Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Gandhi, India and the United Nations: How India Reoriented the Organisation

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Dilip Sinha
    Venue: Gandhigram Rural Institute, Madurai
    Date: December 11, 2018

I am deeply honoured by the invitation by the Gandhigram Rural Institute to deliver a talk on India’s foreign policy. I wish to thank the Ministry of External Affairs for sponsoring my visit.

Instead of speaking in general terms on India’s foreign policy, I will focus my talk on the role India played in shaping the United Nations into what it has become today. The United Nations that we know is quite different from the organisation that was created around 70 years ago. Today, the organisation with its 6 organs and over a dozen specialised agencies has an all-encompassing reach. It is difficult to think of an aspect of life that is not in some way touched by the UN. India’s foreign policy as we all know was framed by our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and was greatly influenced by him. India’s non-violent freedom struggle had introduced a new and revolutionary form of political agitation – mass civil disobedience or satyagraha – which had captured the imagination of the world. India applied the ideals of its freedom struggle in its approach to the United Nations with great enthusiasm and had considerable success in transforming the nature of the organisation.

The United Nations started as a wartime alliance. It was formed soon after Japan attacked the United States in the Second World War. The US, which had been neutral till then, joined the war on the side of Britain and Russia. On 1 January 1942, four nations, the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and China, issued the Washington Declaration in which they declared that they would join hands to fight Germany, Italy and Japan. Twenty-two other countries joined it the next day and another twenty-one over the next three years. The term, United Nations, was used once again in the Four-Nation Moscow Declaration of 30 October 1943 for the alliance. This declaration also contained the first commitment of the four powers to set up an international organisation.

Organs of the UN

This wartime alliance was transformed into an international organisation after the war. It replaced the existing organisation, the League of Nations. The Charter of the United Nations was finalised at the San Francisco Conference in last days of the war in 1945, though its key features had been finalised earlier by the big three, the US, Russia and Britain. The Charter came into effect on 24 October 1945 and the day is celebrated as UN Day. Maintaining international peace and security was the sole goal of the organisation. It was given a council for addressing economic and social issues, the Economic and Social Council, but it was a recommendatory body created because the founders of the UN were aware of the economic and social causes that had contributed to the rise of Hitler in Germany. The most powerful organ of the UN, the Security Council, was kept as a small eleven-member body controlled by the five principal allies. It was to be given a military force to be used against any country that threatened international peace and security. Its procedures were simple and its powers absolute. This was in sharp contrast to the other organs of the UN, which could only make recommendations. Even the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice was neither compulsory nor comprehensive.

The United Nations is known today for its peacekeeping and development work and as a champion of democracy and human rights. It has over one lakh peacekeepers in war-ravaged countries. Yet, none of this was envisaged in when the UN was formed. The word democracy does not figure in the UN Charter. Few of the 51 founding members of the UN were democracies and some of them, like India, were not even independent. Human rights were referred to in passing and decolonisation was not one of the goals set for the world body.

Resetting the course of the organisation so soon after it was formed was a difficult and contentious task that took several years. It was done in the face of stiff opposition from the established powers, the permanent five of the Security Council.India’s foreign policy in the early years of the United Nations was remarkably farsighted and mature. India’s stand on issues like decolonisation, apartheid, nuclear disarmament, equity in the international economic order and in North-South relations, non-alignment in the cold war, South-South cooperation, democracy was well ahead of its time.


Democracy and decolonisation were not on the agenda of the permanent five when they drafted the UN Chartern or was it a foreign policy objective of any of them.When the Second World War got over, there was a rush among them to recover the colonies they had lost to the Axis powers. France tried to recover Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and Britain took back Malaysia, Singapore and other colonies in Asia. Netherlands wanted Indonesia back. The US seized islands in the Pacific. Russia seized all of East Europe. Even China, whose UN seat was still occupied by the Kuomintang government, annexed Tibet and Xinjiang. The UN did not have a policy to check this. India was one of the first countries to raise its voice against the Netherlands and France. India spoke for all the colonies and raised awareness against imperialism. It was only in 1960, by which timemost countries of Asia and Africa had become independent and joined the UN,that the General Assembly adopted a resolution on decolonisation.

Ironically, it was the Soviet Union, a communist country that espoused the dictatorship of the proletariat, that played a key role in the first declaration on decolonisation adopted by the General Assembly in 1960, the ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’. This resolution reaffirmed the right of self-determination and the right of all peoples to determine their political status. It declared that subjecting people to alien subjugation constitutes the denial of human rights and is an impediment to attaining world peace. The resolution was made possible by 19 newly-independent states joining the UN that year. It was adopted by 89 votes to none. There were 9 abstentions. The three western permanent members – the US, Britain and France – were among them. Other colonial powers – Belgium, Portugal, and Spain also abstained, as did Australia, South Africa and the Dominican Republic. The US declared that the resolution was unnecessary. Britain argued that going through colonial rule was a necessary phase of development for the colonies before attaining independence.

However, while the General Assembly tried to guide the United Nations towards decolonisation, the Security Council remained mired in its post-war colonial mindset.It did not take any action against the colonial powers or in support of the freedom movements in countries in Asia and Africa.

Human Rights

One of the principles of the UN isto promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms.However, the Charter also forbids the UN from intervening in the internal affairs of member states. During the Cold War, the Security Council rarely imposed sanctions or took any other measures against a state for human rights violations. The only exceptions were Southern Rhodesia and South Africa on which mild sanctions were imposed.

Although human rights are now projected as one of the pillars of the UN all permanent five members have vetoed resolutions dealing with human rights violations. The US, Britain and France did so on numerous occasions in the past in the case of Southern Rhodesia, South Africa and Namibia and continue to do so in the Middle East. Russia and China have worked together to defeat resolutions on Myanmar, Syria and Zimbabwe.

The influence of Mahatma Gandhi on shaping the human rights agenda of the UN is direct and profound. In 1946 itself, even before becoming independent India generated a resolution in the General Assembly on the treatment of Indians in South Africa. This later matured into the movement against apartheid with India marching together with the countries of Africa. India’s close collaboration with Africa on this issue led to the forging of the Afro-Asian identity in 1955 at the Bandung conference. This was also the genesis of the non-aligned movement of the newly-independent countries of Asia and Africa who did not wish to get entangled in the cold war. Several countries of Latin America joined this group later.


After the cold war, the Western countries changed their policy and declared that democracy is essential for international peace, human rights and sustainable development. The goal of democracy was placed on the agenda of the UN by Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali in his ‘Agenda for Democratisation’, presented to the General Assemblyin 1996. He declared that democracy leads to a more open, more participatory and less authoritarian society and that the idea was gaining adherence all over the world and countries were turning to the UN for assistance in attaining it. He noted that peacekeeping mandates of the UN now include both the restoration of democracy and the protection of human rights.


The situation was the same on the issue of disarmament. The UN Charter mentions disarmament as one of the goals of the organisation but the cold war started an arms race among the permanent five. The invention of nuclear weapons made this race even more dangerous for the world and India’s voice was among the few to be raised against it. The impact of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence on this issuealso is deep. India refused to join the nuclear club even when China went nuclear in 1964. The permanent five made some token concessions to the growing clamour for nuclear disarmament and eventually sealed their hegemony with the duplicitous and discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

India has been in the forefront of the campaign against nuclear weapons. It was the first country to propose a complete ban on nuclear testing in 1954. It then pursued a more modest goal on a Partial Test Ban Treaty. In 1978, it proposed a ban on the use or the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave an ambitious plan for a nuclear weapon free world by 2010. Even after India went nuclear in 1998, it kept alive its commitment to global nuclear disarmament.


Peacekeeping is now considered a regular function of the Security Council. But it does not figure in the Charter.It was improvised to enable the United Nations to help countries which were willing to take its help despite inaction by the permanent five. In doing so, the Council settled for the limited role of monitoring the peace which had been negotiated through other processes. Peacekeeping remains the main claim to fame for the Security Council as the guardian of international peace and security, but it was not its creation. The failure of the permanent five to provide troops to the Security Council for a UN military forced UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to cobble the first major peacekeeping force through the General Assembly. Its legitimacy was questioned then by France and the Soviet Union and they refused to pay for it.

Peacekeeping forces are generally drawn from the countries of Asia and Africa. The permanent five make only a token contribution, except China. This was designed by Hammarskjöld in order to ensure that they were acceptable to the countries where they were being deployed. The UN has organised 71 peacekeeping missions since 1948. India has always been a leading contributor of troops to peacekeeping.

The Veto

India’s effort at the San Francisco Conference to restrict the veto to a ten-year period is not widely known. The challenge to the veto was led by Australia’s foreign minister, Herbert Vere Evatt, and a motley group of small countries - Mexico, Belgium, El Salvador, Chile, Colombia, Peru and New Zealand. They questioned the compatibility of the veto with the principle of sovereign equality promised by the Charter and moved amendments regulating its use.

India was still a British colony at that time and it did not challenge the veto. But its representative, Sir R.M. Mudaliar, proposed that the veto be applicable only for the first ten years and then reviewed at the review conference that was to take place under the UN Charter. The debate, however, had little effect on the outcome of the meeting. The Indian motion was rejected. The review conference never took place.

The UN is indispensable to the world today. Its main contribution is in areas of human welfare and development, towards which countries like India redirected its attention and it is in these fields that it has justly built its reputation. As for its record in the area of its primary concern, international peace and security, the less said the better.