Even though it's been more than eight years since I left the service of the United Nations, the one question people have still not stopped asking me in India is when the country is going to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The short answer is "not just yet" but there are so many misconceptions about this issue that spelling out the Indian case is clearly necessary.
The problem of reforming the Security Council is rather akin to a malady in which a number of doctors gather around a patient; they all agree on the diagnosis but they cannot agree on the prescription. The diagnosis is clear – the Security Council reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 and not of today.
When the UN was founded in that year, the council consisted of 11 members out of a total UN membership of 51 countries; in other words, some 22% of the members were on the Security Council. Today, there are 193 members of the UN and only 15 members of the council – fewer than 8%. So many more countries, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the membership, do not feel adequately represented on the body.
The composition of the council also gives undue weight to the balance of power of those days: Europe, for instance, which accounts for barely 5% of the world's population, still controls 33% of the seats. And the five permanent members – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – enjoy their position and the privilege of a veto over any council resolution or decision, by virtue of having won a war 70 years ago. (In the case of China, the word "won" needs to be placed within inverted commas.)
The logic of permanent membership was to retain within the UN fold those world powers of the day whose presence was indispensable to the organisation's success – to avoid the fate of the UN's predecessor the League of Nations, to which the US never belonged and from which Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia were expelled at various times, thereby condemning the League to irrelevance.
Countries such as India feel the indispensable powers of today are no longer just those of 1945. Japan and Germany are the second and third largest contributors to the UN's finances, but are still described in the Charter as "enemy states". India, Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria are powers impossible to ignore in their own regions, but absent from the world's premier organ that might take decisions about peace and security in those very regions, without their participation.
So clearly the Security Council is ripe for reform to bring it into the 21st century. The UN recognised the need for action as early as 1992, when the Open-Ended Working Group of the General Assembly was established to look into the issue, in the hope (expressed rashly by then secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali) of having a solution in time for the 50th anniversary of the world organisation in 1995.
But the Open-Ended Working Group soon began to be known, in the UN corridors, as the Never-Ending Shirking Group. Instead of identifying a solution or moving towards compromise, the General Assembly discussions have missed not only the 50th anniversary of the UN, but the 60th and now the 70th. Left to its own devices, it will be arguing the merits of the case well past the UN's centenary.
The problem is quite simple: for every state that feels it deserves a place on the Security Council, and especially the handful of countries who believe their status in the world ought to be recognised as being in no way inferior to at least three if not four of the existing permanent members, there are several who know they will not benefit from any reform. The small countries that make up more than half the UN's membership accept that reality and are content to compete occasionally for a two-year non-permanent seat on the council.
But the medium-sized and large countries, which are the rivals of the prospective beneficiaries, deeply resent the prospect of a select few breaking free of their current second-rank status in the world body. Some of the objectors, like Canada and Spain, are motivated genuinely by principle: they consider the existence of permanent membership to be wrong to begin with, and they have no desire to compound the original sin by adding more members to a category they dislike.
But many of the others are openly animated by a spirit of competition, historical grievance or simple envy. They have banded together into an effective coalition to thwart reform of the membership of the Security Council.
Adding Germany and Japan to the council would, of course, further skew the existing north-south imbalance, so they would have to be balanced by new permanent members from the developing world. In Asia, India, as the world's largest democracy, its third-largest economy (in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms) and a long-standing major contributor to UN peace-keeping operations, seems an obvious contender. But Pakistan, and to some extent Indonesia, are unalterably opposed.
The bar to amending the UN Charter has been set rather high. Any amendment requires a two-thirds majority of the overall membership, in other words 128 of the 193 states in the General Assembly. An amendment would further have to be ratified (usually a parliamentary procedure) by two-thirds of the member states.
This means the only "prescription" that has any chance of passing is one that is acceptable to two-thirds of the UN member states and not unacceptable to any of the existing permanent five (or even to a powerful US senator who could block ratification in Washington). That has proved to be a tall order.
The Security Council has to change sooner or later. The best argument for reform is the absence of reform could discredit the United Nations. I remember the late British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, saying in 1997 (on his first visit to the UN in that capacity) that if the council was not reformed without delay, his own voters would not understand why. Cook, a fine statesman and a man of principle, did not realise he was not destined to see any reform in his lifetime, let alone his term of office.
And yet he understood that reform was essential, because what merely looks anomalous today will seem absurd tomorrow. Imagine in 2020 a British or French veto of a resolution affecting South Asia, with India absent from the table, or of one affecting Southern Africa with South Africa not voting: who would take the council seriously then?
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," US diplomats like to say. But to much of the rest of the world, the Security Council is indeed "broke" and the more decisions it is called upon to take that affect many countries – authorising wars, declaring sanctions, launching peacekeeping interventions – the greater the risk its decisions will be seen as made by an unrepresentative body and therefore rejected as illegitimate.
The UN is the one universal body we all have, the one organisation to which every country in the world belongs; if it is discredited, the world as a whole will lose an institution that is truly irreplaceable. It's not just about India. The future of the world body is at stake.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On The Nation In Our Time.