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Multipolarity and Apathetic Exceptionalism: Voting in the UN on Israel-Palestine

Why have the UK or Australia, which safeguard principles of human rights, failed to consider these for Palestinians?

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India abstained in the UN General Assembly on a Jordanian-led resolution that called for an immediate humanitarian truce in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The resolution also called for unhindered humanitarian access in the Gaza Strip.

The resolution titled "Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations" was adopted with 120 nations voting in its favour, 14 against it, and 45 abstaining. Besides India, countries that abstained included Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Ukraine and the UK.

More recently, the UN Security Council (UNSC) failed to adopt a Brazil-led draft resolution that would have called for humanitarian pauses to allow full access for aid to the Gaza Strip after the US vetoed it.

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The US, a permanent member of the UNSC and a close ally of Israel, had then said it was disappointed that the Brazil-led UN resolution had made no mention of Israel's rights of self-defence.

The Indian government’s response, on the other hand, defended its decision to abstain in the UNGA vote, saying that it did not include “explicit condemnation” of the 7 October terror attacks on Israel. 

In both scenarios, a resolution failing to get either American or Indian support has reasons tied to their own positions of explicit and implicit support for Israel, which has come at the expense of a large Palestinian civilian population.

While the US foreign policy position has remained more firmly aligned with supporting its ally Israel throughout this conflict (and has a historical consistency in defining that support), the Indian response to ‘abstain’ now, whose foreign policy position has otherwise (even historically) always advocated for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, remains disappointing, reflecting an apathetic stance.

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Consequences of a Lack of Multinational Cooperative Solution

It is difficult to even fathom why other countries like the UK, Australia, Japan, which safeguard democratic principles and strongly advocate the progressive realisation of international human rights and humanitarian law, have failed to consider these in context of the Palestinians.

Their own responses, across resolutions, fail to take into consideration the atrocities unleashed by Israeli forces in and across Gaza, in retaliation to the Hamas attack, which has caused a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable magnitude and proportions on the civilians living (and now fleeing) Gaza.

As of now, more than 8,000 reported deaths in Gaza account in half for children alone, and most other casualties (including injuries) have disproportionally impacted the vulnerable dependent population too. This is no longer a militarised conflict but a targeted attack on the ethnic diaspora of a people who had little to do with the terrorist attack of Hamas on 7 October.

What’s worse is with a lack of any multinational cooperative solution for peace in Gaza to be restored, the Israeli retaliatory attack may exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in areas where Palestinian civilians live, and that may now happen with the support of nations like the US, the UK, Australia, and India. A polarised, divisive Netanyahu administration might not even consider any pause on humanitarian grounds in the near future.

Recent UN resolutions had commented little on the conflict itself and had simply called for humanitarian pauses to allow full, rapid, safe, and unhindered access for United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, and encouraged the establishment of humanitarian corridors and other initiatives for the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians.

A larger question arises: Why does the global political order (including those advocating for human rights and international law) fail to account address these paradoxical actions?

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Multipolarity without Multilateralism?

In a paper written by Robert Hunter Wade, almost two decades ago, Wade warned of the consequential effects of the coercive US hegemony and the fight seen in the geopolitical landscape over people and ideas, especially in the governing dynamics of most Bretton Woods Institutions from the World Bank, IMF, GATT (later the WTO).

His reasoning and insights are contextually more relevant than ever before.

Wade made scholars of international relations and economic policy observers aware, i.e. way back in the late 1990s, that despite the rise of a multipolar world due to forces of economic regionalism and change in capital mobility and trade, the rising growth and geo-political influence of developing countries like China and India (and a greater weight of investment in the Global South), the pre-existing force of multilateralism (or multilateral cooperation) may wane – and interstate conflict may increase with more nations taking an ‘exceptionalist’ stance.

A lot of this may have to do with the residual effects of American hegemonic influence and its spillover effect on other nations.

We are seeing the effects of these now on not just other developed nations like the UK, Australia, and Japan but also developing countries like India, and China.

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An Era of Amoral, Apathetic Exceptionalism?

In a recent article, this author explained the normative and existential issues concerning both, the limitations of international law, its applications, and, the circumscribed (often selective application of) international justice architecture to deal with concerns tied to an applied understanding of ‘justice’ and ‘sovereignty’.

Scholars like Thomas Nagel, Hobbes, Amartya Sen, and John Rawls saw through these existential concerns with international law, which are now playing out in perhaps the most brutish, violent form in a world, marred by conquest and conflict.

While the discretionary use of American exceptionalism is not to be understood as a “unified body of thought,” it is usually described along the lines of “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States”.

In the Indian context, however, its own version of amoral exceptionalism has no rational, coherent foreign policy explanation. This is also not the first time India has taken such a stance under the Modi Government.

Even during the Russia-Ukraine war, India consistently continued to provide (indirect economic support) to the Russian economy by buying cheaper crude oil while justifying its actions under a strategic non-alignment foreign policy outlook. That response of abstention and silence too came at the expense of taking a ‘moral’ position that would have voiced support for the Ukrainian situation.

While the discretionary use of American exceptionalism is not to be understood as a “unified body of thought,” it is usually described along the lines of “an unwavering belief in the uniqueness of the United States and a commitment to a providential mission to transform the rest of the world in the image of the United States”.

We see no such effort or intent on the part of the Government. Tokenistic statements or symbolic gestures have little meaning when the state of conflict continues to expand with not only regional but also global ramifications.

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Criteria of Exceptionalism in Foreign Policy Outlook

In the current context, it is vital to realise that the US’ own reasons for vetoing the Brazil-led UN resolution may find its own justification rooted in voicing support for its ally Israel and its right to self-defense.

However, a resolution that provides a representation of the ‘humanitarian cause’ from what’s unleashed by a country (Israel), all in the name of ‘self-defense’, decimating civilian houses, and infrastructure, bringing an entire city to ruins, causing hundreds to be dead and thousands to be turned refugees, is hard to fathom.

It also speaks of American hypocrisy and double standards of Washington and other nations (which tend to support/justify Ukrainian action to self-defence in case of one war (Russia-Ukraine) while garnering alliance support from allies on humanitarian grounds (for the Ukrainian cause) while splitting its focus wide open -and divergent in another scenario.

That’s the paradoxical nature of the multi-polar world we are now living in. No single nation seems to have any singular vision that is consistent in defining the moral code of their action, from foreign to maybe even domestic policy.

Louis Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, criticised a cynical use of the American veto that brought down the resolution anchored by Brazil and other countries.

“In so doing, they blocked the very demands they so often insist upon in other contexts: all parties to comply with international humanitarian law and ensure that vital humanitarian aid and essential services reach people in need. They also blocked condemnation of the Hamas-led October 7 attack and demanded the release of the hostages. In light of the council’s deadlock, UN member countries should ask the General Assembly to take urgent action to protect civilians and prevent large-scale atrocities and further loss of life”, said Charbonneau.

It is about time that one takes a closer look at the paradoxical -and insidious nature of amoral, apathetic ‘exceptionalism’ evident in India, America, and other nations’ foreign policy interventions, and like so, by other industrially advanced nations (UK, Australia, Japan), when it suits their own interests and foreign policy strategic goals.

The cause and lives of Palestinians, unfortunately, as Noam Chomsky once argued, have often remained ‘less relevant’ to the cause of the powerful and wealthy nations (including the US), as their land, and space, don’t promise any wealth or nature resource endowments, which only allows other nations (like Israel) to brutalise, occupy without fear or punishment/sanction from their more powerful allies.

This questions our own collective conscience and understanding of ‘justice’, what it means for those who are powerless, and apathetically ignored at the cost and the expense of ‘exceptionalism’, and ‘moral superiority’ by a hegemonic force that builds its moral, foreign policy structure around projected values (peace, justice, democracy, and freedom) aligned to its own narrow, self-interest.

(Deepanshu Mohan is a Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Israel-Palestine 

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