Top positions at United Nations bodies are often hotly contested; right from UN secretary general’s post to slots on different UN committees as governments pull out all stops to get their nominees elected. The election of a judge at the International Court of Justice became a battle royale between India and the United Kingdom till the British government chose to withdraw its candidate after six rounds of voting proved inconclusive.
Four judges from Brazil, France, Lebanon and Somalia were elected in the initial rounds of voting to the 15-member International Court of Justice at The Hague. There were six candidates for five vacancies on the prestigious body. Justice Dalveer Bhandari and the British contestant, Christopher Greenwood were seeking re-election for a nine year term but both candidates failed to get a majority leading to a run-off between them.
India was late in announcing the candidature of Bhandari, but began hectic lobbying after he lost in the initial round. With only two candidates, the contest devolved on the capacity of each Foreign Office for mobilising support for their candidate. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is reported to have made over 60 phone calls to her counterparts in various capitals. Multilateral events and regional summits such as the Asean and East Asia summits were opportunities to meet senior leaders.
Bhandari’s votes in the UN General Assembly increased steadily over the successive rounds of voting indicating India’s diplomatic efforts were bearing fruit while the UK could not make any headway. In the last round of voting Greenwood received only 68 votes to Bhandari’s 121 votes from the 193 members of the UN General Assembly. Greenwood got nine votes in the UNSC while Bhandari had five votes.
Britain’s plan to invoke the article, which allows for a ‘joint conference’ of three nominated members each of the UNSC and UNGA to elect a candidate changed the dynamics of the election. Article 12(1) has never been used before nor has its procedures been clearly formulated. Britain might have found it difficult to get support for the controversial plan even within the UN Security Council.
The ICJ election is a vote on India’s acceptability among a majority of UN members and Britain’s waning international influence after Brexit. In the letter withdrawing Greenwood’s candidature, the British Permanent Representative to the UN, Mathew Rycroft wrote that the decision was taken keeping in mind “the close relationship the UK and India have always enjoyed and will continue to enjoy”.
The defeat was taken as a “humiliating blow” in the UK with The Independent newspaper writing that the “failure to guarantee a place on an organisation it helped to found has been interpreted as a sign of its increasing irrelevance on the world stage following the decision to leave the European Union.”
The Guardian newspaper said the UK was partially the victim of residual international resentment in the UN General Assembly of the dominance and privileges of the permanent five members of the Security Council.”
Earlier in the year, the UK had lost another crucial vote at the UN. For the Indian side, the contest gained added significance because of its current case pending with the ICJ against Pakistan on the denial of consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav.
The UK also has a pending dispute over the Chagos Islands in the ICJ. In June, a Mauritius sponsored resolution on the British control of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean was approved by the UNGA and the matter was sent to the ICJ.
A bitter fight would have hurt Indian and British interests. The UK is to host the Commonwealth summit next year. Britain has been showing a declining interest in the organisation comprising of former British colonies, but has now plans to provide new leadership to reactivate the group after losing European backing after its vote to quit the EU. British leaders have also urged India to take up a more active participation in the Commonwealth grouping.
Bhandari’s election has been hailed as a major victory in Indian and some analysts see it as a shift in the power balance at the UN, moving away from the UN Security Council to the General Assembly. That assessment is likely to be a premature view since power still vests with the UNSC. The ICJ vote, however, gives an inkling on how the shift can take place if there is a more determined and forceful push from the UNGA towards democratising the functioning of the UN. The ICJ result was largely because the UNSC member involved was the UK, which has been in a shaken position after its Brexit decision. Cutting itself off from Europe, the UK is no longer the global power it was as part of a large entity like the European Union. Britain no longer had the committed backing of its European neighbours.