How Asia-Pacific States Voted on the UN’s Israel-Palestine Resolution

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How Asia-Pacific States Voted on the UN’s Israel-Palestine Resolution

Like the rest of the world, most Asia-Pacific states supported the resolution, making the exceptions especially interesting.

How Asia-Pacific States Voted on the UN’s Israel-Palestine Resolution

Members of the United Nations General Assembly vote on a resolution at the resumed 10th Emergency Special Session meeting on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Oct. 27, 2023.

Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

On October 27, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on “Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations” in the context of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Originally proposed by Jordan, the resolution was the culmination of the tenth emergency special session of the UNGA, called to respond to the conflict that broke out following a surprise attack by Hamas on October 7.

The resolution passed with resounding support: 121 voted in favor, versus just 14 against. Another 44 countries voted to abstain and another 14 did not vote at all. (Note: The original count had 120 countries in favor and 45 abstaining; due to “technical issues,” Iraq, which sponsored the resolution, had its vote first counted as an abstention.)

As with most votes at the United Nations, the resolution became a lens for examining the foreign policy calculations of states. So how did the countries of the Asia-Pacific – The Diplomat’s focus – vote?

First, an overview of the resolution. The resolution “calls for an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” and “demands that all parties immediately and fully comply with their obligations under international law… particularly in regard to the protection of civilians and civilian objects.” Among other points, it calls for full humanitarian access for U.N. agencies and the “provision of essential goods and services to civilians throughout the Gaza Strip.”

That all seems unobjectionable, which explains the lopsided vote. The parties that did vote against the resolution – lead by the United States, Israel’s primary backer – did so out of concern that the resolution downplayed Hamas’ atrocities to focus on Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

The resolution passed by the UNGA does not mention Hamas by name, although it does condemn “all acts of violence aimed at Palestinian and Israeli civilians, including all acts of terrorism and indiscriminate attacks.” Canada, with the support of the United States, had proposed an amendment seeking an explicit condemnation of Hamas and labeling its attack on October 7 as a terrorist attack. Washington explained its “no” vote as a result of the amendment’s failure to pass.

“[W]e must condemn Hamas’ acts of terror,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged. She justified the U.S. vote by pointing to two “key words… missing in the resolution”: any references to Hamas and the hostages taken by the group. Thomas-Greenfield argued that these “omissions of evil… give cover to, and they empower, Hamas’ brutality.”

She added, “The lives of innocent Palestinians must be protected… as Israel exercises its right – and indeed, its responsibility – to defend its people against a terrorist group, it must do so in line with the rules of war. There are no ‘law-free’ zones in war.”

Given that the United States voted against the resolution – and the countries joining it are close U.S. partners or allies – while China and Russia helped sponsor it, it’s tempting to read the country-by-country votes as a reflection of great power politics. But each country’s choice was far more complex. Although naturally the larger geopolitical tensions had a role, issues of faith, domestic politics, and national interest also played a part.

The votes of U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific are perhaps the most telling of this dynamic. Japan and South Korea have found themselves caught in an uncomfortable position between their crucial military alliances with the United States and their reliance on Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE for energy security. It’s also not lost on Tokyo and Seoul, which are seeking to increase their governments’ clout on the international stage, that the vast majority of U.N. member states voted for the resolution. Japan and South Korea abstained, as did fellow U.S. ally Australia.

By contrast, the Pacific Islands region had more “no” votes than any other region in the world, with Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga all voting against the resolution. Perhaps even more telling is that only Solomon Islands and New Zealand voted in favor of the resolution; the remaining Pacific Island states either abstained (Kiribati, Palau, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu) or did not vote (Samoa).

It might be tempting to explain that via power politics and U.S. influence, but as The Diplomat’s Grant Wyeth wrote earlier this week, that would be misleading. Like Japan and South Korea, plenty of U.S. allies chose to abstain; some even voted in favor of the resolution. The Pacific Islands could easily have done the same. Instead, these “no” votes are better explained via the strong influence of Christianity in the region. As Wyeth noted, “Support for Israel is therefore a deeply held spiritual belief, one that sits alongside Pacific Islands’ other considerations of interests and opportunities when forming their foreign policies.”

Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific, however, support for the resolution was strong. In Southeast Asia, nearly every country voted for the resolution. As The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio noted, Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, have been most outspoken about their support for Palestine and condemnation of Israel’s siege of Gaza. But even countries that were relatively muted in their initial response – or, like Singapore, were more supportive of Israel immediately after the October 7 attack by Hamas– voted in favor of the U.N. resolution.

The only exceptions in Southeast Asia were the Philippines (which abstained) and Cambodia (which did not vote). The Philippines, a strongly Catholic country allied with the United States, has similar factors at play as the Pacific Islands states, where a mix of religion and self-interest decided its vote. Cambodian analysts meanwhile, pointed to the government’s “balanced” and “neutral” approach to the Israel-Palestine issue in explaining its non-vote.

In South Asia, every state except India voted in favor of the resolution. Support for the Palestinian cause is an important political marker for Muslim-majority states like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Maldives. For Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka and Bhutan and Hindu-majority Nepal, the need to uphold the rule of law as the only bulwark small states have against transgressions by their powerful neighbors was likely top of mind.

India, which abstained, was the only country in South Asia not to support the resolution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strong support for Israel after Hamas’ attack signified New Delhi’s turn away from the Palestinian cause, with much of the country instead embracing Israel based on a shared sense of victimhood at the hands of terrorists. However, India’s bid for leadership in the Global South – the vast majority of which supported the resolution – and remaining pro-Palestine public sentiment based on anti-colonialism likely prevented New Delhi from voting against the resolution.

Finally, four of the five Central Asian states voted for the resolution – an easy choice. These are Muslim-majority states that have a religious affinity with Palestine; they also strongly value their relationships with Russia and China, both of which voted in favor of the resolution as well. The only Central Asian state not to vote for the resolution was Turkmenistan, which habitually does not vote in U.N. resolutions. As Colleen Wood noted in her round-up of reactions from regional governments, Turkmenistan was also the only Central Asian country not to issue a statement on the violence in Israel and Gaza.