United Nations votes are not black and white

Delegations do not vote for or against other countries; they vote for themselves

Updated - March 17, 2022 02:08 pm IST

Published - March 17, 2022 12:15 am IST

India’s Ambassador to the UN, T. S. Tirumurti, speaks as Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, listens during the UNSC meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

India’s Ambassador to the UN, T. S. Tirumurti, speaks as Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, listens during the UNSC meeting on Threats to International Peace and Security, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The green, red and yellow buttons at the desks of delegates at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and related conferences indicate only some of the options available when resolutions are put to vote. Over the years, the voting options have gone beyond ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Abstention’. It is possible to be ‘present and not participating’ or ‘absent at the time of the vote’. This makes it possible for member states to nuance their positions to suit their needs. The history of the UN shows that innovative use has been made by member states on several occasions. Some diplomats have often used these provisions to diverge slightly from their instructions to do a favour to some friendly delegations.

Voting system

The voting system in the UN Security Council is rigid. Every vote counts because the resolutions adopted by the Security Council are mandatory for all members of the UN. The resolutions adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, ‘Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression’, are even more significant as they involve even war, as it happened in the case of Iraq.

In fact, the provisions of the UN Charter on voting have already been ‘tweaked’. The Charter provision requires the “concurring votes of the permanent members; provided that, in decisions under Chapter VI [Pacific Settlement of Disputes], and under paragraph 3 of Article 52, a party to a dispute shall abstain from voting”. It would seem, therefore, that an abstention by a permanent member would amount to a veto. But it is now agreed that if a permanent member does not fully agree with a proposed resolution, but does not wish to cast a veto, it may choose to abstain, thus allowing the resolution to be adopted, if it obtains the required number of nine favourable votes.

An additional provision to add conditionalities to the vote is the explanation of vote before and after the vote. The explanation of the vote before the vote acts as canvassing for votes of others and the explanation of the vote after the vote can even amount to taking with the left hand what has been given with the right, as it happened in the case of India’s abstention on the Russian invasion. All the principles were stated in the explanation of the vote, but the vote itself was prompted by political expediency.

India’s vote

In the recent vote on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the impression is that China and India voted together to indicate neutrality. But the impact of the vote of China is more nuanced than India’s. If China had voted against the resolution, it would have amounted to a veto, which would not be in keeping with the cultivated image of China as a country which opposes foreign intervention in sovereign states. But the Chinese abstention reflected the new understanding between Russia and China. Intriguingly, the requirement of compulsory abstention by the affected parties in cases relating to Chapter VI does not apply to other resolutions and thus permanent members can veto resolutions against them even under Chapter VII.

The Indian abstention in cases relating to the Soviet Union at the UN was institutionalised by Indira Gandhi in 1979, when India became the only country outside the Soviet bloc to abstain in the UN General Assembly after the Soviet Union had vetoed a Security Council resolution against its intervention in Afghanistan. The world and India have changed since then, but the compulsions for India to abstain today are as valid as they were in 1979, regardless of the emergence of the Quad. Technically, India could have abstained only in the substantive vote in the UN General Assembly, as the resolution contained references to invasion and other strong words, but it also abstained in the UN Security Council on an earlier procedural vote  to refer the matter to the General Assembly. The same applied in the case of the Human Rights Council.

The U.S. criticism of India’s vote was as expected in the context of the Quad. But it should be remembered that its criticism was even more severe in 1979, when India’s relations with the U.S. were not so close. The U.S. took stern actions like denying Tarapore fuel and supporting the jihadis in Afghanistan at that time.

The carefully crafted voting regulations in the UN General Assembly have created comic situations. Once the Chinese delegate went out of the hall when a vote was in progress. When he returned, he realised that he could not follow the instructions given on that particular resolution. He took the floor to say that, instead of his being marked absent, it should be recorded that he would not have participated in the vote if he was present. In roll-call votes, some delegates often vote wrongly, but the Secretariat, which knows better, records a vote as it should have been cast. On one occasion, a senior politician, who came from India as a delegate, wanted to change India’s vote on Afghanistan. When India’s name was called out, he said ‘Yes’ and I had to shout from behind, ‘Abstention!’ Fortunately, the delegate did not hear the correction. Such events are legion at the UN.

The UN regulations and practices on voting are designed to enable the delegations to express their national opinions, taking into account their vital national interests. In the ultimate analysis, delegations do not vote for or against other countries; they vote for themselves. In the case of India, votes in the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council reflect its current national concerns in the light of the situation in Ladakh, Afghanistan, the increasing ties between Russia and China, and its membership of the Quad. Without naming or blaming anyone, India has expressed its fundamental position that war is not a solution and diplomacy should be the only option to prevent war. It may have caused ripples in some countries, but it shall remain relevant in the emerging global order by keeping its options open.

T.P. Sreenivasan has represented India at the ambassadorial level at the UN in New York, Vienna and Nairobi and served as the Head of the UN Division in the Ministry of External Affairs

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