As in a series of recent votes on the Russia-Ukraine war, India abstained yet again on the US-sponsored vote to expel Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC], making it the 10th such incident in the series of abstentions.
Abstention on a United Nations resolution means that a country says neither “Yes” nor “No”. An abstention signifies the decision not to take sides. India reiterated her stand that diplomacy was the only viable option for ending the war. In the explanation for the vote, India made it clear that she was deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine and wanted an end to hostilities.
This is the second time a country has been expelled. The first was Libya, which was then under the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who had cracked down brutally on anti-government demonstrators in 2011.
The UNHRC is a unique platform that aims at promoting inclusive debate, but some of its members have dubious human rights credentials.
The US, under former President Donald Trump, had walked out of the UNHRC because of its repeated voting against Israel. Later, President Joe Biden brought the US back into the UNHRC.
For the Russia-Ukraine Crisis, Diplomacy Is the Only Way
The voting in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) showed that the world is divided, with 93 countries voting for the resolution to expel Russia from the UNHRC, 24 against, 58 abstaining and 18 countries not turning up to vote. Among those who abstained were six members of the United Nations Security Council. As many as 100 countries out of 193 members of the UN – a majority – did not support the US-backed resolution.
In earlier votes, support for Russia was much less. There seems to be a trend in votes moving away from the US, with countries perhaps recognising the decreasing utility of the propaganda war against Russia. The US’s propaganda to demonise Russia helps the Biden administration deflect stringent criticism for its ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan. The expulsion of Russia will make no difference to the war in Ukraine, which can be resolved only via diplomatic negotiations.
Earlier, India abstained from voting on a resolution in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that had sought to deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called upon Russia to immediately withdraw its military forces. It was the US, again, that had tabled the resolution against Russia. In the 15-member UNSC, 11 countries voted for the resolution; Russia voted against it, which effectively killed the resolution because Russia has the power of the Veto, like the other permanent member of the UNSC – China, France, the UK and the US. India was among the three countries that abstained. The other two were China and the UAE.
Do UNGA Resolutions Have Any Real Effect?
Inevitably, when resolutions are blocked by a veto in the UNSC, the next move in a geopolitical contest among big powers is to take the matter to the UN General Assembly. The US and her Western allies did that through a UNSC-special resolution for an emergency session of the UNGA, during which many countries delivered speeches, creating a propaganda blitz against Russia. Predictably, the UNGA adopted the resolution to reaffirm its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders and deplored in the strongest terms Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
The resolution was adopted with 141 votes in favour, five against and 35 abstentions, thereby meeting the requirement of a two-thirds majority for adoption. The resolution also condemned Russia's decision to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces, deplored the involvement of Belarus in this “unlawful use” of force against Ukraine, and called upon Russia to abide by its international obligations. India again abstained.
UNGA resolutions have no binding legal effect and will remain a piece of paper for the commentariat, who will waive it to show the extent of Russia’s isolation.
China, too, abstained. India made it clear that it will support a resolution of the crisis through dialogue and diplomacy. India also demanded “safe and uninterrupted” passage for all its nationals, including students still stranded in Ukraine and cities in conflict zones.
India's Fine Balancing Act
India is navigating a tricky situation. In the explanation of the vote, which followed the abstention, it was clear that India was trying to balance the abstention with her unhappiness and disappointment with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
India reaffirmed her commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and the UN Charter. This was certainly a clear indication of India’s rejection of the Russian invasion. India also asserted that diplomacy should be the preferred option and security of all states must be ensured.
This was a pointed reference to Russia’s repeated demands that if Ukraine joined NATO, then it would be construed as a threat to her security. China, too, said that the security of one nation cannot be at the expense of another nation. China’s abstention was expected. But India’s abstention attracted criticism from Western media and the commentariat.
India has been a strong advocate of countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, a phraseology that often finds mention in India’s official statements. This is a throwback to the days of de-colonisation and an attempt to protect countries that are weaker in the power hierarchy in international politics.
India’s current policy is not different from what it followed in the past. Apart from a continuation of India’s policy of strategic autonomy, there are good reasons for India to abstain. India’s ties with Russia are time-tested, and bilateral defence ties are a crucial aspect of India’s national security. Around 50% to 60% of India’s military hardware is of Russian origin, and India cannot afford any interruption in the supply of spares and new weaponry such as the S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, at a time when both China and Pakistan threaten our borders.
The other factor in the Ukrainian crisis is the highest priority India has always accorded to rescuing Indian nationals from a war zone. Taking sides in a military dispute undermines India’s ability to mount a rescue mission.
Ukraine Has Helped Pak in the Past
Russia has leveraged India’s dependency in the defence sector and has profited by selling military hardware to both China and Pakistan. Ukraine has participated far more in arming Pakistan, including selling T-80 tanks, engines and spare parts. Ukraine also decided to manufacture medium-size guns for the Pakistani tanks, in collaboration with China.
Moreover, the Russia-China arms relationship is another factor.
The recent China-Russia partnership agreement, which included “no limits” to bilateral partnership, is a direct result of Western policies against Russia – particularly economic sanctions – following the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Economic sanctions have been widely expanded by the Western powers after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While India’s relationship with the US and other Western powers, particularly France, have expanded manifold in the defence sector, it is still not feasible for India to cut her defence ties with Russia. Moreover, doubts persist about the US’s commitment because of its reputation of being a fickle and fairweather friend. Russia, it must be recalled, has stood behind India in the UNSC and used its veto powers.
During India’s previous seven stints as a member of the UNSC, it voted differently on various resolutions. India voted for resolutions during the Korean war and the Arab-Israeli war. However, India has also abstained on a number of issues – the Suez crisis, the Iraq-Kuwait war, the Iraq domestic repression, the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Libyan Civil war and Crimea. Some observers believe that India abstains and does not support the West because of a deep-rooted grudge against it for not supporting India during conflicts with Pakistan and China.
Has India's Trust In the UN Withered?
The UNSC actions, led by the UK over Pakistan’s aggression in Jammu & Kashmir, left a trail of distrust. It was somewhat reduced by the US’s assistance during the 1962 aggression by China. But the illegal occupation of a part of Kashmir was facilitated by the UK’s machinations and continues to this day. Thereafter, the distrust increased manifold during the 1971 war, when the US and China again joined ranks against India whereas the Soviet Union stood firm in her support for New Delhi.
Nations act according to their perception and assessment of their national interest. For India, abstention has been the diplomatic posture for pursuing her national interest.
Historically, India’s foreign policy has avoided military alliances and believed in not being a camp follower of any bloc. India’s abstentions are aligned with her national interest and will not change just because Western powers want India’s support in a war in which there are two sides to the argument. The US and its NATO allies should not be absolved of provoking this conflict. The Western chorus of taking a moral stand is so hypocritical that it needs no rebuttal.
(The author is a former Secretary in MEA and former Ambassador; he is a founder Director of DeepStrat and a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)