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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  The limits of abstention at UNSC

The limits of abstention at UNSC

The limits of abstention at UNSC


On Thursday, 9 June, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna decided in a divisive vote (17 to six with 11 abstentions) to report Syria to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for constructing an undeclared nuclear reactor and non-cooperation with the IAEA.

The voting was along predictable lines: the US and its allies supporting the decision and Russia, China, and Pakistan leading the opposition. India, Brazil and South Africa (Ibsa) abstained. This polarization, coupled with the ongoing crackdown within Syria, has set the stage for another showdown at the UNSC, similar to the one over Iran (“The gathering storm over Iran", Borderline, 4 October 2010).

The curious thing about the Syrian case is that the clandestine reactor at Dair Alzour was actually destroyed in a bombing raid by Israel in September 2007. Even stranger, initially neither Israel nor Syria admitted that the raid had been carried out. In fact even after Syria acknowledged the raid, it maintained that only a non-nuclear facility had been attacked. Yet, it not only demolished the rest of the structure, but also cleaned up the site. Apart from a one-time inspection, Damascus did not allow the IAEA access to the site or address its queries.

Despite this Syrian obfuscation, the IAEA in a report on 24 May 2011, primarily based on information provided by the US, concluded that the “destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor and should have been declared by Syria". On the same day, the Central Intelligence Agency released a report to the BBC on the alleged Syrian subterfuge (, and claimed that the reactor was built in collaboration with North Korea. This set the stage for the contentious vote in Vienna.

Against this backdrop, the votes of Ibsa reflect a new pragmatism and, perhaps, a collective effort to seek an alternative approach to dealing with the Syrian nuclear file. This is based on the experience of previous cases referred to the UNSC, notably that of Iran, which have either led to a bitter stalemate or, worse, the possibility of a dangerous confrontation. As one Ibsa ambassador noted during the vote: the abstention is not a sign of confidence on Syria’s activities, but a lack of confidence on the ability of the UNSC to effectively address this issue. This is certainly borne out by the inability of countries supporting recent UNSC resolutions to effectively implement them on the ground.

It is, however, not enough for Ibsa and aspirants for permanent membership of the UNSC to simply voice their indisputable reservations about the UNSC; they will also have to provide alternative approaches to making the council more effective, especially in curbing proliferation.

Their failure to do so would have two serious implications for the UN charter and the UNSC. First, it may lead to a rise in the unilateral use of force without UNSC authorization. Second, this, in turn, would weaken both the legitimacy and the effectiveness of the UNSC in upholding the UN charter, especially the use of force, and curbing proliferation through diplomatic means.

For India, the abstention vote might actually be detrimental to its national security interests, given the possible nexus between Syria, North Korea and Pakistan through the A.Q. Khan network. Surely, having additional countries develop nuclear weapon capabilities in its enlarging neighbourhood cannot be in New Delhi’s interest. However, the abstention vote is a useful first step, if it can be followed by concrete measures to make the IAEA and the UNSC more effective in curbing nuclear proliferation.

W Pal Sidhu is Senior Fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at

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Published: 12 Jun 2011, 03:06 PM IST
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