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On Libya, the drama at the UNSC in 2011 | Opinion



For an ambassador to be covered by TIME is quite heady. But for a deputy permanent representative, even a headline “losers”, would do. This happened to me in the magazine’s edition of July 29, 2011.

Former Mexican foreign minister Jose Castaneda wrote a column calling members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) who did not support resolution 1973 adopted on March 17, 2011 “losers”. Under the guise of protection of civilians, the resolution basically authorised the use of all necessary means (code for military action) to bring down the Libyan government led by Colonel Gaddafi.

UNSC resolutions must not be vetoed by any of the P-5. But to be adopted, they need nine affirmative votes in the 15-member UNSC. This effectively means that an abstention by a P-5 is a “yes” while a similar action by an elected member is like a “no”.

UNSCR 1973 was one of the only times in recent memory when it appeared that even though no veto was envisaged, the nine votes may not be forthcoming. This was mainly because there was uncertainty in the way South Africa and Nigeria would vote. African solidarity and the principle of non-interference in internal matters were important to them and this resolution sought to upend that by invoking a controversial concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) introduced some years earlier in UN thinking.

The politics behind the votes have been discussed in many places but the nine votes business saw a brief but heightened drama in the UNSC chamber before the vote was called.

Our permanent representative (PR) was out of New York on March 17 and I had the privilege of leading the Indian delegation. As soon as I entered the UNSC chamber, just before 3 pm, the usual time for the start of formal Council meetings, I heard a senior UN official, who had long served on Security Council Affairs, saying “here comes trouble”. And, then the PR of a P-5 country that was pushing the resolution rushed to me and wanted to know how we would vote. In his anxiety, he blurted that he was surprised that “this time” they had no indication from Delhi regarding India’s vote.

It was soon 3 pm, but the South African delegation was missing and once again the PR of the P5 country was in a tizzy. However, a few minutes later, the South African PR entered the room and explained that he was late having been held up at lunch. Soon, the vote was called, and the resolution adopted with 10 affirmative votes. Both South Africa and Nigeria voted “yes”. Apparently, the South Africans were “persuaded”, possibly during the lunch break, at the highest level by the United States and the Nigerian instruction was to vote as South Africa did.

The five Castaneda “losers” were those who abstained — Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India — while the winners were supposedly the Libyan people. The country has been in strife for a decade now and as the UN marks its 75th birthday, R2P is nowhere to be seen.

In the UNSC, India and Germany sat next to each other and provided an excellent focus for the photo that accompanied Castaneda’s article. Germany had been a house divided and its PR remained uncomfortable with his country’s vote. For me, this remained an opening for light-hearted banter often telling him that had his vote been different, he wouldn’t have been in TIME!

Manjeev Singh Puri is former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN. This article is part of a series of anecdotal pieces by him on the eve of India joining the Security Council

The views expressed are personal

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