Home / Opinion / Resolutions: the abstentions have it

In multilateral institutions traditionally either the aye or a nay vote is considered politically relevant; rarely are abstentions considered to be of political import. That is until last fortnight.

In a series of votes related to Ukraine and Sri Lanka it was the abstentions rather than the “yes" or the “no" votes that turned out to be more significant. These crucial votes indicate the collapse of the fragile post-Cold War consensus among major powers to address contentious issues of redrawing borders, changing regimes, and human rights violations. However, they do not reflect a return to the Cold War or even the advent of a “West versus the Rest" scenario.

Instead the abstentions in particular point to an evolving and messy multi-polar world order that cannot yet be neatly divided into “for" or “against" camps. They reflect a period of uncertainty in the international arena, which will be marked by opportunistic alliances with serious implications for established norms and rules.

Take Ukraine, for instance. As noted in last fortnight’s column China’s uncharacteristic abstention on the UN Security Council resolution challenging the referendum in Crimea belied the simple East-West explanation and showed, perhaps, Beijing’s desire to distance itself from Moscow.

Likewise, last week’s UN General Assembly non-binding vote in New York branding the referendum in Crimea as illegal was passed by a respectable vote of 100 for and only 11 against (including Russia and 10 other neo client states, tartly branded the “dirty dozen" by some diplomats). However, as many as 58 countries, including Brazil, China, India and South Africa (the four BRICS members apart from Russia) abstained. Even more telling, another 24 countries, including Iran (purportedly an ally of Russia), Israel and the United Arab Emirates (allies of the US) chose to absent themselves from the vote altogether.

While Iran and Israel might have used their absence to signal annoyance to their patrons, altogether the 82 abstentions and non-votes reflect a growing uncertainty among states on how best to deal with the trend of the use of force to redraw borders and change regimes. It also suggests that states are not willing to commit to one camp or the other without being certain that the precedence will not come back to haunt them.

These concerns were also evident in the Human Rights Council vote in Geneva calling for a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka. While the US-sponsored resolution was comfortably adopted by a vote of 23 for (including BRICS member Brazil) and 12 against (including China and Russia from BRICS), it is the 12 abstentions, including India and South Africa, which underline the changing global dynamics. It reflects that BRICS are no more united than are US allies (Japan abstained and UAE voted against) on the issue of human rights violations and enforcement remains subjective.

India, which supported an earlier resolution against Sri Lanka, probably chose to abstain partly to placate Sri Lanka and partly to distance itself from the US camp.

Though abstaining is usually brushed off as fence sitting, it could be argued that abstentions in significant numbers could compel opposing sides to seek common ground. This appears to be the case on Ukraine where Washington and Moscow, partly on account of the sanctions and partly the votes in the UN, have reached out to each other to seek a diplomatic solution.

While abstaining provides some tactical benefits, it cannot be a long-term strategy, especially for emerging powers such as India. Sooner rather than later India will have to decide what rules of the international road it wants to shape and how it will enforce them. Otherwise, it will be left standing on the side.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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