For NATO and EU countries, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a cataclysmic event: not only because of its brutality, but because it led to a rethinking of their whole approach to security on the European continent. For some, Germany for example, this has provoked an embarrassing review of their past policy towards Russia. For others, like Finland and Sweden, it has meant abandoning their former non-aligned status and moving towards NATO membership.
The war made the front page of most European and American newspapers. It dominated social media and public debate. Images of ruined cities and refugees, along with stories of violence, rape and destruction, have been everywhere. Western public opinion has shifted to support Ukraine.
There are a few other countries where the war has also been at the forefront of political and public attention: Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, for example. But in the rest of the world, the reactions were more muted. For many members of the United Nations, what is happening in Ukraine is a European phenomenon, not a phenomenon in which they themselves are particularly interested and certainly not a phenomenon which affects their own security.
The UN General Assembly, to which all its members belong, has twice considered the war in Ukraine. On March 24, he adopted a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and access to humanitarian aid. On April 7, he adopted a second resolution suspending Russia’s participation in the UN Human Rights Committee. Both were adopted by impressive majorities: 140 against 5 in the first case, 93 against 24 in the second.
But just as important was the number of abstentions. Thirty-eight member states declined to comment on whether a ceasefire was desirable. Fifty-eight saw no reason to end Russia’s membership of the Human Rights Committee. In the case of the Human Rights Committee resolution, all but one of the 10 largest countries in the world, in terms of population, did not express their support: overall, those who abstained on both resolutions represented more than half of the world’s population.
They also included countries that might have been thought to share the view that the invasion of another sovereign member of the UN was a challenge to the international order in which they themselves had a stake: for example, Bangladesh, Barbados, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates States and Tanzania. However, they all abstained on one or both resolutions.
The reasons, insofar as their governments offered any, varied. In India’s case, it was realpolitik. India has a long-standing political relationship with Russia and depends on it for arms supplies. He viewed this interest as paramount and was unwilling to do anything that Russia might object to. This did not only apply to UN resolutions. India is also said to have refused permission for Japanese planes to land on its territory to pick up supplies belonging to the UN. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia, the motive may have been selfish: the wish not to allow the composition of the Human Rights Committee to come under too much scrutiny.
There were also broader factors, namely a reluctance to take sides in an international dispute involving the great powers, particularly if it involved aligning itself with the United States and its allies. This appears to be the reason why South Africa chose to abstain in both resolutions: its representative said he would be happy to vote for a ceasefire, but not if it involved a mention of Russia.
There are broader lessons to be learned from the handling of the war in Ukraine at the UN. Commentators often refer to international opinion as if it were synonymous with the views of a limited number of liberal democracies, as if the “end of history” predicted in 1992 by political philosopher Francis Fukuyama meant that we all share now the same set of values. . But we don’t. Beyond NATO and the EU, there are only a handful of countries whose political instincts are likely to be identical to ours on most issues. Being a democracy, which India and South Africa are, does not mean seeing the world as Britain does.