,244 KWh: this equals 61 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, 30,242 kg of coal burned and carbon sequestered from 1,008 tree seedlings grown for 10 years.
“Whether it is climate change or terrorism or corruption or selfishness in public life, Gandhiji’s ideals are the guiding light for us when it comes to protecting humanity. I believe the path shown by Gandhiji will lead to a better world,” said Prime Minister Modi. In future years, visitors may still visit the statue in the lounge but will recall that the UN is powered by the same Sun God in a technological reincarnation.
In fact, PM Modi focussed on a new India in all the speeches he made at the UN, whether it was the Terrorism Summit, Global Health Conclave, Swachh Bharat, and most importantly, in his address to the General Assembly. Pakistan had made a concerted effort to raise Kashmir at every forum, but he totally ignored it and spoke on the fundamental issues facing the world and India’s intention to tackle them, together with the other members of the UN.
The basic theme of our PM’s speech at the General Assembly was that all of India’s efforts for economic development were not for India alone, but for the development of the whole world.
“The efforts are ours, but their fruits are for all, for the entire world. And this conviction of mine gets stronger every day, when I think of those countries, who, just like India, are striving for development, each in their own way,” India had given the world Buddha, not 'yuddha' (war). His message was of peace and harmony, deriving from India’s traditions and its civilisation. His remarks were relevant to the agenda of the General Assembly--- that of climate change, Millennium Development Goals, universal healthcare, terrorism and multilateralism.
Similarly, every speech he made on occasions like the Gandhi Solar Park Inaugural, the Climate Summit, the terrorism debate and the Bill Gates Award, our PM kept close to the theme of the current session.
India called for reform of the United Nations this time also as it has done over the last 20 years or more. Though the UN has been resilient enough to accommodate new agenda items, it has strongly resisted organisational changes, particularly the composition of the Security Council, which reflects the global power structure of 1945 and not of 2019. Major countries like India, Japan, Germany, Brazil and South Africa certainly deserve to be permanent members. Any change in the UN Charter needs to have 2/3 majority support of the General Assembly and the unanimous support of the permanent members. Though there are several proposals to correct the imbalance, none enjoys the support required.
Another negative feature of the UN in recent years is the assertion of nationalism by certain countries, particularly the United States, which detracts from multilateralism. The very architecture of the post-second World War globe shaped by the winners of the war appears to be in danger. But India remains committed to the principles of the UN Charter and strives to foster international cooperation in a just and equitable manner.
Despite these negative features, the General Debate at the General Assembly brought up a large number of proposals in pursuit of its theme. The UN has already adopted a Greening the Blue programme to coordinate efforts to save the environment. Moreover, the UN became the venue for an unprecedented protest movement led by a young student, Greta Thunberg, from Sweden which might become a wave for environmental protection. Her words heard at the United Nations will reverberate around the globe. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,' she told world leaders at the 2019 UN climate action summit in New York. In an emotionally charged speech, she accused them of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis, saying: 'We are at the beginning of mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth - how dare you!'