The South Asian Association (SAA) at SIPA— a group dedicated to promoting, analyzing, and sharing South Asian traditions, culture, and issues—hosted an interactive Q&A session with the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Hardeep Singh Puri, alongside the Engineering Graduate Student Council (EGSC), Columbia International Relations Council and Association (CIRCA), Club Zamana, and the South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA). Columbia’s very own Professor Arvind Panagariya served as the moderator, facilitating discussions on the United Nations’ stance on the Middle East as well as the economic conditions in India.
The evening began with Puri reflecting upon his role as the current chairman of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), which has lately centered on the United Nations’ decisions regarding Libya and Syria. After Puri finished his remarks, the night ended with an extended question and answer period with the audience.
First shedding light on the goals of the CTC, Puri then provided his own personal commentary on what must be done in the future to counter terrorism. The goal of this committee, which many in the audience lauded, was to have terrorism condemned by not just a single committee, but by the world. According to Puri, the CTC is a step closer to that goal.
“There will always be people committing terror,” said Puri. “But we have to make sure these people do not have a safe haven in a particular country or can transfer or acquire funds using state networks.”
Given India’s decision to abstain from voting on UN sanctions against Syria, both the audience and the moderator seemed most interested in hearing why Puri and his delegation made this decision. India’s reason for abstaining, the ambassador stressed, was the actual wording of the resolution, and said that their action should not be considered a sign of support for Assad’s tyrannical regime. Puri stressed that the safety of a government’s people is the most important criteria in any decision. Nevertheless, the ambassador maintained that the wording of the resolution did not condemn the violence perpetrated by the Syrian opposition. Puri continued to explain that the resolution did not place any responsibility on the opposition to renounce violence and engage with the Syrian authorities to redress their grievances through a peaceful political process.
The theme of “peaceful political process” was heard many times in the discussion with the Indian ambassador. When the moderator cited Libya’s revolutionary success in a question about India’s decision to abstain on the Libya resolution, Puri, to the surprise of many in the audience, was not optimistic about the current state of affairs in Libya. His fear, he said, stems from Libya’s deep history of political and tribal divisions. While Panagariya seemed to disagree with Puri’s evaluation of the current state of Libya, the moderator stated it would be better to put aside his own questions for Puri so the night could move on.
The audience Q&A not only revealed Puri’s optimistic outlook on the economy of India, but also focused on what should done about the crisis in Syria. The ambassador emphasized that the role of the United Nations Security Council was not to act as an opposing force but to remain within the constraints of the “Right to Protect” – a central pillar of the council.
“Our responsibility is to protect citizens if their government is committing crimes against humanity, not to arm a group of people against their government,” explained Puri.
The future of India seems bright while the future of Syria is still uncertain. All in all, the discussion with the Indian ambassador was a definite success, and the work the South Asian Association and the other hosts put into the event should be commended. Hearing from someone who plays a direct role in dealing with issues concerning the Arab Spring sparked many questions and brought out an audience with diverse viewpoints. Whether one thinks that the UN should intervene on behalf of the Syrian people or not, it is clear that the debate over the amount of power that the UN Security Council can and should wield will continue for some time.