UNHRC Vote: Will Abstention Help India’s Strategic Interests?

Does India’s abstention from the UN vote condemning Israel over Gaza war mark a significant shift in policy?

Published
Opinion
3 min read
In this file photo Israeli soldiers are seen firing at Palestinian youth during clashes in the West bank city of Hebrom. (Photo: Reuters)

In late September 2005, I arrived at a hotel in New York for a scheduled interview with India’s then External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh. As I entered the penthouse suite where the minister had his base, I was ushered into the anteroom. Also present were Indian diplomats in attendance to the minister.

As I waited, I asked one of them about the status of India’s vote at the Board of Governors meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on a resolution that rapped Iran for breaching its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

A sepulchral silence descended upon the room. “We voted for it,” an official said, in a whisper.

“You mean for Iran?” I wanted to confirm, unable to process what I had heard.

“No, for the resolution,” he clarified. It was a strategic shift that was significant.

The minister, meanwhile, had clear instructions before the interview commenced: no questions on that vote; not even one that would elicit a “No comment.” It was as if India had emerged out of the closet but was still unwilling to disclose its orientation.

UNHRC Vote: Will Abstention Help India’s Strategic Interests?
  • PM Modi is the first-ever Indian PM to visit Tel Aviv indicating that for India its interests reign supreme
  • Last week, India abstained from the UNHRC resolution condemning Israel for its military offensive in Gaza
  • The Human Rights Council has passed resolutions against Israel over 60 times
  • With this abstention, India seems to have slept off the Non-aligned hangover

That vote, and others that followed subsequently, part of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s lasting legacy, forged a line that veered away from atavistic anti-Americanism; one that remains in place despite the shifting sands of geopolitics.

Nearly ten years later, another new line may have been drawn in Geneva, this time at the UN Human Rights Council, at the vote on a resolution condemning Israel, an occurrence at that multilateral body as predictable as Pakistan raising the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly. After all, the HRC has passed resolutions against Israel over 60 times, more the combined total for all other nations.

Changing Dynamics

File picture of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a meeting. (Photo: Reuters)
File picture of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a meeting. (Photo: Reuters)

This abstention, as with the Iran moment of a decade past, displayed some spine in standing up for a country that is its closest as well as most closeted ally in West Asia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made that clear, as the only regional leader he met on the sidelines of the UNGA in September 2014 was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As he may well become the first-ever Indian PM to visit Tel Aviv, this also marks India’s assertion of its own interests, even though an External Affairs ministry explanation of the vote carefully couched it in terms of abstaining due to a reference to the International Criminal Court. Such diplomacy aside, the reality is that SM Krishna as India’s External Affairs Minister visited Israel, as has current Home Minister Rajnath Singh and so will present External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

This decision was part of a continuity. And just as the Iran vote, despite protests from Teheran, didn’t define that relationship, nor will this one, despite Palestinian petulance, because of changing dynamics of the region.

It may have taken decades, but with this abstention, India seems to have slept off the non-aligned hangover. This vote (or no-vote) wasn’t so much revolutionary as evolutionary, signalling the country’s global growth.

(Based in Toronto now, Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a columnist and author of the humorous political novel, The Candidate.)

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