The presidency of the Security Council is always a high time for a country’s diplomacy, but for India right now, it’s more than that. In August, the country is going to try to show the world why it deserves a permanent seat in the United Nations’ most important body. According to T. S. Tirumurti, India’s ambassador to the UN, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again highlighted the need for major reforms of the Council and India’s long quest for permanency in it.
“If you look at the Security Council, seven of the countries on the Council right now were not even members of the United Nations when the UN was born,” Tirumurti said in an interview on July 28. “When the Security Council cannot accommodate the countries like India and a few others who are knocking at the doors of the Security Council for permanent membership, what happens is the credibility of the institution goes down because it is not representative.”
Mohamed Zeeshan, the author of “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership,” thinks that while India is now more vocal in its bid for a permanent seat by describing the country as independent and not particularly aligned with big powers, it may need to be more assertive on key Council issues to prove its relevance.
“India needs to start playing a much more proactive political and security role in the Middle East, in Africa, all of the civil wars that we’re seeing around the world; in Syria and Libya and Yemen and so on, and far beyond its own neighborhood,” Zeeshan said in an interview with PassBlue. “But I think that we are several years away from seeing that sort of a paradigm shift in Indian foreign policy. And so we’re going to see much more of the same that we have seen over the years from India at the UN.”
This month, India is planning a meeting on maritime security on Aug. 9. Ambassador Tirumurti said that India wants to highlight many aspects of maritime security, some of which have been done in detail in the Security Council, like piracy and drug trafficking. “We have had resolutions, but we also want to get the broader structure in place because now we are looking at the global commons, we are looking at the blue ocean economy, so many other things are coming in,” he said.
Zeeshan, however, sees a more strategic reason for India to convene such a meeting. The country is part of the Quad, a partnership among the United States, Japan and Australia that shares a vision for a “rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.”
“Unlike the United States or even Japan, India does not want to name and shame China, so to speak . . . and has not been able to frame itself publicly as a counterbalancing coalition against China because India is very sensitive about doing that for whatever reason,” Zeeshan said about the Quad. “But the core of it, or the objective and intention that India is trying to pursue, is to try and establish some sort of balance of power in the Indian Ocean in particular, and in the South China Sea as well.”
India also intends to focus on counterterrorism, one of its core foreign policy priorities. The Council meeting, on Aug. 19, will coincide with the release of the UN secretary-general’s latest report on ISIS and Daesh. An Aug. 18 meeting on peacekeeping, under the theme “protecting the protectors,” is also scheduled. Ambassador Tirumurti says India is hoping to pass a resolution to end impunity for crimes against peacekeepers. After the vote on the resolution, if it occurs, the Council will discuss the use of new technologies for peacekeepers, he said.
Even if no meeting on Afghanistan is currently on the Council’s schedule for August, the ambassador said it would keep a close watch on the escalating violence in the country. “I think, in fact I expect that probably the Security Council will be looking at this aspect sooner rather than later,” he told the press on Aug. 2 in his media briefing.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the presidency of the Security Council. This column follows ones this year on Tunisia, Britain, the US, Vietnam, China, Estonia and France.
To hear an original analysis with more details on India’s presidency and insights from Zeeshan, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on Patreon or SoundCloud, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela, with research by Ivana Ramirez. (Excerpts of the podcast are below.)
Ambassador to the UN: T.S. Tirumurti, 59
Since: May 2020
Languages: English, Tamil, Hindi and Arabic
Education: Bachelor of commerce, Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College, Chennai, India. LL.B., Delhi University, 1985
His story, briefly: Ambassador Tirumurti was born in the city of Coimbatore, a major metropolis in the state of Tamil Nadu, southern India. Diplomacy was part of his upbringing, as he comes from a family of civil servants. When it came time to choose a career path, he didn’t hesitate: “They have been an inspiration to me,” he said of his family. “I got selected in 1985. So it’s been a long, long time ago.”
Tirimurti has been posted all over the world: Egypt, US, Malaysia and Geneva. However, he has spent a lot of time focusing on the Middle East and Africa, which is helpful in the Security Council, given its concentration on geopolitical problems in those regions. “I’m an Arabic speaker, so I’ve served in the Arab world,” he said. “I was the first Indian representative to the Palestinian Authority. I opened India’s mission in the Gaza Strip. I’ve also dealt with other countries in the Islamic world, like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, as a commissioner. These give me a perspective on some of these issues, especially when we discuss this in the Security Council.”
He served in the ministry of international affairs in such roles as under secretary for Bhutan; joint secretary for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives; and joint secretary for the UN in New Delhi. He was deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Jakarta and India’s high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur.
Tirumurti is married and has a daughter and a son. His wife, Gowri Tirumurti, is the daughter of the now-retired tennis player Ramanathan Krishnan, whose son is also a professional tennis player. When asked what it’s like to marry into a family of athletes, coming from a family of civil servants, the ambassador said, “I can assure you that there are a lot of similarities in diplomacy and sports.”
His remarks have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Does India have a timeline to try to obtain a permanent seat in the Security Council, and what do you think is the best way to get that seat? When the next session [of the General Assembly] starts [in mid-September], we should immediately get around to discussing a text. Of course, all of us have different views, and they are free to express their views, but let us do it in a single, consolidated text and start negotiating from that. I think that is the best way to go.
I think we have a majority of countries who want reform; for example, the African continent has no representation, and I think it deserves representation in the Security Council. My prime minister [Narendra Modi], when he was in Africa, mentioned in so many words that reform of international and global institutions is never complete until Africa has a voice. Therefore, these are the things which we need fixing. I think it’s important to have a text-based negotiation, have a timeframe of two years, and we can get the text moving, bring it to the General Assembly, and then we can discuss it openly in a transparent way. Stopping any discussion on this is not the way to go.
Will India try to highlight China’s behavior in the South China Sea during the Security Council meeting in August on maritime security? I think maritime security is a matter of concern to all of us, including China. I think this is a matter which people tend to forget because we are all talking the same language when it comes to maritime security . . . we do want this to be an important focus, irrespective of where you live because like us, many of us have huge coastlines. One of the most dastardly terrorist attacks on our hotel in Mumbai and other places came from the sea. Those people came and landed on the shore, and they went in and they killed people. Therefore, it’s a matter of impact; both traditional and nontraditional threats are important for all of us.
Coming to this question of the Quad, we don’t see it as against a country. This is something which we have mentioned very clearly, it’s not a military alliance. We have, for example, Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], which is made of five major economies. Nobody’s saying that the Brics is against another country, not at all. It is important because we felt that five of us have the certain synergy to come and try to see how best we can protect our interests on the international level, on economic and social and other issues.
In fact, I was sherpa of Brics before coming here, and the [UN] Chinese permanent representative [Zhang Jun] was sherpa of Brics before coming here, and we both work together in Brics. I don’t think at any point we see any initiative like the Quad or others as standing against another country. I’m reasonably confident that this is an area of great interest to all of us. We are quite sure that we will have a perspective from different countries, which may not be similar, but we will certainly enrich the discussion, and we are looking forward to China’s views as well.
Counterterrorism is a priority for India in August. In September, New York City will commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, yet terrorism is still active around the globe. Two decades later, do you believe the UN is the best platform to address this issue, and do you agree with critics who say the UN Office of Counterterrorism (UNOCT) is now too big to tackle this global problem? India has probably been the biggest victim of terrorism, more than any country in the world; I can say that without any hesitation. It’s a very painful thing to acknowledge that we have been time and again subject to this. At the same time, we have also been at the forefront to combat terrorism, and when you look at how the UN has evolved, I think it has been a positive evolution in the UN because now they realize that combating terrorism is more important than ever.
Even during the pandemic, terrorists have taken advantage of the situation. It hasn’t decreased, it has become worse. Therefore, we think it’s a very, very serious thing to combat. We are happy that the UN has taken the initiative. Vladimir Voronkov [the head of UNOCT) was there and steered the ship in the right direction. But it is also important for the member states to be fully involved in it. That is why, when the global counterterrorism strategy was discussed over the last couple of months, we were right there, and we sat down with all of them. We negotiated this document on the strategy because it’s extremely important for the rest of the world. We have new forms of terrorism, and the financing of terrorism is a major issue. It is therefore important that the strategy is robust on terrorism.
I’m happy to say that we’ve shaped the discussion on many aspects of the strategy. At the same time, we are also very, very careful about one thing: that there are trends to justify terrorism, and this is something we don’t want. We wanted to make sure that when we talk about terrorism, it has no justification, there’s no religion; it is no “this,” no “that.” There are efforts to justify some aspect of terrorism or the other, and that’s something which is not acceptable to us. We tried to keep out all the references or attempts to classify terrorism. We have something, I think racially and ethnically motivated terrorism, and then we had different nomenclatures.
I took a very simple line, which is that before 9/11, we had “your” terrorists and “my” terrorists, and when 9/11 happened, the world realized that terrorism in one part of the world can affect another part of the world, right in the heart of the United States. That is why it became “our” terrorist, so there was a collective effort to fight terrorism. Now, exactly 20 years later, we should not start classifying terrorism again into artificial groups; let’s fight it collectively. At the end of the day, countries have to implement the global counterterrorism strategy. They have to make sure that they stop the financing of terrorism. No country should be a safe haven or giving refuge to terrorists. And we do hope that the international community will take it forward in a very positive way.
Head of State: Ram Nath Kovind
Head of Government: Narendra Modi
Foreign Affairs Minister: Subrahmanyam Jaishankar
Type of Government: Parliamentary republic
Year India Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council:1950-1951, 1967-1968, 1972-1973, 1977-1978, 1984-1985, 1991 -1992, 2011-2012, 2021-2022
Population: 1.4 billion
Memberships in Regional Groups: Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Group of 77 (G77), Commonwealth of Nations, World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF)
CO2 emissions: 1.9 tons per person, 2019 (world average, 4.7 tons per person; US: 16 tons; target for 2030 to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius limit: 2 tons)