The re-election of Justice Dalveer Bhandari to the last vacant seat on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is not a victory for India alone. It is a reflection of the aspirational voices in the general assembly of the United Nations, seeking to break out from the hegemony of the old world order, represented by the UN Security Council (the P-5). It is a clarion call for reform of multilateral institutions like the UN. This moment is an inflection point, building on years of diplomatic engagement by India and other developing countries for a fair and just world regime.
The ICJ is the UN’s apex judicial organ and one of its main functions is to resolve disputes between nations. The withdrawal of the UK from the race, after eleven rounds of voting, is significant because it is the first time since 1946 that the UK will not be part of ICJ. It was taken for granted that the P-5 will always have a seat on the 15-member strong ICJ. It is such presumptuousness that is increasingly and rightly becoming a casualty in multilateral institutions.
The UK nominee, Justice Greenwood, did not poll the needed majority in the UNGA, while Justice Bhandari did not get the required votes in the UNSC. This led to an unprecedented logjam with the UK even trying to break the deadlock by invoking article 12 (1) of the ICJ statute, which calls for a candidate for judgeship to be chosen through a ‘joint conference’ between the UNGA and UNSC: an arcane and undemocratic route which had never been utilised in the UN’s 72-year-old history. The resultant general disapproval, even amongst some P5 members, finally led to the UK’s withdrawal.
The UK will be smarting from their withdrawal since it comes on the back of a loss at the UNGA last June, where it was defeated 94-15 when a Mauritian-backed resolution questioning the disputed legal status of the UK’s hold over the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean was referred to the ICJ. It is reflective of the will of countries, especially under the G-77 formation, to challenge privileges of the P-5 enshrined in customary rules for ICJ elections. It is even more symbolic that the contest was between an erstwhile colonial power and its former colony. The sun has indeed set on the old world order.
It is important to understand the larger context behind the support India received in the ICJ election. The G-77 countries, often led by India, Egypt and Ethiopia, played an active role in creating multilateral regimes that exist today. The creation of Bretton Woods institutions post World War II, led to an opportunity for newly independent countries to engage in the creation of a more just world regime. Nehru, an acknowledged and towering internationalist, was determined to shape global regimes through the moral force drawn from the legitimacy of the Indian freedom movement. At the same time, he was also realist who enabled India to punch well above its weight through the strategic influence of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Fortunately, Indian governments have mostly followed a consistent path and contributed greatly to multilateral institutions and mechanisms, including highly equitable resolutions on sustainable development and global trade instruments and taking leadership positions on behalf of developing nations. The economic growth seen by India post-liberalisation in 1985 and the fact that we are almost one-fifth of the world’s population has helped our cause. Regardless of regime changes in the last two decades, India has mostly remained steady and consistent. While credit must go to our diplomatic corps and our foreign minister for this diplomatic victory, it must be emphasised that it is a result of the goodwill garnered over the past 70 years that has enabled a vote for India in the UNGA against the erstwhile imperial powers symbolised by the UNSC. No doubt, the excellent temperament of the incumbent, Justice Bhandari, a careful and wise choice of UPA 1, helped in the victory, for he is an extremely polite, reasonable, humble and helpful person. It would be petty and shortsighted for any government to indulge in self congratulation on such issues of institutional and international continuity rather than celebrate that continuity in a bipartisan manner.
The vote for India in the UNGA is also the right time for us to create constructive disruption qua comprehensive reform in the UN, especially for a permanent seat on the security council. It must be pegged on increasing UN legitimacy in a world with increasing hostility, hatred and bitterness. At the same time, India must realise that seeking power comes with immense responsibility. If we want to be a great power, we must start acting like one.