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Mainstream, Vol LII, No 15, April 5, 2014

Non-binding Gestures

Sunday 6 April 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

The voting pattern on the United Nations forums invariably gives some indication of policy directions of member-states. On the face of it, India took a similar stance of abstention on two high-profile regional issues that came up for voting last Thursday (March 27)— the UN General Assembly resolution declaring invalid Crimea’s recent Moscow-backed referendum and the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council to open an investigation into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka.

Both are “non-binding” resolutions. Broadly speaking, India’s abstention was prompted by somewhat similar considerations, but then, there are also important differences in priority.

Both the two resolutions are American initiatives in sync with the US’ regional strategies. The Ukraine resolution aims to ‘isolate’ Russia and dovetails with the US’ attempt to encircle Russia in its “near abroad”. The war-crime resolution hopes to ‘isolate’ Sri Lanka and create leverage for Washington to influence Colombo’s policies vis-à-vis the rising Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region. India is signalling in both cases that it has an independent outlook on the great game rivalries in the post-Cold War era and is certainly not a “lynchpin” in the US’ strategies toward Russia or China.

In the case of the Ukraine resolution, India’s stance may be inconsequential to the future moves by Washington on the issue. On the contrary, India is the pre-eminent power in the South Asian region and Washington’s failure to carry New Delhi along takes away the ‘bite’ of the Sri Lanka resolution.

For Delhi, the decision to abstain emanated out of a keen desire not to identify with strategies that aim at isolating Russia or Sri Lanka, two highly strategic partner countries. On the other hand, it is not mere diplomatic exigencies that explain the Indian voting in New York and Geneva. Certain important principles came into play, which hold implications for India’s own interests. Thus, India found it difficult to pay heed to the Russian demarche to vote against US-led resolution on Ukraine, because India consistently upholds the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nation-states, which Russia violated by annexing Crimea. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Russian President Vladimir Putin, peace and stability of Europe “and beyond” are in the crosshairs here.

Similarly, when it comes to the US resolution on Sri Lanka, the Indian envoy in Geneva has put on record unambiguously Delhi’s strong concern over the proposed move to prescribe an international inquiry into that country’s war crimes. At the end of the day, the big question remains: Will India’s abstention in the two resolutions bring it any tangible diplomatic gains to it? Indeed, Moscow would assess that Washington inflicted a diplomatic defeat on it through the resolution, but, having said that, a ‘de-escalation’ process has also begun alongside. Within a day of the UN GA resolution on Ukraine, Putin made his first phone call to US President Barack Obama to propose that the two big powers examine “possible steps” and discuss “specific parameters” for “joint work” to be undertaken to help stabilise the situation in Ukraine.

Russia’s Security

The point is: Russia’s accent, as always in modern history, is on direct, bilateral consultations with the US its the European partners. It doesn’t need the help of India (or any other BRICS partner, including China) in ‘de-escalating’ the tensions in Ukraine. The fact that no BRICS partner stood by Russia in the UN voting on Ukraine also seems irrelevant to the expected cut-and-thrust of Russian diplomacy in the coming period. Having said that, the plain truth is that on a vital issue of core interest to Russia’s security, India has abstained at the UN and it will be duly noted in Moscow.

However, India’s abstention in the Sri Lanka resolution will come as a relief to Colombo. Notably, Delhi was buffeted by domestic political compulsions to support the US resolution but it most certainly factored in Colombo’s sensitivities. Paradoxically, at the same time, India also abstained in its self-interest. The Indian explanation of vote stressed that “much more needs to be done by the Government of Sri Lanka towards a meaningful devolution of powers. It needs to continue to take specific measures towards broad-based, inclusive, meaningful and genuine reconciliation with the minority Tamil community... including on the devolution of political authority through the full implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of Sri Lanka and build upon it.”

The Indian envoy did not say that India’s abstention is conditional on Sri Lankan Government fulfilling its own pledges, but the message cannot be lost on Colombo. Arguably, the US pressure on Colombo may even help impart a sense of urgency to the Sri Lankan leadership regarding the full implementation of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

But in the ultimate analysis, is anything going to change substantially in Colombo’s policies on the Tamil problem? Sri Lanka is far from facing ‘isolation’ and it cannot be overlooked that China and Pakistan voted against the US resolution, while India merely abstained. In the absence of international consensus, Colombo can, and it will, withstand Western pressure. In the current regional environment of growing big-power rivalries and, in particular, against the backdrop of the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia, a consensus between Washington and Beijing on the Sri Lankan Tamil problem is too much to expect.

Besides, the present Sri Lankan leadership has found it expedient to ride the wave of Sinhala nationalism to establish its dominance in the domestic political arena and it has brilliantly succeeded so far. That is to say, the more things seem to change, the more they remain the same and India’s abstention becomes in reality a “non-binding” gesture.

(Courtesy: Deccan Herald)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.