Making sense of India’s abstentions from voting on UN resolutions regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Only time will tell if India remains committed to refugee protection as it has asked of other countries regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict. 


SINCE the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India has not taken any position at the United Nations [UN]. In all of the voting, India has abstained.

The recent abstention is regarding a resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. The Resolution “Express(es) grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, in particular at the reports of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation, including gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights…” [Emphasis in the original]

The resolution Decide(d) to suspend the rights of membership in the Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation” [Emphasis in the original]. India abstained from voting on this resolution.

In the ‘Explanation of Vote’, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti stated the reasons for abstention. He explained that India has abstained from voting “for reasons of both substance and process”. However, the subsequent five paragraphs are completely silent about the substance or process which made India abstain from voting. Further, it is also not clear from the explanation whether India’s objections on substance or process were regarding suspension from the Human Rights Council or anything else.

Also read: International Law violations by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine

On abstentions

On March 24, India had abstained from voting on a resolution at the UN General Assembly [UNGA]. In its explanation, India stated that “…what we require now is to focus on cessation of hostilities and on urgent humanitarian assistance. The draft resolution did not fully reflect our expected focus on these challenges’.

The resolution demanded immediate cessation of the hostilities by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. This one-sided demand might have been the reason for India’s abstention. In all of its explanation of votes, India has asked for immediate cessation of hostilities from both the sides, while also highlighting the difficulties faced by Ukrainians.

In all its abstentions, India has emphasized on the importance of diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, territorial integrity, global order based on international law and the UN Charter. 

Similarly, on March 2, India had abstained from voting on a resolution at the UNGA. This resolution had deplored in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Further, it had demanded that the Russian Federation immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine and refrain from any further unlawful threat or use of force against any member State, and that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.

As per India’s explanation of vote, India abstained keeping in view the totality of the evolving situation. The ‘evolving situation’ explanation referred to was the dialogue going on between the Heads of States of Russia and Ukraine.

In one of the earliest Resolutions brought before the UN Security Council regarding the conflict, India, which is a non-permanent member of the Security Council, abstained. Russia had vetoed this resolution, forcing the international community to take the General Assembly route. India had abstained from voting on this resolution along with only China and the United Arab Emirates. As per India’s explanation of vote, India abstained ‘taking into consideration the totality of the circumstances’. India had similarly abstained from voting on the very first UNSC resolution regarding the ongoing conflict.

Also read: Russia-Ukraine conflict: has international law failed?

Some common threads in India’s abstentions

India’s abstentions reflect its primary concern at the time. For example, in its explanations during the initial days of conflict, India voiced concerns over the safe return of its citizens stuck in Ukraine. Subsequently, India talked about the ripple effects of the crisis in the food and energy sector. It then highlighted the need for providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and its own contributions in that regard.

India does seem to lay emphasis on involving both the warring parties.

Currently, India is focusing on refugees, especially women and children.

However, all throughout, certain concerns have been present in its explanations as is evident from the quotes reproduced below. India has emphasized on the importance of diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, territorial integrity, global order based on international law and the UN Charter. Some sentences which are often repeated in its explanations are:

  • “When innocent human lives are at stake, diplomacy must prevail as the only viable option”. 
  • “…to reiterate the importance of UN Guiding Principles of Humanitarian Assistance once again. Humanitarian action must always be guided by the principles of humanitarian assistance, i.e., humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. These measures should not be politicized.”
  • “…emphasize to Member States that the global order is anchored on international law, the UN Charter and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states.”

This analysis of India’s abstentions, and specifically the ‘explanation of votes’ gives a coherent picture of India’s position. While certain explanations are not exactly reasoned, India does seem to lay emphasis on involving both the warring parties. It has also mentioned instances when the Indian Prime Minister has been in contact with the heads of States of both the parties.

Also read: Why Justice Dalveer Bhandari should not be seen as India’s mouthpiece at the ICJ

Curiously, in its latest remarks on Ukraine at the UNSC, India has laid emphasis on protecting refugees and education of refugee children. This is significant in India’s own domestic context.

We have seen in the recent past the government denying protection to refugees from Myanmar. And with the evolving situation in Sri Lanka, it is expected that India might receive a few refugees from that country too. Only time will tell if India remains committed to refugee protection as it has asked other countries to do regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see India laying more emphasis on international law, in general and UN Charter, in particular.

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