Magic of Multilateralism
United in name, but divided in reality: the United Nations hides differences, disputes and disparities behind words. Themes and issues may vary, ranging from the mundane to the exotic, but a good wordsmith can find consensual conclusions to the most contentious debates. The magic of words is as much at play in the United Nations as in literature. I witnessed this reality at every multilateral forum I was in, from the Commonwealth Summit in Lusaka in 1979 to the meeting of the board of governors of the IAEA in Vienna in 2004.
The first multilateral conference I ever attended was a fiasco for India. Mercifully, my contribution to it was nearly zero. The venue was Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in the summer of 1979. Extraordinary events had taken place in India just before the conference. Prime Minister Morarji Desai had just come back from a tour to the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia and Germany, when he found that the prime ministerial rug had just been pulled from under his feet. I was a member of the entourage of the prime minister and saw for myself how his son Kanti Desai came back, loaded with tonnes of gifts from these countries. Desai was supposed to go to Lusaka for the meeting and his sudden fall left a vacuum not only in the country but also at the meeting. As the nation awaited developments with bated breath, the Ministry of External Affairs was gearing up for a new prime minister and external affairs minister. As the special assistant to the foreign secretary, I had collected a bundle of notes from the senior officers in the ministry to be submitted to the new external affairs minister. This was in addition to a fat volume, which was already prepared for Vajpayee and Desai for the Lusaka meeting. By the time Charan Singh emerged as prime minister and Shyam Nandan Mishra as external affairs minister, it was already time for the Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta and other senior officials (A. Madhavan, Alfred Gonsalves and I. P. Singh) to leave for Lusaka for the senior officials meeting.
I was given the responsibility of briefing the new external affairs minister, preparing him for the trip and accompanying him to Lusaka. Mehta and I reached the residence of the external affairs minister minutes after the swearing-in ceremony. Mehta introduced me to Mishra and said that I would take care of everything till he reached Lusaka and that he would take care of Mishra from there. I was asked to sit in the minister’s bedroom with my bundle of papers, waiting for the minister to return from the crowd outside that had come to felicitate the son of Bihar, who had realised his dream. Once a parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Nehru, Mishra brought the Desai government down and helped Charan Singh to become the prime minister so that he could become the external affairs minister of India. He would come in occasionally into the bedroom, and as soon as I began with the organisational chart of the Ministry of External Affairs, he would be called away by another group of admirers, who had come with garlands. Three days passed by and I did not make much headway into the policy briefs, not even the ones required for the Lusaka meeting.
The election of the next secretary general of the Commonwealth was on the agenda of the Lusaka meeting and the serving Secretary General Sridath Ramphal had offered to serve another term. According to custom, most governments including India had agreed to another term for Ramphal, a few months ahead of the meeting. But just about two months before the meeting, Prime Minister Desai decided to put forward Jagat Mehta’s candidature for the post and asked the missions concerned to ascertain his chances. Most missions promptly replied that their hosts had already committed to Ramphal and that India had no chance to get the post. I believe that the British and the Australians had encouraged Mehta to stay in the race for a final decision to be taken in Lusaka. Mehta had expected that he would be made the chief executive of the Commonwealth Fund as a compromise. Desai agreed that Mehta’s candidature should be kept alive till the retreat of the leaders in Zambia. He was expected to strike a compromise, personally, on the issue among the leaders.
Mehta did speak to Mishra about the matter of the secretary general before he left. Mishra, when he heard that Desai was to discuss this personally at Lusaka, felt confident that he could do the same and assured Mehta that he would look into it. He also said that he would read the brief on the way. My briefing did not go far because of Mishra’s other preoccupations. But I got the impression that he was attentive and serious. In between, I had to take him to the navy clinic to get him inoculated against yellow fever, arrange for his passport and other formalities. Packing seemed simple as he just put one achkan set and a shaving set into a suitcase provided by the ministry. In the plane, I sat next to him and went through the briefs. He hardly asked any questions, and I did not have even an inkling of his temper, about which I learnt later. In London, we were at the high commissioner’s grand residence and Mishra appeared comfortable enough.
When we landed in Lusaka, the foreign secretary and other officers received him. President Kenneth Kaunda also happened to be at the airport to receive a head of state. When he saw Mishra, he took him aside for a few minutes, welcomed him and said that they should have an early opportunity to discuss the question of the secretary general. Mishra wisely said that he needed a little more time, but imagined that Kaunda would raise the matter with him again. My senior colleagues were anxious to know what kind of external affairs minister we had, and I gave them glowing accounts of his receptiveness and politeness.
Once we were at the guest house and the minister started asking questions, my senior colleagues grew suspicious of my judgement of the man. They thought that either I was being polite or sycophantic because he revealed a quarrelsome, suspicious and assertive personality. His ego was such that he was not amenable to advice and exuded overconfidence. They sensed that we had a recipe for disaster on our hands. I defended myself by saying that he was perfect till he reached Lusaka, but they did not seem to believe it. Briefing him was painful, as he seemed to know all the answers and that made the officials doubly worried.
The main theme of the CHOGM was Rhodesia, as its liberation was just around the corner and Jagat Mehta himself was heavily involved in the negotiations for a framework for the birth of Zimbabwe, and the officials had done a considerable work on the declaration. We were not sure how the question of the secretary general would be handled, but the minister appeared very clear as to how he would handle it. He kept his plans to himself in the expectation that there was time to think about the alternatives. The summit began the next day, and the leaders discussed much of the agenda by the evening. To our surprise, Kaunda suddenly announced that he would like the heads of delegations to stay back while the others and the secretariat officials withdrew. We frantically enquired what the subject for the heads was and we were told that Nauru’s application for membership of the Commonwealth would be discussed. We advised the minister to support Nauru and all of us left, leaving our minister to deal with his colleagues.
We waited for the minister with bated breath for more than an hour, wondering why Nauru should take so long. At this point, Madhavan and I went for a walk just outside the guest house, and we ran into S. S. Nair, a reporter for The Statesman, who had come from London to cover the summit. He greeted us by saying that our minister had made a fool of himself and told us his version of what happened at the meeting. According to him, Kaunda told the leaders that he would like to dispose off the question of the election of the secretary general quickly, as there was near consensus on another term for Ramphal. India had a candidate and Malawi had not indicated its position. At this point, the Indian foreign minister took the floor and asked a number of questions about the procedure adopted for the election. He said that his own candidate was not important, but he wanted to know how Kaunda had arrived at his judgement and demanded transparency in such matters. Kaunda and others were polite to him initially, but that angered Mishra even more and he challenged the whole procedure as though he was arguing before a district magistrate. Kaunda lost his patience and told him that his officers were misguiding him. This was the last straw for Mishra, as he prided himself as his own man. He castigated Kaunda for that remark and said how he had long experience in foreign policy under Nehru and that he was sure of what he was talking about. The atmosphere became bad and Kaunda suggested that he was being insulted in his own country! Ziau-ur-Rehman of Bangladesh saved the situation by suggesting that, for the present occasion, Ramphal should be elected. But India would be requested to submit a paper on how elections should be conducted in the Commonwealth. This satisfied both sides as the decision on Ramphal was taken and Mishra felt vindicated by the invitation to submit his ideas in writing. Nair said that he had filed a story on this fiasco on the basis of a briefing by the Secretariat. Apparently, an Indian official in the Secretariat, who had close links with Ramphal, had put out the gory details of the incident.
Madhavan and I rushed back to the guest house, where Mishra was triumphantly narrating how he stood up to the presidents and prime ministers to stress our case for proper procedure. Jagat Mehta and others realised that the whole thing was a disaster, and instructed that the incident should be kept totally confidential from the media. We then broke the news that Nair had already filed a story and that it would hit the headlines in India the very next day. The hunt for damage control began immediately and the minister decided, with the concurrence of all of us present, that he should brief the Indian media immediately about our version of the incident, particularly to stress that our concern was about proper procedure and not the candidature of Mehta. I contacted Nair and two other Indian journalists at a dinner party and invited them for a briefing by the minister, and Mishra told them the whole story as it happened. Nair informed the minister that he had heard the same story and that he had filed it. To his question as to whether the minister would write to Kaunda, the minister replied that he would do that very firmly and gave an idea of what the letter would contain. This added spice to the story that Nair had already written, and he must have filed another story the same night.
By the time the briefing was over, we knew that serious damage had been done. After the minister retired for the night, we started wondering what to do with the promised letter. Madhavan strongly argued that no such letter should be sent. But the others felt that since the minister had promised a letter and had also told the press about it, some kind of a letter should be sent. High Commissioner Natwar Singh, who had no love lost for either the minister or for Jagat Mehta, volunteered to take the letter personally to Kaunda. The rest of the night was spent writing the letter, and it was dispatched after the minister had added his own barbs to it.
I must confess that all of us misread the possible reaction in India totally. We felt that public opinion in India would be outraged if we did not stand up to Kaunda, and all our efforts were to prove that India stood firm in its position. But the reaction in India was that Jagat Mehta had used the innocent minister to get a top job for himself and having failed in it, he had wrought vengeance. So the public sympathy in India was for Kaunda and not for us. We discovered this only when we got the press clippings and received a call from Secretary Eric Gonsalves, conveying the displeasure of Prime Minister Charan Singh about the conduct of the Indian delegation. The conference went on for three more days and we were involved in other issues, but Nair kept a steady stream of reporting that the Indian delegation was doing nothing except abusing Kaunda and Ramphal. By the time the conference ended, we had a collection of stories, editorials and commentaries, portraying Mishra as a pawn in the hands of an ambitious Mehta. Kaunda and Ramphal were portrayed as old and loyal friends of India, who were betrayed by the Charan Singh government.
Mishra, Mehta and I travelled back via London, while the others took some other route. Halfway through the flight to London, Mehta gave me a letter addressed to the minister and asked me to read it and hand it over to the minister. It was a letter of resignation. Mehta said in the letter that he took the full responsibility for the events in Lusaka, and that he wanted to be relieved of the post of foreign secretary on return to India. I briefly discussed the letter with Mehta and agreed that this would be a good strategy to contain the situation. But Mishra just refused to announce that Mehta had submitted his resignation. On arrival in London, he maintained the old line that we had stood up against British and Zambian machinations and taught them a lesson or two.
The atmosphere at the Delhi airport, when we reached there, was somber. Gonsalves told Mehta that the prime minister was very upset and the public opinion was strongly against him. The minister declined to speak to the waiting journalists and announced a press conference the next day in South Block. In our briefings next day, we suggested the minister that he should use the resignation letter of the foreign secretary to appease public opinion, but he was adamant that he would handle it in his own way. The press was very hostile and the minister tried to take the credit for putting Kaunda in his place. The press conference was a bigger fiasco than the conference in Lusaka. I remember The Statesman carrying a cartoon the next day showing Shyam Nandan Mishra at the customs at Delhi airport and saying, ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius!’
Jagat Mehta paid a heavy price for the events in Lusaka, even though he was not entirely responsible for them. He was interested in the job of the secretary general, but he had realised early enough that he had no chance to get it. He had advised the minister that his candidature should be withdrawn at the appropriate moment, and he had expected that the subject would come up only at the retreat of the heads of delegations at the end of the summit. No strategy could be worked out, as Kaunda decided to raise the issue on the first day itself. At any rate, he had never suggested that the election should be challenged on procedural grounds. Any experienced person in multilateral diplomacy would have extended support to Ramphal, the moment Kaunda announced that he had the support of 46 of the 48 member states. Mishra’s electoral reform was seen as a ploy planted on Mishra by Mehta, and there was no one to tell the story. The foreign service itself put the blame on the foreign secretary, as he had no dearth of enemies. My feeble efforts to defend him were dismissed as a pure sycophancy. The irony of the whole sequence of events was that the Charan Singh government used the Lusaka fiasco as an excuse to dismiss Mehta as a foreign secretary and told him that he had resigned in any case. That was the ‘most unkindest cut of all!’
Lusaka was a real shock, as I had not imagined that a minor mishandling of an election issue at a multilateral forum would be so traumatic. Though the minister was solely to blame for the mishap, the entire Ministry of External Affairs and the foreign secretary, in particular, had to take the blame. Lusaka remained a blot on the ministry for quite some time though most people did not know the details. Our own colleagues were the worst critics. I remember trying to clear the air about the incident to a senior colleague at her dinner table. She totally distrusted my version and threatened to deny me dinner if I persisted with my arguments. She knew Jagat Mehta too well to believe my story, she said. The lesson I learnt from Lusaka was that experience is very important in multilateral diplomacy. The art of retreat and saving face, when faced with certain defeat, is as important as winning. Every nation pursues its own interests and only coincidence of interests can bring countries together. Identifying such instances of coincidence and exploiting them is at the heart of multilateral work.
My second experience of multilateral diplomacy in the company of the same minister, Shyam Nandan Mishra, at the Sixth Non-Aligned Summit in Havana in 1979 was comic, as my task was to take care of the minister’s programme. His queer habits and bad temper became evident in Havana, but the impact of his presence was confined largely to the Indian delegation. The minister had nothing to do with the substance of the summit, as our officials, under the leadership of Brajesh Mishra, who was the permanent representative in New York, took care of the negotiations. The Havana summit was historic in many ways. First of all, Cuba, as a Soviet satellite, was bent upon establishing the status of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) as the ‘natural ally’ of the Soviet Union. Countries like Yugoslavia and Singapore were equally determined to pull the movement towards the Western block. India, Algeria, Zambia and Sri Lanka had to work hard to keep the NAM to its original moorings. But I was busy with the task of containing the quixotic activities of the minister and of keeping him in good humour.
The minister’s troubles started right from Bombay itself when we boarded the plane to New York early in the morning. As we settled down for takeoff, the airhostess handed over copies of the day’s Times of India to both of us. I could not believe my eyes. It carried a cartoon by R. K. Laxman on the front page, showing the minister and a bureaucrat sitting in an Air India plane. The minister’s mouth was sealed with tape and the bureaucrat was saying to the airhostess, ‘This time the minister is properly briefed.’ This was an obvious reference to the Lusaka fiasco and the obvious risk of the minister repeating his performance in Havana. I pretended that I did not see the cartoon, but with a corner of my eye I was watching the minister’s reaction. He did not look amused at all, but I did not want to start a conversation on the subject. In fact, the press had started carrying stories of the minister’s misadventures, real or imaginary, after the Lusaka episode. According to one newspaper, someone asked the minister whether he would be going to Havana. He replied ‘No, I am going to Cuba!’
I had a flavour of the minister’s sense of geography when the plane was about to land in New York. He was surprised to see so much water around New York, and when I said that the city is on the coast, he was even more surprised. When we were about to land in Havana, he asked me whether Havana was also on the coast and when I said that Cuba is an island, he looked totally astonished. He surprised me in between when we were at a luxury hotel in New York. He called me post-haste to his room in the morning to ask me to open the sealed window so that he could have fresh air for his morning calisthenics.
In Havana, Mishra was introduced to the members of the Indian delegation, some of whom he had not met. Apart from the foreign secretary and Brajesh Mishra, there were Ramesh Bhandari, Sushil Dubey, Ramesh Mulye and Vijay Nambiar, the last three being the lieutenants of Brajesh Mishra in the committees. The foreign secretary was involved in the negotiations regarding Egypt, which was on the mat for signing the Camp David Accords with Israel. That left Ramesh Bhandari and me to keep company with the minister. The Ambassador to Cuba Preet Malik was also available to the minister for advice and assistance.
The minister had meetings with the Indian delegation every morning at which the officers recounted their victories in various negotiations. He did not take much interest in the details, as his mind was focused on his own speech in the plenary. Since he was only a foreign minister and the priority for speaking slots went to kings, presidents and prime ministers, his turn did not come for three full days. He was correcting his speech constantly and reading out his corrections to the delegation every morning. Most of what he added made no sense, but as long as it was not against the trend of the speech, nobody questioned him. Some of them even praised him for his drafting skills. After three days, the minister became restless and started asking the ambassador to ensure that his turn would come soon. But there was no news as heads of state were still speaking. The minister lost his temper with the Indian delegation many times, but remained silent in the plenary.
Fidel Castro himself had a taste of the minister’s anger at this point. Castro had learnt about the Indian minister’s concern about not getting his speaking slot, and so he decided to engage Mishra in a conversation. He walked onto the plenary hall during a recess and asked the minister through his interpreter how he was doing. Castro was surprised at the reply that he was not happy at all, as he had been waiting for India’s turn to speak. Castro explained the protocol to him and said that he could not change it. Mishra then said that the problem was not protocol, but the fact that most speakers were speaking too long. Again Castro said that he could not curtail anybody’s speech, as they were leaders of their own countries. (Castro himself had spoken for three hours at the inaugural session.) Mishra then said that in that case, we did not require a chairman and any machine could do the job. I do not know how the interpreter put it to Castro, but Castro walked away without a word, leaving the Indian delegation dumbfounded. Seething with anger, Mishra looked at Bhandari and said, ‘I am the foreign minister of nearly one billion people. What does Cuba think of itself? What is the population of Cuba?’ Bhandari promptly answered ‘Nothing, sir, absolutely nothing.’
Before the end of the day, we received word that Castro would receive the minister early next morning. Jagat Mehta and I accompanied the minister, but we were told that it was a one-on-one meeting and Castro spent about half an hour with the minister alone. Till today, no one knows what happened at that meeting. We tried to get information from the minister, but he was very evasive. He only told us that Castro asked him to chair one of the sessions as India was a vice president of the conference and that he declined the offer. For the rest, ‘Castro kept talking’, he said.
The Indian delegation worked diligently on the Havana declaration and restored the balance of the document. On the issue of Egypt too, India prevented the expulsion of the country and found an interim formula that saw the movement through the crisis. India also had to fight minor battles like the Yugoslav proposal for a mechanism to resolve disputes within the NAM and the proposal for setting up a secretariat for the NAM. But the chairmanship of Cuba inevitably gave the movement a radical image at a crucial time in history. Significantly, Iraq was elected the host of the next summit, primarily at the instance of the pro-Western delegations.
My duties as the special assistant to the minister prevented me from participating in the negotiations in Havana even though I was already designated as a counsellor in the permanent mission in New York in place of Sushil Dubey. In fact, my entire term in New York coincided with Cuba’s chairmanship of the movement, and it would have been very useful for me to have a background of the negotiations in Havana.
The officers in the permanent mission to the United Nations in New York are assigned to one or the other of the seven committees, the Disarmament and International Security Committee (the first committee); the Economic and Financial Committee (the second committee); the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (the third committee); the Decolonisation Committee (the fourth committee); the Administrative and Budgetary Committee (the fifth committee); the Legal Committee (the sixth committee) and the special Political Committee. The permanent representative and the deputy permanent representative are in the imaginary ‘Eighth Committee’, that is, the corridors where most issues are sorted out, largely through horse-trading. Known policies of the governments are one thing, the possibility for diplomats to help or harm each other even while operating within the instructions is quite another. For this reason, the ‘Eighth Committee’ is even more important than the other seven (The number of committees was reduced to six in 1993.)
I was posted against Sushil Dubey, who looked after the political and disarmament committee and related issues, but since I was totally new to the game, I was given charge of the decolonisation committee, which was considered the training ground for new multilateral diplomats. The decolonisation committee was a very significant body in the early sixties when many countries in Africa and Asia were still under colonial occupation. In the eighties, it had only a limited agenda confined mainly to Namibia. South Africa, the other related issue, was dealt within the special political committee. In addition to the decolonisation committee, my subjects included Palestine and the Security Council, which were sufficient to keep me busy and engaged.
The only major remaining item on the decolonisation agenda of the United Nations was Namibia and even though there was general agreement that Namibia should be independent, South Africa was in no hurry to leave its stranglehold. Many Western countries favoured a gradual transition rather than a sudden change. In the meantime, the General Assembly created various institutions to assist independent efforts and to prepare Namibians for independence with the implicit acceptance of the West—the UN Council for Namibia, the legal administering authority for Namibia, the UN Commissioner for Namibia, the UN Institute for Namibia and the UN Fund for Namibia. India was a major player in all these bodies in its capacity as the vice-president of the Council for Namibia. Basically, these bodies were at the disposal of South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the militant freedom movement of Namibia under Sam Nujoma. SWAPO’s resident observer in New York, Ben Gurirab, was the link between SWAPO and the council. Three moderate Western countries in the council were in a pitiable minority, and we drowned them out with ideological arguments when they tried to economise on programmes or travel. But they ensured, however, that SWAPO did not use the UN funds to advance their military objectives.
My first experience of independent negotiations was in the Namibia bodies, and I found that it was smooth sailing as there were really no major differences among the members. The Cold War that raged in the other bodies did not reach the council except when Belgium or Finland refused to endorse the armed struggle in some pronouncement of the council, or they made a point about SWAPO being the only legitimate representative of the Namibian people. Since non-aligned countries insisted on these formulations, they had no choice but to make reservations in the end. India’s essential position of support to SWAPO was tempered by moderation on issues like armed struggle. We, therefore, became automatic mediators between SWAPO and Western countries. I discovered soon that both sides readily accepted India’s formulations to resolve tricky issues.
The Ambassador of Zambia, appropriately named Lusaka, chaired the Council for Namibia. The Commissioner for Namibia, who was a highly respected Marti Ahtisaari, later became the president of Finland. Lusaka was a colourful personality, who was broadly acceptable to all as he took the line of least resistance. He distanced himself, as president, from the radical positions taken by the council, but defended those positions in the name of the council. He was not particularly brilliant, but his flexible approach earned him many positions in the United Nations, including the president of the General Assembly. Ahtisaari was a very good interlocutor on behalf of Namibia and he had infinite capacity to raise funds, particularly from Scandinavia, for Namibia. He rarely intervened in the debate in the council, but applied correctives through Gurirab, who had a good equation with him.
Within months of my arrival in New York, the council decided to hold a series of plenary meetings in Panama, an exercise that the council undertook from time to time to popularise the cause of Namibia. The interesting point was that such meetings of the council and its missions were to countries that were already committed to the cause of Namibia. The Ambassador of Panama George Illueca, who later became the president of his country, was influential enough to get Panama to host the meetings. There, I took my first elected position in the UN system as the rapporteur of the meeting. I took my assignment very seriously and prepared my own report, only to find at the end that the Secretariat had already prepared a report and that my role was limited to my lending my name to the draft. That was a lesson for the future, as most documents issued in the names of the office bearers of conferences are cooked up by the respective secretariats. At best, the delegates make minor changes in these documents.
‘Join the council for Namibia and see the world!’ was the joke about the council those days. The council had a fairly large travel budget to enable its members to use to propagate the cause of Namibia. Its work programme included not only special meetings outside New York as the council deemed appropriate, but also for visiting missions to capitals to appraise them of the latest developments in Namibia and to enlist their support. These missions were welcome more in countries that were already committed to Namibia rather than in those where there was certain scepticism about the ability of SWAPO to take on the reins of administration and to take care of the entire Namibian people. In several countries, the South African propaganda that SWAPO would oppress the minority, Turnhalle Alliance, if the former came to power had made an impression. It was in those countries that the council and SWAPO had to do some talking. In actual fact, the council went wherever it was readily welcomed and its presentations were not contradicted. I joined several of these missions, whenever the other work in New York permitted it.
The ‘Nam tours’, as these missions came to be called, took me to Africa several times, Europe a few times and even India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The trip to South Asia turned out to be interesting, not because of Namibia but because of developments in Bangladesh. We were in Sri Lanka, when news came of a military coup in Bangladesh by General Ershad. We decided to cancel the Bangladesh segment of our trip as we did not want to land up in uncertain conditions. When General Ershad heard that a UN delegation was cancelling its visit on account of his assumption of power, he took it personally and decided to persuade us to visit as the first UN delegation to visit him. All of us, including representatives of the USSR and Cyprus, consulted our home governments and we received the green signal to go. Ershad was so happy that he declared us state guests and put us up in the luxurious Padma Guest House, which is normally reserved for heads of state and government. As the deputy leader of the delegation, I had the second best room, one of the most luxurious suites I ever stayed in. I was one of the first Indians to call on Ershad after he took over power, and he asked me to convey his special greetings to the Government of India.
We called on Indira Gandhi in Delhi. She thought that I was an Indian official escorting the group rather than a delegate. On one of our Namibia missions, we went to Paris once and went to Lido one evening with Ben Gurirab. Sipping champagne and watching the blue belles, I thought to myself what sacrifices we were willing to make for Namibia! I did not share that thought with the SWAPO fighter, who became the prime minister of Namibia later. He was busy watching the blue belles.
The Council for Namibia was more of a travel club than anything else, and there were no tough negotiations. Even the budget of the council was quite large and travel was just for the asking. The United States had not yet hit upon the idea of imposing discipline on the United Nations by denying its contribution to the United Nations. Perhaps, the habits of bodies like the Council for Namibia prompted the United States to default their assessed contributions, years later.
The Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was a politically sensitive body that I dealt with in my early years at the United Nations. Like the council, the Palestine committee was also a committed body, and its member states were all champions of Palestine. But what made it interesting was the division among the Arabs themselves, following the signing of the Camp David Accords. The observer of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), a colourful man named Terzi, was bent upon embarrassing Egypt on every occasion and called for condemnation of the accord in every document. Egypt was represented on the committee by the formidable Amre Moussa, the DPR, who later became the Egyptian foreign minister and the secretary of the Arab League. My role became that of a peacemaker between the two as we did not favour harsh formulations on Egypt. We maintained the Havana compromise on the Camp David Accords as our guide in the difficult negotiations between Egypt and the PLO. The Palestine committee was also called upon to send its representatives to various conferences, and it convened seminars on the question of Palestine in different parts of the globe. The committee also provided plenty of opportunities to its members for travel.
The Decolonisation Committee, or the Committee of 24 as it was called, was also my responsibility. The committee had lost much of its relevance as most colonies had become independent, but still there were politically sensitive issues like Namibia, Puerto Rico, East Timor, Western Sahara and New Caledonia. All the big powers had skeletons in their cupboards in the form of some small territories in the far-flung Caribbean or the South Pacific, still under their administration. Many of them did not desire independence as their small economies were dependent on their ‘administering powers’ for survival. But the United Nations had to make sure that the will of the people of these territories was respected. Each of these territories had a minority that nursed the dream of independence, but the majority preferred to continue with the status quo. One of these territories I visited was the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the middle of the Caribbean, a good two-hour flight from Miami. A team was invited by the administering power, the United Kingdom, to observe local elections on the islands. The flight from Miami was more for goods rather than for passengers, but when we reached the islands we found that our baggage would arrive only after three days, as there was a backlog. We decided to pick up our bags on our way back from Miami rather than get it shipped to the islands. We did not need any elaborate clothing in the islands. The British governor general himself was in shorts and our suits would have looked incongruous there.
The chief minister of the islands, a young man with a record of drug smuggling, sang the praise of British colonialism. Strangely, he had the complete works of Mahatma Gandhi in the bookshelf behind him. He did not forget to mention his admiration for Gandhi, but he added in good measure that the circumstances of his own island were different from Gandhi’s India. Indeed, how could he compare his small group of islands with a population of 2,000 with India, particularly, when the islanders led a ‘plane-to-mouth’ existence? They would not survive for a day without the goodies from Miami, flown in by American airlines. We knew, without witnessing the vote in favour of a government that stood for the status quo, that the people of Turks and Caicos had no fancy for freedom, which would simply toss them into the tornadoes without the anchor of colonial masters.
The only mode of transport between the islands of Turks and Caicos was aircraft as the water was too shallow at the time of low tides to use boats. Small planes flew around like birds all the time. I was assigned to supervise polling in an island 20 minutes away by plane from the capital. Sure enough, a young Bengalee from Miami piloted the two-seater plane, which was assigned for my travel. He explained to me that he was flying in the islands rather than in cities because here he could clock in more flying hours to qualify for his advanced license. When the time came for us to return to the capital, it was already dark, and I wondered whether there were lights on the small landing strip we had used to land the little aircraft. The pilot seemed confident, but what astonished me was that he relied on candles to take off from the strip. We lit a dozen candles and kept them on both sides of the strip and took off, while the candles blew off one by one. The strip was dark as we rose to the sky. I wondered for a moment as to what we would have done if there was an emergency and we had to land again. Two Indians would have been sacrificed for the cause of freedom of a people, who had no value for freedom.
Disarmament-related issues were added to my work after the departure of my colleague, Vijay Nambiar. Amitav Banerjee handled the decolonisation package. The ad hoc committee on the Indian Ocean, set up on an initiative of Sri Lanka, was the most politically sensitive disarmament body that was handled in New York. Other disarmament issues were dealt with in Geneva and moved to New York only at the time of the General Assembly. Although the initial initiative to move a resolution declaring the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’ had the full support of India; however, differences emerged in the perceptions of India and Sri Lanka over a period of time. We interpreted the zone of peace as an area free of foreign military presence. The most objectionable foreign presence, from our point of view, was the military bases, particularly Diego Garcia. The Soviets were supposed to have bases in Somalia, but they were never acknowledged. The United States and its allies were in the committee only to sabotage it from within. Our neighbours in the committee opposed foreign military presence, but they also wanted to limit the presence even of the regional powers. Pakistan introduced the concept of denuclearisation on the basis of it wanting to establish a nuclear weapon-free zone in South Asia. There was no meeting point and no consensus, but the committee got its mandate extended from year to year on the ground that a conference would be held in Colombo the next year. The Sri Lankan PR, Ambassador Fonseka, chaired the committee during my time and strove to bring about some agreement. The situation was hopeless, but the committee was intensely political and it starkly reflected the Cold War situation. Our policy was to prevent any conference, unless it was exclusively on the presence of foreign forces in the Indian Ocean. No one else saw it that way, and we blocked every other initiative. In a way, we were as opposed to a conference on the Indian Ocean as the United States was, but for entirely different reasons.
The NAM was very active under the chairmanship of Cuba. In 1981, we also hosted a ministerial meeting in New Delhi to review its activities. As chairman of the conference of foreign ministers, India played an important role, but the Cubans were a dominant factor in the movement and called the shots. Indira Gandhi was not directly involved, but her presence at the inauguration and her meetings with the visiting foreign ministers made an impact. N. Krishnan, who took over from Brajesh Mishra as the PR at the United Nations, was the leading light of the conference, and the task assigned to me was the drafting of the political declaration, particularly the philosophical part, which was the most controversial. Cuba, at one end of the spectrum and Yugoslavia, at the other were engaged in a tug-of-war for the soul of the movement. India and Algeria were in the middle, trying to bring about a balance in the proceedings, and the movement remained more or less in the middle path as a result of the parleys among the ‘Gang of Four’. The rest of the membership went along once the four countries reached an agreement of sorts. The second part of the declaration dealt with specific situations, and the practice adopted was for the countries directly concerned to produce texts that were generally endorsed by the general membership. The Arabs, for example, drafted the section on the Middle East, and it took on a blatant anti-Israeli position, regardless of the views of the moderates. It was considered unacceptable to challenge the Arab consensus. The same was the case with the African section. But there were no defenders for the villain in the Africa section, South Africa, and no language was considered too harsh to condemn the apartheid regime for its racist policies and its illegal occupation of Namibia.
Bilateral disputes and stray colonial questions were another matter. South Korea was not a member, but it assiduously cultivated member states to ensure that North Korea did not put in any critical reference to South Korea in the non-aligned declarations. Similarly, the former Portuguese colonies lined up against Indonesia when East Timor came up, and the Francophone Africans defended the French when New Caledonia was discussed. The consideration of these issues took a long time as every delegation had to be heard before the chairman could give a consensus text that every one could live with. The Delhi conference was successful in forging compromises on the issues on the agenda, thanks, largely, to the skillful drafting by the Indians. It was a good training ground for us as India hosted a summit within two years because of the exceptional circumstances arising out of the Iraq-Iran war.
India had already announced its candidature for hosting the Non-Aligned Summit in 1987 to assume the chairmanship of the movement after Iraq. But it became clear as the time drew near that the Iran-Iraq war would not end and that it would be impossible for Iraq to host the summit. Consultations began in New York in 1982 about an alternate venue, and most countries were reluctant to take on such a heavy responsibility at short notice. India decided to offer itself as Indira Gandhi was at the height of her glory and nobody was sure that the summit would come to India in 1987. The offer of India came as a relief to those who felt that the summit would be postponed, thus extending the chairmanship of Cuba. There were dissenting voices on account of India’s known positions on Afghanistan and Kampuchea, but there was no alternative venue available at that time. A decision in favour of India was made just about eight months before the dates of the summit.
The Delhi summit was unprecedented in scale and attendance, and it turned out to be a landmark event on account of Afghanistan, Kampuchea and the Iran-Iraq war. India’s position on the first two issues was different from the majority view in the movement, but no one doubted India’s proverbial ability to play honest broker even in difficult circumstances. India helped shape consensus on each of these issues, regardless of its own position, and thus gained credibility during its term of office as the chairman of the movement.
I handled the political committee, together with Sushil Dubey and Vijay Nambiar, both of whom had served with me in New York. My special charge was the ideological sections of the final document, which included disarmament issues. A large number of Indian ambassadors were present in Delhi and each of them, whom we used to call ‘single paragraph delegates’, tried to influence the outcome on the issues relevant to their countries of accreditation. Foreign Secretary M. K. Rasgotra and PR in New York N. Krishnan relied on their ‘PMI boys’ rather than on bilateral ambassadors to find the right formulations. They gave us a free hand to explain details of the negotiations at the meetings of the Indian delegation chaired by Indira Gandhi every morning. She listened patiently to us and gave general directions, while Natwar Singh, as the secretary general of the summit, offered his own commentary to the proceedings. The visiting ambassadors tried hard to have a say on some issues, but received very little attention. Akbar Khaleeli from Iran and Peter Sinai from Iraq had their own mini wars on the sides, much to the amusement of the rest of the delegation.
The Delhi summit applied the necessary correctives to the NAM philosophy and agenda, which were hijacked by the Cubans during their chairmanship. We were also able to curb the enthusiasm of Yugoslavia and others to set up a mechanism to resolve the disputes within the movement. Many in the movement had a fascination for peacemaking, although it was an original principle with NAM that it should focus on united action for the good of its members rather than waste its resources to settle internal disputes. At one unguarded moment at some earlier meeting, India had gone along with a formulation that seemed to envisage the setting up of a mechanism for settlement of disputes. Yugoslavia was enthusiastic about moving this proposal forward, and India was equally adamant to block it for our own reasons. Whenever Yugoslavia asked for a room to hold a meeting to discuss the subject, it was told that no room was available. It took several days for Yugoslavia to realise that the shortage of rooms was part of Indian policy.
The election of Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru as the secretary general of the United Nations took place in 1981. Kurt Waldheim of Austria, a favourite of the West, who had served two terms, sought an unprecedented third term. China was strongly opposed to this as it maintained that it was now the turn of a developing country to head the UN Secretariat. Salim of Tanzania emerged as the candidate of the developing countries, but the United States made it quite clear that he would not be acceptable. Salim’s cardinal sin was that he had danced in the aisle of the UN General Assembly, when the People’s Republic of China was admitted to the United Nations in place of Taiwan. The American PR, who watched the scene helplessly at that time, was none other than future President George Bush, and he was not willing to let Salim be the secretary general. There were some 10 other candidates, and Perez de Cuellar’s name was proposed by Peru as a possible compromise candidate. When the voting began in the Security Council, it was clear that neither Waldheim nor Salim could be elected as China vetoed Waldheim and the United States vetoed Salim again and again. After several rounds of voting, there was a total impasse, as no candidate had the required nine votes, including the positive votes of the five permanent members. Olara Otunnu, the PR of Uganda, a young Harvard educated diplomat, took over the presidency of the Security Council in October (the presidency rotates every month in the alphabetical order), and started his own consultations with the members of the Security Council. After a few rounds of futile voting, Otunnu called in the permanent members and gave them all the names, including that of Perez de Cuellar and asked them to mark those whom they would veto in any eventuality. After the ‘straw poll’, Otunnu discovered that the only candidate who had no veto was Perez de Cuellar. He was colourless enough as an under secretary general to merit the position of the UN chief. Otunnu summoned the council during the lunch break and got Perez de Cuellar elected unanimously. An unsuspecting Perez de Cuellar was fishing in Peru when the news of his election reached him.
One story that took the rounds in New York at that time was about a mistake that the US PR, Jean Kirkpatrick, made during the elections. Sridath Ramphal, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, was an aspirant for the post of the UN chief. When the United States found that Waldheim had no chance of getting elected, it decided to look for alternatives and found some potential in Ramphal. Kirkpatrick was asked to convey to Ramphal that the United States could support him if he offered his candidature. Kirkpatrick asked her secretary to connect her to Ramphal. The secretary, who looked up the directory, found the name of Ramphul, the PR of Mauritius, a clownish character who was known in the United Nations as ‘Ramfool’ because of his peculiar ways. It was music to Ramphul’s ears when Kirkpatrick told him that he would have the support of the United States. By the time the US Ambassador realised her mistake, Ramphul had filed his nomination with the blessings of his government. Even the genuine Ramphal could not make it as he was vetoed by the USSR.
Kirkpatrick, a conservative academic, was quite reclusive and did not know many ambassadors or other diplomats. She made hard-hitting statements against the USSR and the non-aligned countries, and made herself very unpopular. She was reputed to have walked into a national day reception of North Korea, thinking that it was a South Korean reception. Since she did not recognise either of the ambassadors, she did not realise her mistake till a report appeared in the newspapers the next day about an unexpected visitor at the North Korean reception.
Perez de Cuellar carried on for 10 years without having any major accomplishments to his credit. He had an Indian Chef de Cabinet Virendra Dayal who was equally low key. Dayal’s style was to distance himself as much from India as possible in order to establish his own credibility as an international civil servant. It was, therefore, a surprise that P. V. Narasimha Rao rewarded him for his labours by appointing him a member of the National Human Rights Commission. Many analysts think that if Perez de Cuellar had been more effective and imaginative, the Falklands war would not have taken place. An agreement was close, but the secretary general did not have the clout to carry it through. As a Latin American, he was more anxious to establish his impartiality rather than to stop the war.
Many permanent representatives left a deep impression on me at that time even though I saw them only at a distance. Among them was Ignac Golob, the PR of Yugoslavia. The Indian delegation worked so closely with the Yugoslavs that Golob decided to give me, a mere counsellor, a farewell lunch when I left New York. In my reply to his toast, I referred to the ‘combative co-operation’ between India and Yugoslavia within the NAM. I was, doubtless, moved by this gesture, and I had an opportunity to acknowledge it many years later when I was accredited to Slovenia as an ambassador. He told me many times that he was aware that the money he spent on my farewell lunch was well worth it.
Another PR I remember well is Raoul Roa Kouri of Cuba, a suave and sophisticated diplomat. No one would suspect him to be a revolutionary till he spoke and even when he was voicing communism, he spoke perfect American English. He was one of the close associates of Fidel Castro and remained in New York for many years. Amre Moussa, who became the foreign minister of Egypt and later the secretary general of the Arab League, was the Egyptian DPR during my first stint in New York. Following the Camp David Accords, he and the Palestinian representative, Terzi, were on each other’s throat. I had the unenviable task of trying to reconcile their differences for the sake of the unity of the NAM. Terzi looked more like a rich Arab merchant rather than a Palestinian refugee. A Christian and a seasoned diplomat, his tastes were very aristocratic. During our travels together for the cause of Palestine, he pulled out the best scotch and cigars to entertain us.
After Burma and Fiji, where I did purely bilateral work, I was keen to return to multilateral work and asked for a posting to headquarters as the head of the UN division in the ministry. The Foreign Secretary S. K. Singh and Prakash Shah, who was holding the post, agreed to my request even though the date of my return from Fiji was uncertain. I was glad to be back in familiar territory, and with Chinmaya Gharekhan as the PR in New York and Prakash Shah as the additional secretary, I plunged back into the UN work. I also had access to Inder Kumar Gujral, the external affairs minister. I continued with Muchkund Dubey, the foreign secretary, Shekhar Dasgupta, the additional secretary, and, for a short while, with Mani Dixit, the foreign secretary. I also worked with Madhav Sinh Solanki, the surprise choice for minister of external affairs. The rumour was that he was appointed instead of Madhav Rao Scindia because of a mix-up in names.
I accompanied Solanki on his visit to Davos in 1992, primarily because he was proceeding from there to Nicosia to attend a non-aligned conference. Davos was an interesting experience, with the possibility of informal interaction with those who mattered in politics and business. Narasimha Rao came to Davos that year to project a new India, but the world was preoccupied with the break up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new states in Eastern Europe. It was the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries everywhere in Davos. I accompanied Solanki to all his meetings, except the one with the Swiss president, which was covered by our ambassador in Berne. It turned out that it was at this meeting that he handed over a letter, requesting that the proceedings should be slowed down in the Bofors investigations. When the news of the letter came to light, Solanki had to own up responsibility and resign as a minister.
My tenure in the UN division coincided with the worst foreign exchange crisis in history, when the government had only enough foreign exchange to pay for the imports for just six months. Foreign travel was severely restricted and, consequently, I became the least-travelled head of the UN division in memory. I had to resort to travel funded by the United Nations itself to visit New York for essential consultations. The Committee on Programme and Coordination (CPC), though not the powerful body that it was in the early days of the United Nations, used to pay for a representative from headquarters, and I used this facility as travel at the expense of the Government of India was virtually impossible.
The CPC reviews the programmes of the United Nations and recommends an order of priorities among those programmes, and gives guidance to the Secretariat on translating legislation into programmes. It also considers the programmes and activities of the specialised agencies with a view to provide coherence and coordination throughout the system. Though the mandate is important and broad, demanding participation in the CPC of high-level delegates and the secretariat, it has lost much of its importance, while the Advisory Committeee on Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), which deals with the budget, has assumed a crucial role. After representing India on the CPC from New Delhi, I became its chairman when I moved to New York. The CPC went through its heavy agenda rather rapidly, but it gave me a comprehensive view of the operation of the entire UN system. The UN controller at my time was none other than Kofi Annan, who guided the CPC’s work. We were all praise for his wisdom and dedication, and we saw him as a rising star in the UN firmament.
My travel to Geneva for the UN Human Rights Commission in early 1990 was with Rajmohan Gandhi and the Mumbai lawyer, A. G. Noorani. More than the deliberations of the commission, the personal chemistry between the two of them kept me amused. As a senior lawyer, Noorani seemed to resent the designation of Gandhi as the leader of the delegation. The only initiative we were proposing to take at the commission was on Fiji. Fiji Indians had gained the support of a leading NGO in Geneva, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which had prepared a case for democracy in Fiji. But the issue could come before the commission only if a government was prepared to champion the case. India considered the possibility, but our contacts revealed that the issue would have very little support, particularly from Fiji’s neighbouring countries. Australia and New Zealand had initially seen some danger for themselves in the Fiji crisis as it highlighted the special rights of the indigenous people. But they soon realised that the developments in Fiji would have no impact on them. The other South Pacific island states were even less sympathetic. The big powers too had no interest in adding Fiji to the agenda of the commission. We decided, therefore, to confine our action to making a reference to the Fiji situation in our statement to the commission. We did not want to go out on a limb on the Fiji situation, when Pakistan was already preparing to drag us to the floor of the commission on the human rights situation in Jammu & Kashmir. We played our traditional role in Geneva, moderating harsh texts and promoting consensus. Our general opposition to country specific resolutions, unless they enjoyed consensus, was also maintained. We eventually developed it as a policy, and I articulated it in the United Nations subsequently.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent dramatic developments dominated international relations, and more particularly the United Nations. As a member of the core group in the Ministry on the Gulf, I was witness to the twists and turns in our policy during this crucial period. I was at an Australian lunch, together with Minister Inder Gujral, when the news came of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I recall how the entire gathering came to the conclusion that the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq was irreversible and began to speculate about the increased importance of Saddam Hussein. Gujral recalled his own meeting with Saddam Hussein when he went to Iraq as a special envoy of Indira Gandhi and remembered how warm and friendly he was to India. The possibility of liberation of Kuwait was not in anybody’s mind when the first meeting of the core group was held in the south block. The only concern we had was about the fate of the Indians in Iraq and Kuwait. In fact, our vision was totally clouded by this concern. For this reason, the government decided to send the external affairs minister to Baghdad to establish contact with Saddam Hussein, and enlist his support for the repatriation of the Indians from the Gulf. No one said that this was a shortsighted policy. The Gulf region, and even the rest of the world, saw his trip and his celebrated hugging of Saddam Hussein as an act of treachery. To compound matters, Gujral’s plane brought back a few selected Indians. They were supposed to be sick and aged, but the passengers, as they alighted from the plane, looked neither sick nor too old.
The massive repatriation of Indians from the Gulf, supervised by Joint Secretary K. P. Fabian, was an unprecedented success. It brought comfort to many families and probably saved lives in the bargain, but the reactions in the Gulf to the ‘fleeing Indians’ and the gathering clouds of war diminished the significance of that operation. Most people underestimated the determination of the Bush administration to wage war to liberate Kuwait. I recall a meeting of the Indian envoys to the Gulf in New Delhi, where most envoys voiced the view that a war was unlikely. But the signals were different at the United Nations. As a member of the Security Council, we were briefed by the Americans about their determination to go to war unless Saddam Hussein left Kuwait on his own. We were initially inclined to advocate a peaceful solution, but as time passed, we too realised that an international consensus was emerging for the use of force. The Americans built that consensus very effectively and even managed to get others to pay for the war. The Security Council witnessed unprecedented unanimity among the permanent members, and the others also supported the use of force in different degrees. We voted in favour of most of the Security Council resolutions, except the one on humanitarian intervention, which appeared to set a principle. But it was after the liberation of Kuwait that the United States and its allies proceeded to rewrite international law to keep Iraq under their thumb. The Security Council resolution 687 came to be known as ‘the mother of all resolutions’ because of the far-reaching objectives that were set for an independent nation. We found many of its provisions inimical to the concept of sovereignty, and there was no justification to impose those conditions on Iraq, once the liberation of Kuwait was accomplished. By fixing restoration of international peace and security as the benchmark for normalising Iraq’s status in the world, the United States relegated the Saddam regime to pariah status. In the normal circumstances, we could not have voted for many of the provisions of the resolution, but in the special circumstances of Iraq, we supported even the notion of forced disarmament of sovereign states.
We still had six months left on the Security Council when I arrived in New York as the DPR, with rank of ambassador as in the case of my predecessor, Prabhakar Menon. I remember Menon writing to me that complimenting me on my posting to New York was like complimenting an Englishman on his English. We exchanged places about which Ambassador Gharekhan remarked that his deputy had become his boss and his boss had become his deputy. For me, it was basically a change of scenery only as I continued to deal with the same subjects as I did in Delhi. But while I was tied to the desk in Delhi, I had to move from meeting to meeting in New York.
Being on the Security Council was quite exciting, as it enabled me to see the council at work and how the permanent members (P-5) operate. The non-permanent members did not matter very much, as most decisions were made by the P-5 in advance. The non-aligned caucus in the council was our main constituency, but our opinions were not decisive. The P-5, of course, wanted to carry the caucus on board and appeared to meet our concerns on non-substantive issues, but the basic thrust of the action was based on P-5 consensus. When it came to divisions among them, every effort was made to achieve consensus, but the non-aligned was invited only to take it or leave it. The way the Iraq sanctions committee operated was a case in point. Every request was turned down by the United States even after elaborate guidelines were established. The basic purpose of the sanctions committee was to ensure that innocent civilians did not suffer on account of the sanctions. But the way the committee operated, it was inconceivable that any humanitarian supplies would get through the sanctions committee to the Iraqi civilians.
An attempt we made to invoke Article 50 of the UN Charter in the context of the sanctions against Iraq proved futile. The Charter specifically provides for consultations in the Security Council to alleviate the problems of unintended victims of sanctions. But when we sought compensation for the millions of dollars that we lost in terms of trade, projects and wages on account of the sanctions against Iraq, we faced a blank wall. I was appointed chairman of a Security Council committee to discuss the issue, but the P-5 were not prepared to take any measure to compensate us. We could achieve only a resolution that urged the international community to consider the special needs of the affected states. This first test of the actual operation of Article 50 was fruitless. Some members argued that the council was only supposed to consult, but not to act.
Another Security Council committee I chaired was the Committee on the Arms Embargo against South Africa, a rather tame committee that had lost much of its relevance and had only one resource person, Abdul Minty, a South African of Indian origin, who was active in the anti-apartheid movement in Europe. Whenever he had something to tell the committee, he would come to New York and the committee would hear him and if he had new information about arms supplies to South Africa, we would ask the concerned government to investigate. The government concerned denied the charges most of the time and the matter rested there. The transition in South Africa had already begun, and the committee had lost much of its relevance by the time I chaired it.
Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt had begun to make his mark as the new secretary general of the United Nations by the time I returned to New York. In fact, he was elected when I was the head of the UN division, and I had the opportunity to meet him when he had come to New Delhi to seek the support of India. He had a fairly good equation with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. I had also sensed that Ghali’s late emergence as an African candidate, after several others being already endorsed by the OAU, was at the behest of the United States and others. I was clear in my mind that we should demonstrate support to him. But I discovered that Muchkund Dubey, the foreign secretary, had a different assessment. He was out of town when Ghali arrived and I had sent a note to the prime minister’s office with a positive assessment of Ghali’s chances. Dubey saw the note on the day Ghali was supposed to meet Rao and was very upset that I had given an assessment different from his. He told me that Ghali had no chance and that a black African was sure to make it. But Rao did not need either his assessment or mine and virtually pledged India’s support to Ghali. Ghali had to stay in Delhi for a few days to await confirmation of acceptance of a visit to China and I took care of him, while he met his old friends, journalists and others. One day he asked me whether he could host a lunch in honour of the external affairs minister, in return for the hospitality extended to him by the minister. I saw no harm in it, but Dubey opposed it as he did not believe that Ghali had any chance of making it as the secretary general of the United Nations.
Ghali’s flaw was an exaggerated perception of the role of the secretary general. Many said that he thought he was a general and not a secretary. This was not only because he visualised the formation of his own army, but also because he saw himself as an independent authority as envisaged in the Charter at the same level as the Security Council and the General Assembly. He did not realise that, over the years, particularly at the time of Kurt Waldheim and Perez the Cuellar, the post had become a weathercock, acting strictly according to the winds that blew. Ghali’s independent style and his general contempt of ambassadors and even foreign ministers, many of whom were junior to him, made him appear like a dictator. Having started as the darling of the P-5, he ended up just as a friend of the French, and the United States made sure that he was denied a second term.
The truth of the matter is, he strode the United Nations like a colossus and he had no great respect for all the hallowed conventions in the organisation. The United Nations mounted more peacekeeping operations during his tenure than ever before in its history. As against 8 peacekeeping operations active in 1991, there were 18 by the middle of 1994. This was on account of the circumstances arising out of the end of the Cold War, and the United Nations had to step in where super power rivalries had kept the peace. But the personality of Ghali had something to do with the enthusiastic deployment of peacekeeping forces in different areas. His ‘Agenda for Peace’ was partly a codification of what was already done and partly his view of the role of the United Nations. It had elements to displease everyone, but was politely received and widely debated. The biggest noise was made by the developing countries, which clamoured for a companion volume of equal value on an agenda for development. His idea of dilution of sovereignty was a cause for concern for even the big powers. No one wanted an army for the United Nations. The General Assembly decided to set up a committee under the chairmanship of the Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Elarabi to recommend action on the ‘Agenda for Peace’, and what emerged was a selection of ideas that preserved the integrity of the Charter. Continuity and gradual change rather than drastic change in the United Nations role enjoyed consensus in the end. Our own approach was to stick as close to the Charter as possible and to accommodate innovative interpretations. We were absolutely insistent that peacekeeping operations should be mounted only with the consent of the concerned state or states.
A classic example of constructive ambiguity arose in the context of our position. Bearing in mind our own situation in Jammu & Kashmir, we suggested that peacekeeping operations should have the support of the states concerned. Questions were asked why it had to be ‘states’ (plural), and I explained that if more than one country was involved, the support of all the concerned states was necessary and hence the plural. When there were objections to the use of the plural, I proposed that it could be ‘state or states’, a reasonable compromise. When even this was not accepted, I said with tongue in cheek that ‘state(s)’ could be used. To my surprise, there was support for that formulation and it was adopted. But the joke was when the Arabic version of the resolution appeared and someone told me that it said ‘state or states’, as there was no other way of expressing the idea. I did not check the Chinese version.
Ghali brought out an ‘Agenda for Development’, as demanded by the developing countries, but it did not attract the same attention as an ‘Agenda for Peace’ and the parallel working group on it was a damp squib. Although the end of the Cold War had made the debate on development less confrontational, the need for the developed countries to help tackle poverty, unemployment and social dislocation was still in focus. Ghali introduced new dimensions to development such as the linkage between development and democracy, but the developing world would rather have him call on the rich to aid the poor. Ghali pointed out that democracy fostered the good governance and stability that are necessary for development over time, as well as the creativity essential for success in the age of information and argued that peace and development were inextricably intertwined. This had no takers in the developing world, as resources were considered the key for development and the agenda did not have any innovative or bold proposals for raising resources. The effort continued to find innovative ways.
At one stage, the president of the General Assembly appointed me chairman of a working group on financing for development. I tried various proposals, but none was found acceptable. Interestingly, it was the developing countries themselves who were against any notion of assessed contributions for development. Multilateral assistance had already become less fashionable and while the developed countries were generous in emergency situations, they did not have much enthusiasm for meeting long-term development needs. Conditionality came to be attached to development in the post-Cold War period. ‘Development’ became ‘human development’ and then ‘sustainable human development’, and these expressions came to be widely accepted. The concept of development got diluted each time an adjective was added to it.
The UN peacekeeping operations grew exponentially after the Cold War and assumed new dimensions during my second tenure in New York. Although we had our reservations on the UN military observer group in India and Pakistan, we participated in most of the peacekeeping missions to which we were invited. We were hesitant to participate in the mission in Yugoslavia because of its subservience to NATO, but Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was persuaded by Boutros Ghali to provide a commander to the UN forces in Yugoslavia. General Satish Nambiar brought India credit, but he himself did not want to continue after a year because of the constraints we had anticipated. One new feature of peacekeeping, which developed as an offshoot of the reform of the Security Council, was the regular and formal consultations with contributors of troops, which were conducted by the under secretary general for peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan. He was particularly solicitous to the needs and sensitivities of India. I happened to see him in New York on the day Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, and I was touched by his regard and concern for India.
Shashi Tharoor, one of the brightest Indians in the Secretariat, was an important member of the Annan team even at that time. I had met him before, as my son had asked me to get him to autograph a copy of The Great Indian Novel, a clever, modern adaptation of the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. Tharoor bridged a generation gap in our family by becoming a friend of both the father and the son. We had the privilege of felicitating him at our home in Vienna on the day of his appointment as, in my words, ‘the newest, the youngest and the handsomest under secretary general’. I have read most of his writings and reviewed some and have found him receptive to my comments, even to criticism. India matters to him immensely and he has begun to matter to India a great deal.
Environmental issues were on centre stage during my second tenure in New York. The expectations raised by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro were not fulfilled, and even the agreements at Rio began to fall apart in the years that followed the summit. The Commission for Sustainable Development, with Nitin Desai as the under secretary general responsible for it, was set up with much fanfare, but fell into the routine of the UN commissions and began to adopt papers, which did not lead to action on the ground. The action shifted to the global environment facility (GEF), which became an appendage of the World Bank, and as the only additional resource for the environment came from the GEF, the replenishment of the GEF became the main concern of the international community.
Another body, which did some concrete work, was the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate Change and its successor, the conference of parties to the convention, of which I became the vice chairman for three years. Battle lines were clearly drawn there, as the convention had already identified the countries that had the primary responsibility for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and the concern of the developing countries was to ensure that no obligations were imposed on them. This was no easy task as the developed countries were quite anxious to bring in at least the major developing countries like India, China and Brazil to the discipline of reducing emissions even though there was a case for them to increase the emissions for their economic development.
Shekhar Dasgupta, Additional Secretary for the UN matters in the Ministry of External Affairs, did much of the work relating to climate change before and during the Rio Summit. In fact, he was characterised as one of the ‘movers and shakers’ at the Rio Summit. I succeeded him as the Vice Chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Climate Change and continued on the Conference of Parties till the Berlin Conference, which established the Berlin Mandate, the precursor of the Kyoto Protocol. Our objective in these bodies was a simple one, that is, not to accept any obligation for the developing countries to reduce emissions. At the same time, we insisted that the developed countries should not only reduce their emissions, but also provide new and additional resources to meet the incremental costs of environment-friendly industrial ventures and make technology available at concessional rates. These were principles adopted at Rio, but the developed countries were inclined to back away from them on the pretext that major developing countries should also have commitments to reduce emissions.
The Conference of Parties met in Berlin in 1995 to determine the basis for a protocol to the convention on climate change. As the head of the official delegation, I was designated the spokesman of the G-77, but the G-77 itself got divided, as the OPEC countries and the small island states did not join the battle of the major developing states to fight off commitments. The OPEC countries were opposed to restrictions on emissions in general, and the island states wanted to stress adaptation measures to combat sea-level rise. As spokesman of a truncated G-77, I presented the first draft of a Berlin Mandate with the bottom line of no commitments for the developing countries. A representative of the World Wildlife Fund and some other NGOs assisted me in preparing the draft and we styled it the ‘green draft’.
Angela Merkel, the then environment minister of Germany and president of the conference, was directly involved in the negotiations. One of the few GDR officials to survive the reunification of Germany, Merkel had a special affinity for India and came to rely on me for advice throughout the conference. She met me every evening and sought my advice on how to proceed. When there was no meeting ground at the end, I suggested to her that she should attempt shuttle diplomacy between the major groups. She kept us in two different rooms and met us alternatively for a whole night and a compromise Berlin Mandate was eventually agreed upon in the early hours of the morning on the last day. Merkel was pleased with the result and promised me that she would record the contribution of each of us in her chronicle of the negotiations. Her chairmanship of the Berlin conference paved the way for her success as a politician, and she rose gradually in her party to become the Chancellor of Germany. The mandate itself was challenged by many NGOs, as developing countries escaped commitments, but the focus was on the need for the developed countries to reduce their luxury emissions. The Berlin Mandate led to the finalisation of the Kyoto Protocol subsequently. Significantly, the United States was part of the consensus in Berlin, but not in Kyoto.
The years 1992–96 saw a series of summit-level conferences: environment in Rio, human rights in Vienna, population in Cairo, social development in Copenhagen, women in Beijing and habitat in Istanbul. I was personally present in Copenhagen and Istanbul and was involved in the preparations for others. These conferences examined the post-Cold War agenda and prepared action programmes, but, in the end, what set in was a conference fatigue and proposals were made for a conference-free period. But the UN bureaucracy and professional diplomats soldiered on and even started having Rio Plus Five and Rio Plus Ten and others to keep the conferences going.
The main outcome of the Vienna Conference on human rights was the proposal for the creation of a high commissioner for human rights, a proposal that was opposed by the developing countries, including India. The idea came from the Carter Centre in Atlanta with the blessings of the US administration. Among the opponents of the proposal was Ghali, who argued that the post would be regarded as an attempt to consolidate pressure against the developing countries and that would only strengthen their resistance to progress in human rights. But the Vienna consensus included a mandate to the General Assembly to discuss the terms of reference of a new post and it came to the Third Committee as the most important issue in 1993. Edward Kukan, who later became the foreign minister of the Slovak Republic, chaired the Third Committee that year. He set up a working group to deal with this issue under the chairmanship of Jose Ayala Lasso, the suave and friendly ambassador of Ecuador to the United Nations. I had worked with Lasso in the Security Council, and he picked me as one of the five friends of the chair to help him deal with this sensitive issue. My own instructions were to restrict, severely, the role of the high commissioner, if at all a post had to be created. But in the new spirit of cooperation with the United States, we had dropped our fundamental objection to the concept itself. We worked behind the scenes, often late at night, to sift through the various proposals, to enable the chairman to come up with compromise proposals each morning. This technique worked well as the different groups were represented among the friends and we supported the chairman each time. Somewhere in the process, Lasso developed an interest in the post himself, and the United States rewarded his success in establishing the post by proposing his name as the first high commissioner, even though he had no experience in the human rights area before he assumed the post. He, in turn, offered me an adviser’s post in his office, but I preferred to continue with the government. Lasso’s gentle and inoffensive approach gave credibility to the post in the eyes of the developing world, but the human rights activists found him too bureaucratic and lacking in messianic zeal. India invited him to Jammu & Kashmir after much deliberation, and his report was generally sympathetic to our point of view.
The Social Development Summit in March 1995 in Copenhagen was in the nature of establishing the linkages between different phases of development. The social consequences of economic development and the effect of deterioration of society on economic development were obvious enough, and Copenhagen tried to tackle this interdependence. Hamid Ansari, my second PR during my second term, had taken a special interest in the preparations, and I was not expecting to be at Copenhagen. But Ansari had just left and since the new PR Prakash Shah had just arrived, the ministry decided that I should also be on the delegation. Of the 187 countries represented at Copenhagen, 117 were at the highest level, including Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of India. The Indian delegation was quite large and most of the politicians on the delegation did not know why they were there. Narasimha Rao was his usual morose self. Boutros Ghali recalls in his book Unvanquished that when Ghali said to Rao, referring to the US administration and the Congress, ‘Isn’t there an Indian saying that “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”?’ Rao replied with no sense of humour, ‘The UN isn’t grass; it is the Parliament of the world!’ The most innovative idea of the summit was the so-called 20–20 formula, by which 20 per cent of overseas assistance would be spent on social services, and the developing countries would devote 20 per cent of their national budget for such services. A little doctoring of figures must have helped to accomplish the formula.
My last major task in New York before I set sail to another semimultilateral post, Nairobi, was to get the General Assembly to agree to set up a working group on the UN reforms, an idea the US delegation was pursuing without success for a couple of years. The new president of the General Assembly from Cote d’Ivoir chose me to head informal consultations of the General Assembly. It was my performance as the chairman of the consultations on funding for development that prompted the president to appoint me, but he also felt that there would be less resistance to the idea if a leading non-aligned country were to lead the consultations. I had taken the precaution of consulting the incoming PR Prakash Shah before I accepted the assignment. The task was hard and there was criticism of my efforts in the non-aligned group, and the PR himself told me more than once that I should somehow bury the idea. But I persisted with it even while my packers were at home and eventually succeeded in establishing a working group on the UN reform as the United States had proposed. David Birenbaum, the US DPR for the UN reforms was the most pleased. I was told that he would sing my praises at the daily meetings of the US PR so much that one day Madelaine Albright remarked that it appeared that ‘the US policy in the UN owes so much to an Indian diplomat called Sreenivasan’. The United States expressed its gratitude for my work by offering the chairmanship of the new working group to Prakash Shah.
The story of our disastrous defeat against Japan in the election for a Security Council seat was the story of deliberate misleading of the government rather than of misjudgement. The story began with our warmth towards Sri Lanka in 1994. We had retired from the Security Council in 1992, and we could well have tried for the 1995–96 term, which was considered a south Asian seat. But we conceded it to Sri Lanka, without realising that Sri Lanka had struck a deal with South Korea. We were unaware of the deal till one day, two months before the election was to take place, the Sri Lankan DPR Nihal Rodrigo told me that Sri Lanka was withdrawing and India could contest, if it wished to do so. We discovered soon enough that South Korea had already canvassed support quite widely and that our late entry into the fray would result in sure defeat. We tried to reason with South Korea that it should wait till the next year to contest against Japan from its own region. Japan had already announced its candidature for that year even though Japan also had just retired from the council with us in 1992. In our reports to Delhi, we had made it clear that our choice was either to run against South Korea that year or contest against Japan next year. I remember telling the Foreign Secretary Kris Srinivasan that our choice was to lose either to South Korea or to Japan and he said, half in jest, that the lesser evil was to lose against Japan. Nevertheless, we decided to announce our candidature for the next year, knowing fully well that we had no chance of winning against Japan. The only purpose was to negotiate with Japan and arrive at some deal at a later date.
I was astonished to see from Nairobi that we had begun to believe that we could defeat Japan and started our campaign in right earnest. Japan’s munificence weighed more heavily with most of the developing countries than our promise to play a fair game in the Security Council. As far as the industrialised countries were concerned, there was no doubt that their sympathy lay with Japan. It was, therefore, astonishing that we came to a positive assessment of our chances. Envoys were sent to different capitals and our PR was given considerable resources to promote our candidature. I made no secret of my concern that we were heading for a defeat and spoke to all concerned, including Savitri Kunadi, Kamalesh Sharma and even External Affairs Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, whom I knew well. All of them shared my concern, but went by the exaggerated predictions of the mission till we reached a point when we could not withdraw any more without losing our credibility. Calculations of personal gain rather than honest judgement prevailed at that time. The mission predicted that India would get no less than 70 votes in the first round. I made my own calculation sitting in Nairobi and told everyone, who cared to listen, that we would get no more than 40 votes. We finally got 39 votes plus our own. Mercifully, the Indian system has no provision for penalising wrong judgements. Some, who have made even more grievous errors of judgment, have not only survived but also flourished in the foreign service.
I was once asked, when I was about to leave New York, as to which was the biggest achievement for India during my tenure in New York. I said, unhesitatingly, that it was the fact that Pakistan failed to get any kind of resolution in any of the UN bodies on Jammu & Kashmir during 1992–95. Following the end of the Cold War and the spurt in the UN activism propelled by Ghali, Pakistan thought that the time had come to drag the United Nation into Kashmir. The first forum, in which they tried to revive the issue, was the Security Council. They thought that the Russian veto might not be there, and the other members could be persuaded to approve a very weak resolution. But the rebuff was much stronger than they had expected. Russia said it would oppose any such move and even the other permanent members showed no enthusiasm. Then the matter was raised in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where India’s deft handling led to the withdrawal of the resolution at the very last minute. Pakistan brought the issue to the General Assembly through the Third Committee and once again, there was no support for any resolution. Exchanges took place between Munir Akram and me in most committees and, in the Third Committee, even Farooq Abdullah and Inder Kumar Gujral chipped in. The last attempt was made in the First Committee, which was a grave mistake on the part of Pakistan, as none of the major countries wanted to detract from the disarmament agenda of the First Committee. Pakistan realised that, however, much the world may have changed, it had not changed enough not to equate India and Pakistan. This took a lot of legwork for us in New York. Chinmaya Gharekhan and Hamid Ansari led the effort, but I considered it my mission not to allow any Kashmir resolution to emerge from the General Assembly or the Security Council and worked hard to accomplish it.
India’s pursuit of an expansion of the Security Council had begun even before my first arrival in New York in 1980. The main spirit behind the move was Brajesh Mishra, the then PR, who joined with Japan and some of the non-aligned countries, and tabled a draft resolution on ‘Equitable representation on and expansion of the Security Council.’ The draft proposed a simple expansion of the non-permanent membership of the Security Council from 10 to 15 or 16 on the ground that the membership of the Security Council should expand to match the expansion of the General Assembly. The explanatory memorandum attached to the draft gave even the distribution of the seats among various regional groups. The immediate effect of the draft was that it united the permanent members against it. Demarches were made in Delhi by each of them in a bid to scuttle the move. Since the move was seen as an Indian proposal, the pressure was mounted most on Delhi, and it was decided that the resolution will not be put to a vote and it will be postponed for consideration on a future date. Since then, the ‘Indian proposal’ came up from year to year, but it was postponed each year without a debate. It was never withdrawn altogether.
By the time I reached New York as a DPR, the global situation had changed considerably and there was a momentum towards an expansion of the Security Council, including the permanent membership. Basically, the proposal was to induct Japan and Germany on the ground that they would pay a higher contribution to peace-keeping if they became permanent members. Soon enough, an idea came up that some major developing countries should also be made permanent members in order to make the composition of the council more representative. The old Indian proposal came up that year, and I suggested to Gharekhan that we should try for a simple procedural resolution to seek the views of the member states on the subject in the light of the changed world situation. He agreed and we presented a draft resolution to the original co-sponsors of the agenda item. The response was overwhelming. Many countries came forward to support the idea, and the resolution, under the old agenda item, was unanimously adopted. The resolution simply asked the member states to submit their views to the secretary general and requested the secretary general to compile the various views and submit them to the next session.
The publication of the views of the member states was revealing. No one, not even the permanent members, argued that no change was necessary. Views differed widely as to what the changes should be, but the message came loud and clear that changes should be made. The next step for the Indian delegation was to present a draft, setting up a working group to consider the issue. At this point, some countries staged a coup against India. The PR of Singapore approached our PR, Hamid Ansari, who was relatively new to the intricacies of the United Nations, and convinced him that India, as a candidate for permanent membership, should step down as the coordinator of the group on the expansion of the Security Council. The process went out of our control from then on and a large group of countries got together to draft the next resolution, setting up a working group of the General Assembly to find a formula for an expansion of the Security Council. We had to work hard to ensure that the mandate of the working group was right. We ensured that the mandate of the group was not only to find a formula for expansion, but also to examine and suggest a reform of the working methods of the Security Council.
When the working group was set up under the chairmanship of Singapore, the matter appeared to move swiftly towards a ‘quick fix’ on the ground that there was virtual agreement on the induction of Japan and Germany as permanent members. The momentum started building up as, virtually, every speaker supported the two countries. The support was not absolute as most countries that supported Japan and Germany also wanted inclusion of others as permanent members and an expansion of the non-permanent category. The situation came so close to a determination that the first stage should be the induction of Japan and Germany, after which consultations could continue on other aspects. We saw the danger in this approach and energised the NAM group to say that if a comprehensive expansion could not take place, then the first stage should be an expansion only of the nonpermanent membership. On our initiative, the NAM developed a paper as a ‘fall-back position’, which suggested the addition of some 10 non-permanent members. It was this move, together with the pressure of the ‘rejectionists’ like Italy and Pakistan, that scuttled the ‘quick fix’ idea and placed the issue in cold storage. It was no mean achievement that we prevented a limited expansion, which would have closed the chapter of expansion of the Security Council for many years to come.
Once the momentum for a quick fix was lost, the whole expansion process went into a lethargic mode and the working group continued for years without making any substantial progress. We ourselves advanced our position from seeking to establish objective criteria for permanent membership to staking a claim on the basis of the criteria that we had recommended. As the acting PR at that time, I presented our case to the working group in February 1995, which was widely reported around the world. Since the claim of Japan and Germany was on the ground of economic strength and their high financial contributions, I said: ‘Contribution to the United Nations should not be measured in terms of money. We do not agree with the view expressed by a delegation that permanent membership is a privilege that can be purchased. Financial contributions are determined on the basis of “capacity to pay” and those who pay their assessments, however small, are no whit less qualified for privilege than the major contributors.’
Our claim was made so strong that it became clear that if a single developing country were to become a permanent member, that would be India. At the same time, doubts began to be raised as to whether the permanent category would be expanded at all. The idea of a rotation of ‘semipermanent seats’ came up. Ideas such as two permanent seats for Africa and one seat for the Enropean Union complicated matters further. The permanent members were generally opposed to any dilution of their own position, and others felt that they had nothing much to gain if one or another country became a permanent member. The medium and small countries came to believe that they stood to gain more by an expansion of the non-permanent category rather than by an expansion of the permanent category. By the time I left New York in 1995, the expansion drama had been played out without any outcome.
The expansion exercise, however, had some unintended results, some positive and some negative from our perspective. The discussion on the working methods led to a certain transparency in the decision making of the Security Council, and successive council presidents introduced novel schemes to reveal some of the considerations that weighed with the members in arriving at conclusions. But, on the negative side, the discussions highlighted the fact that a vast majority of the member states had not served even once on the Security Council, while countries like India, Japan, Pakistan and Egypt had served on the council several times. This raised expectations all around, and countries began declaring their candidatures many years in advance. India, which used to get elected every seven years or so, was not elected even once after 1992. The only time we contested against Japan, we ended up with 40 votes in our favour. Since candidatures have been announced by others for many years to come, India has to take on one of them in an election or wait till an expansion takes place. After the nuclear tests of 1998, the chances of India becoming a permanent member have receded further.
India is one of the few countries, that nominate members of parliament and other distinguished citizens to our delegations to the General Assembly sessions. This is a practice established by Pandit Nehru himself. A few other countries do send members of parliament and others, but only as observers. Our non-official delegates are given specific responsibilities in the various committees and it is they who make most of the important statements in the General Assembly and its committees. This imposes a strain on the mission at a busy time of the year in New York as the officials have to coach them on the intricate negotiations, write speeches for them and also take care of their personal needs. Most of them settle down to the routine of the session and benefit from their stay to learn and to understand issues. Some who come with the idea of making a splash or changing India’s policy on certain issues are disappointed when they find that they can do little to change the existing pattern. Moreover, they cannot participate in the actual negotiations that go on in intimate groups of professional diplomats. But the merit of the system is that those who come to the UN sessions gain an insight into the functioning of the United Nations and the role played by our diplomats there. Almost all of them develop a healthy relationship with the Ministry of External Affairs for the rest of their careers. Several members of parliament, who came to the sessions during my time, came to occupy important positions in the government, some of them in the Ministry of External Affairs itself. Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Farooq Abdullah, Najma Heptullah, Vayalar Ravi, E. Ahamed, Kamal Nath, S. M. Krishna and Eduardo Faleiro were among those who attended the UN sessions when I was there. Vajpayee appeared to enjoy his annual short visits to the United Nations for several years. A veteran of the United Nations, Brajesh Mishra, was also with Vajpayee on several occasions. E. Ahamed was nominated to several sessions continuously and earned the title of ‘unofficial permanent representative’.
On occasions, the members of the delegation have created difficult situations to the mission in New York. One member of parliament did not agree with our Afghanistan policy and wanted our vote changed from abstention to positive (against the Soviet Union). Having failed to convince the permanent representative of the change, he decided to take the law into his own hands and said ‘yes’ in a roll call vote in one of the committees. But, unknown to him, I went to the secretariat and got the vote changed to abstention in the records, and reported the matter to the government. Another member of parliament felt that our position on East Timor needed modification. The changes he made in the draft speech we had given him were not in keeping with our policy, and he was advised to stick to the text as drafted. But he did omit a word or two when he actually read the text to reflect a slight shift in policy. Indonesia and Portugal noticed the change, but I made sure that the original version appeared in the records.
Mercifully, none of our delegates went to the extent of changing the whole speech as a Pakistani delegate did on one occasion. He went to the podium with one speech written by the mission in his hand and another by himself in his pocket. The Pakistan delegation was dumbfounded when he started reading his own version. Uganda was even more embarrassed when a dissident read out an anti-Amin speech from the UN podium when no official was present at the Ugandan seat. Story goes that Idi Amin ordered that all the six chairs of the Ugandan delegation in the General Assembly should be occupied at all times.
I worked with five Indian permanent representatives to the United Nations—Brajesh Mishra, Natarajan Krishnan, Chinmaya Gharekhan, Hamid Ansari and Prakash Shah. They were highly intelligent, motivated and hard-working officers, who had distinguished themselves in the service of the nation. But they had different styles of functioning and different reputations. Mishra, for instance, had the reputation of being tough, both in the mission as well as outside. He was friendly and relaxed with his counterparts, but they were not sure as to where they stood with him. We could see in the mission that, behind his tough exterior, he was gentle and gracious. His statements were precise, his negotiating skills were excellent and he was a fighter. The most important lesson he taught us about multilateral diplomacy was that we should be credible at all times. Since news travelled at the speed of lightning at the United Nations, we should never say different things to different people on any subject, he used to say. In private and in public, he maintained a high level of credibility, which was his greatest strength.
Krishnan was a contrast to Mishra in many ways. Unlike Mishra, who appeared to know every issue, Krishnan seemed unsure of things till he extracted every fact and every suggestion from his interlocutors. ‘No, no, I don’t know …’ was his constant refrain, even when he knew everything. He was very popular because of his transparency and readiness to listen even to junior diplomats from other missions. He allowed all of us to operate on our own, within his general guidance. But he was capable of decisive intervention, where necessary. He had no problem obtaining the results he wanted from any situation, even if it took long to reach there. We could take liberties with him in a way we would not do with other senior officers. One amusing situation arose when we were in Havana for a NAM meeting. Krishnan was the only state guest among us, whose hotel bills were paid by the host government. In order to economise on our laundry bill, we began sending our clothes to the laundry through his room. He did not challenge it till one day he found that the laundry of Sarita Bali, our young lady colleague, was delivered to his room. He could not stop laughing when he told us that the Cubans would really wonder what he was up to.
Gharekhan was very much in the Krishnan mould—low-key, competent and relaxed. He served longer than any other PR in New York as he moved from the prime minister’s office to New York as an additional secretary. He became subdued and pensive after his daughter’s tragic death, but he continued bravely till he retired and joined the Secretariat as the under secretary general. He finished his service as the president of the Security Council and joined the Secretariat as an aide to Ghali, the next day. He made a mark in the Secretariat too during his five years, partly in New York and partly in Gaza. As the secretary general’s special representative in the Security Council, he made a significant contribution to the United Nations. Working with Gharekhan, like with Krishnan, was tension-free.
The appointment of Hamid Ansari as a PR was a surprise, as he had no previous UN experience. But he had distinguished himself in some tough assignments like Kabul and Teheran and as the Chief of Protocol. The New York appointment was a reward for him, and it also suited the government to have a Muslim PR in New York at a time when Pakistan agitated the Kashmir issue at the United Nations. Ansari’s keen understanding of international issues more than made up for his lack of familiarity with the United Nations, and we worked as a team fairly well till he moved to Saudi Arabia. The arrival of a second DPR created some complications, but we overcame them in due time.
Prakash Shah brought a wealth of the UN experience and considerable reputation to the post of the PR, but he created various roadblocks for me during my short stint with him in New York. He insisted that I should leave the bureau of the climate change conference of parties after I left New York even though my responsibilities in Nairobi included environmental issues. The defeat in the elections to the Security Council was a low point in his career, but he had no one other than himself to blame for raising false expectations.
Nairobi is the only UN capital in the developing world, with the UNEP and the UN Commission on Human Settlements (Habitat) located there. After the Rio Summit and the establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the environmental scene shifted to New York and deprived Nairobi of much of its importance. Habitat also had lost much of its appeal, as it was chronically short of funds and generally mismanaged. Africans themselves were the last to fight for importance of Nairobi, as they preferred to travel to New York, Geneva and Vienna rather than hop across to Nairobi for meetings. India attached importance to both UNEP and Habitat and, generally, supported the growth of Nairobi as a UN capital. My efforts were, therefore, aimed at implementation of the programmes of the two units as well as strengthening them. But the general attitude of the donors and the poor management of the two institutions made it difficult to improve the situation. The best we could achieve was to ensure that the two institutions stayed in Nairobi and their mandates remained focused on economic development.
Elizabeth Dowdswell, the executive director of UNEP a former Canadian diplomat, was obsessed with the idea that she should have access to ministers of member states on a regular basis as she thought that most permanent representatives had no say in policy matters. She spent the last two years of her term, trying to set up a high level committee to oversee the work of UNEP over and above the Committee of Permanent Representatives and the General Conference. As the chairman of the Committee of Permanent Representatives, I found myself in opposition to this move, while some of the developed countries, notably the United Kingdom, at the level of its environment minister, supported it strongly. Although I was acting at the behest of the committee, the British Environment Minister, an arrogant gentleman, came to the conclusion that I was single-handedly blocking a consensus in favour of the new body and went to the extent of declaring that funding to UNEP would be stopped. The UK Foreign Office even raised the issue bilaterally. Eventually, a high-level committee was established with a mandate so distorted that it had no role at all, only to be dismantled by the secretary general within a short time. Our position was thus vindicated, but the amount of effort and resources spent on this exercise was a colossal waste. It is not unusual for the UN bodies to become captive to some hare-brained ideas of the secretariat officials.
The preparations for Habitat II in Istanbul and its follow-up dominated our work in the area of human settlements. Habitat II became crucial for the institution in Nairobi as many developed countries were convinced that Habitat should be wound up or shifted out of Nairobi. There were also proposals to merge it with UNEP or some other UN body. With Kenya’s active cooperation, the G-77 countries decided to oppose such moves and, instead, strengthen the institution even more. As the spokesman of the G-77 at the conference, I had to put up a fight on behalf of the developing world to save Habitat from extinction. Our success in Istanbul was hailed by Africa and the entire developing world.
I thought that I would be homesick for multilateral fora in Washington, but our observer status in the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the negotiations on the establishment of a Community of Democracies initiated by the state department gave me some multilateral interludes. The only time we had to be active in the OAS was soon after the nuclear tests in 1998. I heard from the US Ambassador to the OAS, who was a colleague in New York, that a resolution on the Indian nuclear tests was under consideration in the OAS. Ambassador Naresh Chandra and I lost no time in getting there. Chandra was given an opportunity to explain the Indian case, while I worked among the delegates. Latin Americans, who are generally friendly to India, were helpful in moderating the language. The United States was keen on condemnation, but under pressure from the Latin countries, generated by us, the resolution adopted was less strong than originally intended.
A Community of Democracies as a grouping at the United Nations and elsewhere was the brainchild of the Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright. The idea was sold to the Poles, who became the hosts of the first conference, but the preparatory work was done in Washington by a group of diplomats from prospective member states. Jaswant Singh was one of the early converts to the idea, and India was designated as a member of the preparatory committee. We spent considerable time deciding on invitees and preparing the agenda. Special care had to be taken not to step on the toes of a forum of new democracies, which was already functioning in New York. The idea of several discussion groups rather than a series of speeches was widely accepted. The conference in Warsaw, which I missed, laid the ground rules for the community and established a biennial calendar for it. The logic of a forum for democracies was self-evident, but the US championship of it was not convincing in the light of its record of making some of the worst dictatorships its allies for short-term gains.