EVEN as the latest crises in relations with the US and Afghanistan preoccupy Pakistan’s policymakers, a scheduled event at the current UN General Assembly, with significant portents for the country’s national interests and international image, deserves their full attention — the election to a two-year Asian seat on the UN Security Council.
Membership of the Security Council — even for the two-year non-permanent seat — has several advantages: a voice at the ‘top table’; influence over decisions on important current security issues and political developments; and, of course, the enhanced ability to promote a country’s own national interests. Indeed, for Pakistan it would be crucial advantage to have a direct role in the Security Council during the next two years on Afghanistan, counterterrorism and non-proliferation, all issues that are on the Council’s ‘active’ agenda.
Pakistan is seeking election to the Council after a gap of nine years, a cycle which Pakistan has observed since the 1960s. In 2002, when it was last elected for the 2003-2004 term, Pakistan had secured the endorsement of the Asian Group as the sole regional candidate. This time around, Pakistan initially faced Fiji as the rival Asian candidate. Some months ago, as a friendly gesture, Fiji agreed to defer its bid and endorsed Pakistan’s candidature.
However, Kyrgyzstan has thrown its hat in the ring and, despite minimal chances of success, has remained adamant that it will stay in the contest to the bitter end. Reportedly, high-level approaches from Pakistan have been spurned so far by the Kyrgyz leadership.
The UN’s smaller member states, including micro-states, have the right to serve on the Council. Some small states, notably Singapore, Qatar and Costa Rica in recent years, have made singular contributions as members of the Security Council.
However, in several other cases, smaller states — whose priorities are mainly economic and social — have refrained from pressing for Council membership, particularly when their national capacity to cover the onerous agenda of the Council is clearly limited.
It was generally expected that such factors would eventually persuade Kyrgyzstan to relent, especially since Pakistan has prominent interests to preserve and promote within the Security Council. The Kyrgyz refusal to consider a compromise has surprised many observers at the UN. It is openly conjectured that the Kyrgyz persistence is the outcome of mischief promoted by one or more of Pakistan’s adversaries. The question is: who is behind this mischief?
Through a vigorous campaign at the UN and in capitals, Pakistan has reportedly garnered wide support for its candidature.
However, elections held through a secret ballot — as this election will be — are notoriously unpredictable. At times, commitments, verbal or written, fail to be honoured.
For example, when Pakistan triumphed over India in the 1976 elections to the Security Council, India’s then permanent representative, Rikki Jaipal, confided ruefully that he had received written commitments from well over a two-third majority of the General Assembly membership required for election. But India’s policies of the time — its 1971 military intervention to dismember Pakistan, absorption of Sikkim and the 1974 ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ — had created disenchantment within the international community and played in Pakistan’s favour in the election. Indeed, these considerations were factored into the calculation that led prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to decide to challenge India’s bid for the Security Council seat that year.
Pakistan’s leadership should not expect that the forthcoming election will be immune from the events that bedevil Pakistan’s external relations at this time. Among the major powers, China will firmly support Pakistan, and there is every indication that Russia will also do so.
Despite periodic protestations of regional solidarity, Pakistan has never been able to count on India’s support. Indeed, it must count on India’s overt or covert opposition. New Delhi may be able also to sway some within its circle of close friends to refrain from supporting Pakistan. But, India-Pakistan rivalry is taken for granted at the UN and will not swing many votes.
Other South Asians have reportedly promised support, as indeed have most of the Central Asian neighbours of Kyrgyzstan.
At the UN, most astute observers are convinced that the Kyrgyz bid has been encouraged, if not inspired, by the US. It is reasoned that the US does not want Pakistan to have a seat on the Security Council during the critical endgame in Afghanistan or to provide it a platform to raise difficult issues such as the US drone attacks on Pakistan’s territory.
Unlike India, the US has the influence to significantly complicate Pakistan’s bid for the Security Council seat. Some years ago, Africa’s endorsed candidate, Sudan, was defeated by the last-minute US-sponsored candidature of Mauritius. In UN elections, the US and UK policy is not to declare their position on other countries’ candidatures (even though they expect other countries to assure them of support when they contest any post). Thus, Pakistan has not obtained an assurance of support from the Washington. According to one rumour, when asked what would it take for the US to declare its support for Pakistan’s candidature, a US diplomat responded, “an attack on the Haqqani network”.
Obviously, Kyrgyzstan cannot defeat Pakistan since it cannot secure a two-thirds majority of 128 votes in the General Assembly. But, if its candidature is, indeed, being propped up by the US, it is possible that Pakistan could be denied a two-thirds majority. In previous elections, if an impasse has not been overcome after several ballots, the compromise solution has been either to split the term between the competing candidates or to choose a third, mutually acceptable candidate from the region . Either scenario would be a major humiliation for Pakistan. The Pakistan government needs to exert all possible efforts — even at this eleventh hour — to avoid such an outcome.
The best solution would be to persuade Kyrgyzstan to step out of the contest. To this end, it would be worthwhile approaching the Kyrgyz leadership, including through the dispatch of a high-level envoy to work out an accommodation that offers appropriate incentives to Kyrgyzstan.
Second, a final effort should be made to secure an open assurance of support from the US. Without this, Islamabad would be justified in suspecting the strategic content of US policies, especially on regional issues involving Pakistan’s vital national interests. If Pakistan does encounter difficulties in the forthcoming electoral contest, it would have inevitable negative consequences for the already troubled Pakistan-US relationship.
Third, a final round of high-level approaches need to be made in the capitals of those member states which have yet to offer formal support for Pakistan’s candidature. Pakistan should be prepared for trade-offs and bargains. But it should be conveyed also that the position of the concerned states will have an impact on Pakistan’s bilateral relations with them.
Lastly, in these final days, the scope, level and vigour of the lobbying campaign at the General Assembly must be intensified.
The Foreign Office should deploy additional diplomats with UN experience with the General Assembly delegation to ensure the optimum number of votes for Pakistan on election day. It would also be appropriate for the Pakistan foreign minister to be personally present at the General Assembly to garner maximum support and highlight the importance which the Pakistan’s government attaches to the election.
The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to the UN in New York & Geneva.