AFRICOM, NATO, EU, AU, AMISOM, UN, IMF, WBG, LOA When It Comes to U.N. Diplomacy, Not All Abstentions...

When It Comes to U.N. Diplomacy, Not All Abstentions Are Equal


When a state abstains on a vote concerning a crisis at the United Nations, it may look like it is avoiding hard choices about the problem at hand. But U.N. diplomacy is rarely that simple. When diplomats cast an abstention in the Security Council or General Assembly, they are often sending subtler signals about their interests and priorities. In recent weeks, U.N. members from China to Burkina Faso have abstained on a series of votes in U.N. forums on the war in Ukraine, or just not voted on them. What do such ambiguous votes and nonvotes mean?

To see how states’ abstentions at the U.N. can have varying political meanings, it is useful to think back to the Libyan conflict in 2011. That March, the U.S., Britain and France pushed through a Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect vulnerable Libyans. Russia abstained on it, as did China, and Western officials welcomed their abstentions as a positive gesture that allowed the resolution to pass. But Germany, then an elected member of the council, also abstained, and Berlin’s allies in Washington and other NATO capitals saw this as a betrayal.

In U.N. votes on the Ukrainian war to date, Kyiv and its supporters have enjoyed majority support. Of the organization’s 193 member states, 141 backed a General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s aggression on March 2. Only four countries—Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea and Syria—backed Russia. But from the outset of the war, some big players have sat on their hands.

The first notable abstentions on Ukraine came in late February, when the U.S. tabled a Security Council resolution decrying Russia’s actions. This was a dead letter, as the Russians predictably vetoed it, but Washington hoped to show that Moscow was isolated in the council. Three members of the 15-member body—China, India and the United Arab Emirates—complicated that narrative by abstaining. But Washington saw the trio’s decisions in different ways. U.S. officials had urged China not to join Russia in vetoing the resolution and watered down the text to make it palatable to Beijing. They saw China’s abstention as a win.

They were less happy with the Indian and Emirati positions. India, with its close economic and security ties to Russia, was clearly trying to avoid a rift with Moscow. The Emiratis, meanwhile, needed Russia’s support for a Security Council resolution labeling Yemen’s Houthis­—which launched missile and drone attacks on the UAE in January and February—as terrorists. The Russians let that text go through in a straightforward example of transactional U.N. vote-trading. The U.S. was not pleased to see its Gulf partner abstain. President Joe Biden reportedly put in a call to Abu Dhabi to ensure that the Emiratis would support Ukraine in the General Assembly vote at the start of March, which they did.

In the General Assembly, the 52 members that didn’t back the March 2 resolution condemning Russia had a variety of reasons to abstain. China continued to sidestep taking a stance for or against Moscow, to avoid alienating either the U.S. or Russia. African countries with growing security ties to Russia, such as Mali and the Central African Republic, abstained. Ethiopia, which Russia shielded from serious criticism in the Security Council over the war in Tigray throughout 2021, did not vote. This looked like a tacit show of support for Moscow, or at least a refusal to uncritically follow Western policy lines over Ukraine. But a number of Latin American countries that have often aligned with Russia and that have historically condemned U.S. and Western neocolonialism at the U.N.—namely Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua—also cast abstentions, hinting at their discomfort with Russia’s own imperialist actions in Ukraine.

U.N. diplomacy always involves a hefty dose of ambiguity, and abstaining meaningfully is an art that officials in New York and Geneva must master to do their jobs.

In sum, it was possible for General Assembly members to use abstentions to send both pro- and anti-Russian messages without making them explicit. Some states also presented abstention in more principled terms. Uganda’s ambassador to the U.N. noted that he was obliged to abstain as the incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM, the grouping of 120 states from the Global South that formed during the Cold War in order to chart an autonomous, alternative course amid the standoff between the Western and Soviet blocs.

In recent weeks, non-Western officials and commentators have alluded to the revival of non-alignment as a guiding principle in diplomacy if there is a new Cold War with Russia. While Ukraine and its allies have been able to muster significant support at the U.N. so far, a growing number of NAM members will choose to abstain on future votes on the war if it drags on. As the International Crisis Group has warned, they will be even more likely to do so if Western powers do not address the global effects of the war, such as the shocks to food and energy prices that are already hitting the Global South hard.

But abstaining is not a tool the NAM will wield alone. Russia cast a notable abstention of its own in mid-March, when the Security Council voted on a new mandate for U.N. officials in Afghanistan, who now act as a backchannel between outside powers and the Taliban. Although Moscow did not initially draw any linkages between the Afghan talks and the Ukrainian war, at the last moment, it hinted that it could veto the extension of the U.N. presence, ostensibly over minor language points in the mandate. Instead, apparently after lobbying by China, it chose to abstain. In doing so, the Russians sent a not-very-coded reminder to other Security Council members that it retains the power to disrupt U.N. diplomacy on matters other than Ukraine.

Conversely, the U.S. and its allies in the Security Council also used abstentions to stymie a Russian gambit over Ukraine in late March. As U.N. diplomacy over the war became ever more heated last month, the Russians tabled an ostensibly anodyne council resolution calling for humanitarian agencies to be able to work in the conflict zone. This contained some hidden traps, however, as it implicitly blamed Ukrainian forces for endangering their own civilians by defending their cities. Other council members were torn over how to respond. Western members wanted to reject the text, but their African counterparts were loath to vote against a humanitarian resolution. In the end, they found the answer in mass abstention. Besides Russia and China, every council member abstained on the text. As Security Council resolutions need nine votes to pass, this one died, and council members papered over their divisions.

So, while it is natural to look at U.N. vote counts to see who has voted for or against Ukrainian and Russian positions, all these abstentions matter, too. Countries large and small use them to send signals to one another about the war, and as tools to block diplomatic initiatives they dislike. U.N. diplomacy always involves a hefty dose of ambiguity, and abstaining meaningfully is an art that officials in New York and Geneva must master to do their jobs.

Whether these contortions mean anything to the people of Ukraine, and whether historians of the war will see all these abstentions as smart diplomacy or simply a failure to face up to the gravity of a war that has left the U.N. looking weak and marginal, is sadly another matter.

Richard Gowan is the U.N. director of the International Crisis Group. From 2013 to 2019, he wrote a weekly column for WPR. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardGowan1.

Richard Gowan
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