UNGA vote: Despite Russia’s red flag, why India put foot down in its tightrope walk

For, an abstention — it doesn’t count to calculate the tally — at the United Nations General Assembly on the resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council is, effectively, seen as siding with those who voted “Yes”, essentially the West-led by the US.

More so, when according to a note accessed by Reuters, Russia had warned countries that a Yes vote or abstention will be viewed as an “unfriendly gesture” with consequences for bilateral ties. The Indian Express has learnt that Russian envoy Denis Alipov had reached out to top Indian diplomats to vote in its favour.

Yet, New Delhi chose to abstain.

A rescuer rests among remains of residential building destroyed by Russian shelling, in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, Ukraine April 7, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

“This call was taken at the highest levels in the government for due deliberation and consideration…it was not taken lightly,” a top government source told The Indian Express Thursday night, shortly after the vote.

Even in the abstention, New Delhi walked the tightrope. It questioned the process by which the move to suspend Russia took place given that it happened before the international probe into the massacre. Delhi’s point is that it should have been brought before the Human Rights Council first, and not the UNGA, sources said. This is a signal to the West that due process has not been followed, something that Indian interlocutors can draw Moscow’s attention to.

What moved the needle for New Delhi was the now widely documented killing of innocent civilians in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv. Images of civilian bodies littering the streets and Moscow’s denial sparked a global outcry and shrunk the diplomatic space that India has carefully carved out since the invasion began in late February.

Policemen work on the identification process following the killing of civilians in Bucha, before sending the bodies to the morgue, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 6, 2022. (AP/PTI Photo)

There were some early signs. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called up External Affairs minister S Jaishankar on April 5, barely an hour before the UN Security Council met that day. India, for the first time, Tuesday had “unequivocally condemned” the killings as “deeply disturbing” and supported the call for an “independent probe.”

The very next day, Jaishankar reiterated the position, and made it clear that it was not moving from its position, despite Moscow’s outreach.

After Alipov’s outreach to diplomats and hours before the vote Thursday, the Russian embassy issued a statement blaming Kyiv for the “heinous attack in Bucha.” Saying it “brings back the nightmares of the Nazi crimes during the Second World War,” the statement said: “The main challenge is to ensure a genuinely independent and unbiased investigation. Regrettably there have been so far widespread hollow allegations against Moscow while there’s evidence that it was in fact a cynical false flag operation, perpetrated by Kiev itself.”

The UN General Assembly votes by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting. Abstentions do not count and the resolution requires two-thirds of yes/no votes to be adopted.

But Delhi’s evolution has been gradual and incremental.

A dog wanders around destroyed houses and Russian military vehicles, in Bucha close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. (AP Photo)

On February 25, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Delhi told the UNSC that India is “deeply disturbed” and urged that all efforts be made for the immediate cessation of violence and hostilities.

But, even as it abstained on a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution that “deplores in the strongest terms” Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine, New Delhi sharpened its criticism of Russia by flagging three concerns: “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states”, “UN Charter” and “international law”. This was the first time India was invoking these three red lines, which has now become its refrain.

On March 2, with an Indian student was killed in Kharkiv, India told the UNGA that it “has been deeply concerned over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine and the ensuing humanitarian crisis”. Again, it reiterated the need to respect the three red lines, as it pushed for the humanitarian corridor.

On March 24, signalling that New Delhi is not aligned with the Russian position, India abstained on a resolution pushed by Russia in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine — the resolution was perceived to be critical of Ukraine. The resolution failed to get adopted as it did not get the required nine votes to pass.

That was the first time India had abstained on a Russia-sponsored resolution. In previous votes on the Ukraine war, India had abstained from resolutions sponsored by the US-led West that were critical of Moscow’s actions. So Thursday’s abstention also marks a new red line.

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