Humphrey Hawksley lauds a call for reform of the UN Security Council, by a participant who remains unaware of how it reaches its decisions
As a young diplomat in the 1980s, Hardeep Singh Puri cut his teeth on India’s ill-fated intervention in Sri Lanka, and rose to become his country’s ambassador to the United Nations when India was a rotating member of the Security Council.
From those early days of failing to tame the Tamil Tigers to having a Security Council ringside seat in opaque, closed-door deliberations on the Syrian and Libyan crises, Puri concludes that the UN system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.
‘If the Council is allowed to function as it presently does, it will only bring further discredit to the cause of peace and security,’ he writes, arguing that it was as ‘clear as daylight’ that intervention and the arming of rebels – whether in Iraq, Libya or Sri Lanka before them – would create unprecedented chaos.
The accusation is harsh, and Puri’s is an important voice. He does not mince his words and knows what he is talking about, because he was raised amid India’s own contradictions, where abuse of power, rule of law, insurgency and democracy live in each other’s pockets, rubbing against each other on a daily basis.
He arrives at the UN headquarters in New York with optimism on what he hopes to achieve, only to see it whittled down, meeting by meeting, as he witnesses what he describes as the ‘shameless pursuit of narrowly defined interests’.
He paints a picture of back-room deals and closed-door sessions and of a narrative dictated by America, Britain and France. In one fascinating account we are taken inside New York’s fashionable Felidia restaurant on 58th Street where, at $80 a head, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon presides over a lunch of UN luminaries. Among them are Puri, his US counterpart Susan Rice next to him and Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister who went on to head a UN agency and is currently pitching to take the Secretary General’s job. It is March 7, 201l.
The conversation focused on possible intervention in Gaddafi’s Libya. Clark leads the argument for ‘strong military action’ to prevent Gaddafi inflicting untold misery, and she is backed by the French UN ambassador Gerard Araud, and Britain’s Lyall Grant.
For 30 minutes the discussion unfolds along a depressingly unimaginative and familiar path to anyone tuned to international issues, and concludes in the same way. Rice nudges Puri to ask who would be carrying out this intervention. Without a pause for thought, despite the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, comes the reply: ‘Of course NATO, led by the United States of America.’ India warned, America did not lead from the front, and we all know what happened.
The book would have benefited from more of these fly-on-the-wall images to draw us into the corridors, offices, meeting halls and complexities of the UN that often lodges itself somewhere in an international story, but most often is not fully understood.
Puri points out that even from within his position in the charmed circle, he never came to grasp exactly how the Security Council came to its decisions. Yet we should all know, because this is the only authority that can decide what constitutes a threat to international peace and security, and that is what leads to the modern trend of intervention.
Puri left his ambassadorial post an unsettled figure, who had witnessed how power worked and didn’t like what he saw. Why do governments pursue policies that are counter-productive and against their own best interests, he asks, pondering whether it is out of ‘sheer incompetence or as part of a larger game plan’. If there is one, Puri hasn’t found it, pointing out that the Security Council’s efforts to address the underlying causes of terrorism have ended up with many dead terrorists, but the many ‘isms’ that fuel terrorism remain intact.
Perilous Interventions is ultimately a call for reform of the UN Security Council, which continues to reflect the outdated world of the 1950s, not the 2020s, where we are heading. In that respect, Puri is a highly-credible, frontline cheerleader in his country’s bid to become a permanent member.
But this is also a much bigger book about flawed global authority, where it went wrong and how to start putting it right.
Humphrey Hawksley is an Asia specialist and former BBC Beijing correspondent who has reported extensively from the developing world. He is the author of Democracy Kills – What’s So Good About Having the Vote? (Macmillan), an examination of democracy and development.