Ruchira Kamboj, India’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the Security Council could no longer afford to delay being more reflective of the diversity of the UN “wider membership” if it wants to remain relevant. The South Asian country of nearly 1.4 billion is president of the Council for December, the second time in its 2021-2022 elected term, which finishes at the end of the month. Once again, India is dedicating its leadership status to pursue the realization of a “new orientation for reformed multilateralism” — changing the Council to include India as a permanent member.
In an interview days before India’s Council presidency began, Kamboj told PassBlue that the UN’s most prestigious body is still stalling to ensure a truly geographic representation, more than two decades since world leaders agreed on the need for reforms. Critics of the Council have always called its structure outdated, granting Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States permanent seats with veto power and 10 members elected on rotational two-year terms.
Kamboj is India’s first woman permanent representative, although she dismisses such labels. She said that the development architecture beyond the UN was also seriously distorted and called for “intense efforts” to realign global financial and trading systems to address the lopsidedness.
“The multidimensional crises facing the world today certainly demand a representative, multilateral architecture that is reflective of contemporary global realities and is well equipped to meet the emerging challenges,” she said in a Zoom interview from her office near UN headquarters in New York City.
Even though Kamboj is worried about the slow pace of reforms at the UN, India sees a ray of hope arising from the 77th opening annual session of the General Assembly in September, where 76 countries expressed support for changes in the structure of the Council. At least 129 of the UN’s 193 member states are required to back changes to the UN Charter that defines, among other aspects, the organization of the Council.
India’s mission is to push this conversation with an open debate in the Council on Dec. 14, to be chaired by External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Kamboj and her team hope the session will be an exchange of ideas to ensure the emergence of a diversity-sensitive Council, reflecting global trends.
The other main focus for India’s presidency is to improve the global counterterrorism approach, through a Dec. 15 open debate. Terrorism remains a major threat to global peace, Kamboj said. For India, it is an area of special concern as terrorism increasingly undermines the safety of lives and property back home and in the South Asia region as well as in parts of Africa, such as the Sahel area. Jaishankar is planning to chair the debate.
Kamboj said the proliferation of digital technology represents another layer of danger in the universal threat of terrorism as it presents a new channel that can be exploited to finance transnational crime.
“The existing and emerging threats call for a renewed, collective approach to terrorism,” Kamboj said. “This high-level briefing of the Security Council will provide an opportunity for the Council to take stock and build on the recent deliberations of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting held in India in October this year.”
India heads the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the Security Council until Dec. 31. A meeting of the committee in October on battling new technologies that are used in terrorist attacks resulted in the adoption of the Delhi Declaration. It spells out approaches for global collaboration to combat the universal and transnational threat of terrorism.
In a letter seen by PassBlue, Kamboj laid out to Council members India’s specific agenda for the Dec. 15 debate, saying, in part, “The era of classifying terrorists as ‘bad’, ‘not so bad’ or ‘good’ based on political convenience must end immediately.” One of the “guiding questions” to shape the Council debate, she added, includes “Has the lack of a common international framework weakened our fight against terrorism?” The UN’s top counterterrorism expert, Vladimir Voronkov, is scheduled to speak at the session.
Commenting on India’s presidency, PassBlue interviewed Shyama Venkateswar, a public policy expert and a member of the New York City Commission on Gender Equity. She thinks India needs to use the Council to address Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
“Now that India is at the helm of the presidency of the Security Council, Ukraine needs to be a part of the de-escalation agenda,” she said. India abstained from a vote condemning Russia earlier in the year and continues to trade with Russia, increasing its purchase of crude oil — at discount — despite sanctions imposed on Moscow by the European Union and the United States.
The Council met on the continuing humanitarian crisis — spotlighting the suffering of children — in Ukraine on Dec. 6. India again said that it “stands ready to support all such efforts aimed at de-escalation.” Like some other Council members, including Russia, Kamboj does not use the word “war” to describe Russia’s illegal invasion. Instead, she calls it a “conflict.”
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or top diplomats as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of India in December, listen to PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, on SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher and Apple. The interview goes deep into India’s purchase of discounted Russian crude oil during the Ukraine war; India’s use of coal, despite its commitments to curb global warming; and what it means to be India’s first woman permanent representative. (Kamboj’s media briefing on Dec. 1, below.)
Here is an excerpt — edited and condensed — from the interview with Ambassador Kamboj, held on Nov. 29:
PassBlue: Let’s start with your signature event for the month. What is it about and what is its goal? We will be holding the presidency for the second time in this eighth term of membership in the Council for 2021-22. We are going to focus on two major themes: One on the new orientation for reformed multilateralism. The second will be to discuss the global counterterrorism approach, and importantly, the way forward. So let me take up the two items individually. First is reformed multilateralism. Now I’m sure you will agree that it is very clear that the UN of today is far from reflective of the true diversity of the UN’s wider membership 22 years after world leaders called for a comprehensive UN Security Council reform. We have not moved even an inch forward. And there is a lack of even a negotiating text. So the negotiations are stuck. The multidimensional crises facing the world today certainly demand a representative multilateral architecture that is reflective of contemporary global realities and is well-equipped to meet emerging challenges.
Terrorism is one of the most serious threats to international peace and requires a coordinated, coherent response on the part of all member states. And India will continue to shine a spotlight on this issue that is a reality for many countries in South Asia and increasingly in Africa. There is also a resurgence of terrorism and an increased risk of terrorists exploiting the proliferation of digitalization, new and emerging modes of communication and financing technologies. The existing and emerging threats call for a renewed collective approach to terrorism. This high-level briefing of the Council will provide an opportunity for it to take stock and build on the recent deliberations of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting held in India. We will have other activities, scheduled activities, which follow a certain cycle and a certain calendar in the Council.
PassBlue: Available records show that India has been a key beneficiary of Russia’s discounted price of its crude oil since Western sanctions were imposed on Moscow after it invaded Ukraine earlier this year. Does a cheaper oil supply influence how India votes on resolutions condemning Moscow in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council? First and foremost, India has been clear from the outset, we are against violence, we want a complete secession of hostility and a return to dialogue and diplomacy. We will support every effort towards de-escalation. We have been very clear that this is not an era of war. Second, as far as the humanitarian situation is concerned, India has not lagged behind at all. We have walked the talk. The third thing is that we have been very clear, we have condemned the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure in the course of conflicts no matter who commits this. Fourth, India stands by the United Nations Charter, we favor the terrestrial integrity and sovereignty of the state. We stand by international law. As far as the question of oil is concerned, I will state very clearly that ours is a developing country. The people of India come first and foremost, we have to look into the welfare and well-being of our people, every other country does it. Should we be any different?
PassBlue: What do you think of the political upheaval in China, and does it have any influence on India and Asean? And what do you say about the repressive regime in Myanmar? It is not our policy to comment on internal affairs or domestic affairs of other countries. So it will be entirely inappropriate to comment on what is happening within another country. As far as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is concerned, India has a very strategic partnership with the Asean countries. We engage regularly with them across a wide range of issues. Very recently, you would recall that the Asean summit took place in Cambodia, and India was very much present. . . . As far as the situation in Myanmar is concerned . . . . we are very mindful that we need constructive diplomacy, and we have stated that we support a dialogue between all stakeholders which will facilitate a return to democracy, release of political prisoners and an end to violence.
PassBlue: India is a founding member of the UN, back in 1945, and it wants a permanent seat in the Security Council. Why? We feel that India should have a permanent seat in an expanded Security Council. If you look at the state of affairs today, let’s go back in time, to 1945, when the United Nations was founded; they were at that time 51 members and five permanent members. Today, the membership of the United Nations has increased fourfold, almost 200 members states and still the five permanent members. If you extrapolate the situation further, the crises that face the world today, I’m sure you will agree that the current architecture is ill equipped to deal with that. I think that has been proven. So the case for reform is very, very clear. And the need for new actors in a multipolar world to claim their rightful place in the global top table is equally clear.
PassBlue: India was the second-largest coal user in the world in 2021. What would make the country consider reducing its coal consumption? Let me put this question in perspective. India has very strong and impressive green credentials. Now you would recall at COP26 in Glasgow, India’s prime minister [Narendra Modi] announced our aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. India’s efforts towards clean energy access and security, industrial, decarbonization and efficiency, sustainable agriculture and low-carbon living affirm our commitment to a transformative shift towards sustainable lifestyles for all. India is moving very fast towards greening its environment. In fact, we are nine years ahead of our Paris commitments, and by 2030, 50 percent of our energy will be from renewable sources. So to suggest that we are relying only on coal is not quite right, because we have taken every major step to green our economy, despite that we are a developing country. I would urge the journalistic community, if I might say, to not latch on to preconceived narratives, but rather understand and appreciate what countries are doing and bringing to the global top table.
India’s ambassador to the UN: Ruchira Kamboj, 58
Ambassador to the UN since: 2022
Languages: Hindi, English and French
Education: Master’s degree in political science, Delhi University
Her story, briefly: Kamboj is India’s first woman permanent representative. She joined the country’s foreign service in 1987 and received her first foreign posting two years later. From 1989 to 1991, Kamboj served as the third secretary of the Indian embassy in Paris. She spent the next five years working in the Western Europe division of her country’s foreign service in Delhi. She was then seconded to Mauritius as the first secretary, from 1996 to 1999. She has also served as high commissioner of India to South Africa; was the first woman Indian ambassador to Bhutan and was India’s ambassador to Unesco, based in Paris. She was the All India women’s topper of the 1987 civil services batch and topper of the 1987 Foreign Service batch. Her first posting to New York City came in 2002 as a counselor in India’s permanent mission to the UN. She returned in June 2022 as the top Indian diplomat. Kamboj was born in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on May 3, 1964. She is married to a businessman, Diwakar Kamboj, and they have a daughter. She said she felt privileged to represent her country at the UN but does not wish to bear the tag of “first female diplomat” because, according to her, diplomacy has no gender. She has a passion for multilateral reform, honed especially by her work with the G4 — Brazil, Germany, Japan and India — pushing for the expansion of the Security Council.
India’s Prime Minister: Narendra Modi
Minister of External Affairs: Subrahmanyam Jaishankar
Type of Government: Parliamentary
Year India Joined the UN: 1945
Number of terms in the Security Council: Eight
Population (2021): 1.393 billion
Per capita CO2 emission figures (in metric tons): 1.9 (2021); by comparison, US: 14.5 (2021)
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on India's goal for a permanent seat in the Security Council?
Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.
Though on the basis of population, India has a strong claim on permanent Council membership, its divisive current government would further undermine norms and adherence to the Charter. Reform of the UN itself should devolve more power to the UNGA rather than solidifying the current system, with such problematical governments as Russia and China flouting basic obligations with impunity despite permanent membership.
Not only does the Modi government wield the supremacist Hindutva ideology as a weapon against its large minority populations, but it is locked into a decades long competition with Pakistan, and not only over Kashmir. Though one might note that it has ignored UN resolutions on Kashmir for many decades now. India likes to play Russia and the USA against each other, in extensive arms purchases for example. But in its arms sales that it shows particularly disappointing values, selling to such brutal and destructive governments as the Myanmar Military junta.
One might wish that India, with its glorious spiritual legacies and cultural traditions, would find its way back to the path of Gandhi before pressing its case for permanent membership. It would be such a voice that would lift up the Security Council and the entire UN system. Mr. Modi’s voice, like the voice of so many demagogues from Trump to Erdogan, would not serve peace, security and justice, except to articulate a form of chauvinism.
And speaking of security, the focus on “terrorism” is needed, but obviously terror comes in many forms. Will this discussion simply be a vehicle for disparaging critics? We all know how governments politicize the term “terrorist.” Meanwhile are not extremist governments like India, Myanmar and Russia terrorists themselves? State terror is a real thing.
And finally one might note how India is notorious for bad behavior at the UN, blocking the accreditation of NGOs for many years on end. It is sad that with its ongoing behavior India has undermined its own claim to permanent Council membership.
It would be something special if the Security Council was more representative of the world population. But one would have to be dreaming to assume that global politics would be any more representative.