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India at the UN: Thorny Questions for the Ambassador


Syed Akbaruddin, India’s ambassador to the UN, chairing an event marking the first anniversary of the India-UN Development Partnership Fund. On his left is Secretary-General António Guterres and, right, Achim Steiner of the UNDP, June 8, 2018. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

Now was supposed to be the first thaw in relations between Pakistan and India after talks have been stalled since 2016. But Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan recently tweeted about India’s “arrogant and negative response . . . to my call for resumption of the peace dialogue,” hours after India retracted its position on talking to Pakistan at the annual United Nations General Assembly forum in September. (Khan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not attend the event.)

Besides failed initiatives with Pakistan, India will face tough issues at the General Assembly, when its foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, speaks on Sept. 29. The issues include India clarifying its stand on its mistreatment of the Rohingya population in the country, defending its reluctance to conform to the Paris climate agreement and proving its commitment to multiculturalism amid rising internal and global recalcitrance to democratic ideals.

The Indian ambassador to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, 58, who is a former spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, was interviewed recently on specific issues regarding India’s role at the UN, such as obtaining a permanent seat on the Security Council, and what India will project on the world’s largest diplomatic stage tomorrow, in New York. — SOUMYA SHANKAR

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The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. It looks like India has temporarily given up its claims to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Is that so?

Akbaruddin: Today, at the UN, matters related to peace and security are at a standstill for the simple reason that the structure of the UN as it was worked out 70 years ago is that you require great power and acceptance to move ahead on peace and security. Because there is great power rivalry today at the UN, rather than convergence and collaboration, we’ve come to a standstill on all issues relating to peace and security. I acknowledge the Security Council is an issue. What happens to institutions that are not keeping with the times? Such institutions will be overtaken.

Q. Do you agree that the permanent-five membership core that makes up the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — is outdated?

Akbaruddin: By any metric, it is outdated. Either the Security Council reforms and accepts contemporary realities, or people will find other ways — just like the League of Nations.

Q. How can India help achieve reformation of the UN — primarily the Security Council — while facing resistance from the permanent-five members?

Akbaruddin: We are an optimistic country that certainly thinks our time is coming. Whether somebody likes it or not, the sheer weight of our experiment with a billion people trying to live democratically is underway. Never in the history of mankind has there been such an experiment. Today, circumstances are difficult for any political movement [to fructify] in any international organization. But this should not be construed as having given up, or changing our views or not doing enough.

Q. Why doesn’t the subject of Kashmir, where a UN observer mission has been based in one form or another for seven decades, come up on the agenda of the Security Council?

Akbaruddin: Kashmir hasn’t figured on the agenda of the Security Council for the last 50 years. We don’t see this as an issue at all.

Q. When Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein was the high commissioner for human rights, he released a report commissioned by the Human Rights Council this summer that chided India for violations and excesses committed by its army in Kashmir, to which India reacted by calling the report “fallacious, motivated . . . overtly prejudiced.” Is India still standing by its stance on the report?

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Akbaruddin: Even though I’m not the right person to answer this question, since it’s in the Human Rights Council, let me just say: Was this report asked for by somebody? Have any interstate bodies taken cognizance in acting on that report? It has no resonance. It is simply a report which nobody asked for, nobody has welcomed, nobody has supported, and nobody has acted on. I rest my case.

Q. However, there has been unprecedented suffering among the Kashmiri civilian population. What is India doing to lower the tensions and threats in the region?

Akbaruddin: What is happening from our perception is, we are facing a terrorist proxy war, and in such circumstances, there could be excesses of some form or the other. No country has been able to overcome armed resistance without corresponding use of force, and if it has led to some other instances [of excesses] — we have an open system, our judiciary will handle it.

Q. India and Pakistan were supposed to talk on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly forum this week in New York. India accepted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s overture for both foreign ministers to meet, but that will not happen. When is this impasse likely to end?

Akbaruddin: Any democracy will find it hard to conduct a dialogue when people are being killed by those you want to have a dialogue with. Our position has always been, “Let’s stop the violence, dialogue can follow.”

Q. But why did India retract its position to hold a dialogue with Pakistan at the UN this week?

Akbaruddin: Pakistan is glorifying those we consider terrorists. On the one hand, you say that you represent a new thinking, but the reality is . . .  naya Pakistan wahi purana taraana [“new Pakistan, humming the same old tunes”]. How come somebody, who we said was a terrorist, who was involved in killing common citizens, is now eulogized through postal stamps? [The ambassador was referring to Burhan Wani, whose killing by Indian forces in July 2016 provoked a new round of protests against Indian rule and made him a symbolic Kashmiri martyr.]

Participants discussing the victimization of Bengali Muslims, in Guwahati, the state capital of Assam. Although a humanitarian crisis is unfolding there, federal officials have not moved on it. The Indian ambassador to the UN said of the problem, “people have raised the rhetoric.” NIKHIL ROSHAN

Q. On the Rohingya refugee problem, which is now one of the biggest humanitarian crises globally, India has said it will deport that entire population. How do you defend this position in your role at the UN?

Akbaruddin: We are a functioning democracy, people will always take divergent views. People have raised the rhetoric, but we haven’t thrown out any refugees, have we? However, there are countries that are repatriating refugees belonging to the same religion.

Q. But it is also true that the government of India wants to deport the Bangladeshi refugees, which India has followed up by creating a National Register of Citizens, in which up to four million mostly Muslim Bangladeshi migrants are being asked to prove their citizenship or be expelled from the country. Does this reflect a majority view in India’s politics?

Akbaruddin: Let’s not jump to conclusions before the case is complete. The state’s position can only be [clear] once the outcome is decided.

Q. India has historically stood with Palestine, but the relationship between India and Israel has never been better. Will India continue to support Palestine?

Akbaruddin: Since India’s independence, we’ve never cast one vote against the Palestinians. Please name another country in the world that has ties with both Israel and Palestine and yet has continuously supported the Palestinian cause of independence on every occasion. We do have good ties with Israel as behooves a country, which now has good ties with everybody in the world. There is nothing to hide about the benefits we get from our growing ties with Israel, but that does not have an effect on our continued support for the Palestinians.

Q. The US is undergoing many changes in its relationship to the UN under President Trump. The US, for example, cut all its funding this year to the Palestinian refugee agency, Unrwa, among other drastic actions. How does India feel about this?

Akbaruddin: We don’t feel that multilateralism should be undermined because we are by orientation multilateralists. We don’t agree with this position.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Soumya Shankar is working for the ABC News’ investigative unit and teaches multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University. She graduated with an M.A. in political journalism from the Columbia School of Journalism. Previously, she worked for five years on the national political beat for Catch News and Newsclick, based in New Delhi.

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