Decoding India's firm stance at the UN on Ukraine - Hindustan Times
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Decoding India's firm stance at the UN on Ukraine

Apr 19, 2022 04:26 PM IST

India’s abstentions may have been dictated by its interest in maintaining its longstanding relationship with Russia. It acted in its national interest, and did not support mixing humanitarian issues with political judgements

A succession of India’s abstentions in various United Nations (UN) organs in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine since February 2022 has been widely commented on. On the one hand, the United States (US) and the European countries are dissatisfied with India’s approach of not joining the bulk of the international community in squarely denouncing Russia. On the other side, domestic opinion-makers applauded the government for upholding the country’s short- and medium-term political and economic interests through abstentions and accompanying explanatory statements. Russia is pleased with India’s balanced approach.

India seemed to be reluctant player in the UN forums, although its perspectives evolved under the growing weight of events and evidence. (AFP) PREMIUM
India seemed to be reluctant player in the UN forums, although its perspectives evolved under the growing weight of events and evidence. (AFP)

On balance, India regretted that the armed conflict broke out without letting the dialogue process take its full course, appealed to all concerned parties to end the military operations and return to the negotiating table to accommodate legitimate security interests of all sides, reminded them of the urgency of adhering to the charter principles of respect for State sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of all member countries, urged strict compliance with the principles of the international human rights and humanitarian laws, and underlined the necessity of not violating the obligations under the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention. More importantly, its prime focus lay on the safety of thousands of Indian students who needed to be brought back home by arranging dozens of airlift operations with the cooperation of all governments concerned.

However, to many, India seemed to be a reluctant player in the UN forums, although its perspectives evolved under the growing weight of events and evidence. 

To begin with, India was circumspect in stating that it was “deeply disturbed by the recent turn of developments” and made a routine call for “immediate cessation of violence and hostilities”. Accordingly, it abstained on the diluted pro-West text that only “deplored in the strongest terms” instead of condemning Russia’s invasion in its operative paragraph. It is a different matter that Russia defeated the text with a solitary veto. Again, in response to the expected move that aimed to circumvent the Russian veto to take up the issue at the General Assembly, India abstained citing “the totality of circumstances” although it noted that the global order should be anchored in the tenets of international law and the charter principles of respect for sovereignty. The Assembly in its emergency special session adopted two separate texts in succession — the first one was the same text that was earlier vetoed in the Security Council and the next one on humanitarian consequences of the war, and India stood aside from an overwhelming majority by abstaining along with 30 plus other countries on both the texts. 

While linking the abstention to the “totality of the evolving situation”, India laid stress on the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis that endangered the safety and security of civilians, particularly thousands of Indian students stranded in Ukraine, including the tragic loss of life of one such student. As such, India prioritised its interest in demanding safe passage for the thousands of stranded Indian students to destinations outside Ukraine and free access to facilitate humanitarian assistance to the hapless Ukrainians. India promptly dispatched medicines and other vital supplies. For the purpose, India did not support mixing humanitarian issues with political judgements in the West-sponsored draft resolutions. Notably, India did not support the Russian text either that deviously sought to deflect the focus on its aggression in preference to unhindered access to humanitarian help.

It is worthwhile that lately India abandoned underplaying of Russia’s actions when in the UNSC in early April it expressed “unequivocal condemnation” of the killings of more than 400 civilians in Bucha town of Ukraine and called for an independent investigation. Notably, this signifies a departure from India’s objections (followed by an abstention) to the Human Rights Council’s move in March 2022 to launch an independent international commission of inquiry into violations of human rights abuses and breaches of humanitarian obligations by Russia in Ukraine. India’s condemnation this time against Russia, though implicitly, does not mean a shift in its voting pattern. India once again abstained in the vote on the latest General Assembly resolution that suspended Russia from the membership of the Human Rights Council.

India’s response to each major conflict is not easily amenable to comparisons. From a historical perspective, its approach to the present Russian invasion is different from the former Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979-80 when India supported the brazen conduct of a friendly country. In the case of Ukraine India did not condemn Russia nor has it condoned its actions. 

Again, India’s stance is contrary to how it joined Russia in 1999 to co-sponsor unsuccessfully a text in the UNSC to denounce the US-led NATO aerial bombings against Serbia. In a sense, India’s stance now is akin to how India hesitated early on to blame Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 in the interest of ensuring the safe return of Indian expatriates from the region, but later hastily endorsed an unprecedented desecration of Iraq’s sovereignty after its defeat in the war.

One cannot lose sight of an interesting and welcome dimension of India’s current stand, seen from a historical perspective. It is perhaps not an accident that the present set of policymakers in Delhi, who revel in belittling the legacy of the founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has wisely chosen to validate his instructions to his diplomatic personnel decades ago. He advised that on all major questions, India’s stand should be guided by first its interests at stake and then merits at issue.

It is important to consider here the rationalist “logic of consequences” with reference to the pros and cons of self-interest. India’s abstentions and unwillingness to not condemn the aggression may have been dictated by its interest in maintaining a longstanding relationship with Russia especially in ensuring smooth supplies of weapons systems and technologies. Otherwise, Russia would be pushed into the problematic embrace of China resulting in severe harm to India’s geostrategic interests. Further, India is right in thinking that a war between the West and Russia would not be in its (or anybody’s) interest.

But this is as much a question of a weak country’s sovereignty being besmirched by a strong neighbour as it is a question of Russia versus the US. Perhaps unwittingly India seemed to have missed this factor in crafting its approach, hence it may have incurred a significant measure of reputational cost among the troves of small countries which are alarmed at the implications to their security in future if a powerful country is allowed in the new century to get away with an unashamed assault against the core principles of the UN charter. Naturally, they sprang into action in large numbers to co-sponsor strong texts which India distanced from. In other words, India’s reputation among those countries whom it cultivated for support in the effort to seek permanent membership in the reformed Security Council may have been seriously dented, at least for now.

Interestingly, while campaigning for election as a non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2020, India promised to work in the spirit of Samman, Samvad, and Sahyog for achieving universal peace and a reformed Council. In that direction, India could have worked with some of the ten non-European elected members like Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, and Mexico to collaboratively shape the course of developments in the Council. Statements made by the Brazilian and other delegates point to the potential to forge a common front. Indeed, India pursued such a strategy effectively in its past tenures. After all, parliamentary diplomacy at the UN tests the adroitness of adaptation with an open mind to build beneficial partnerships.

C S R Murthy is formerly professor of International Organization at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His recent book is titled “India in the United Nations: Interplay of Interests and Principles”

The views expressed are personal

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