Russian, US Violations of International Law Leave India Tongue-Tied

While India abstained during the voting of a draft resolution condemning Moscow for annexing Ukrainian territory, it also has not reacted to the latest US unilateral sanctions on an Indian firm and a national for trading with Iran.

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New Delhi: In the last 48 hours, India has kept silent on key violations of international law by Russia and the United States, opting not to condemn the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory and the US imposition of extra-territorial economic sanctions on Indian entities for trading with Iran,

At the UN Security Council on Friday, September 30, India abstained during the voting of a draft resolution – rejected due to a veto by Russia – that sought to condemn Moscow for holding referendums and then annexing four Ukrainian regions where Russian speakers are in a majority. India’s explanation of vote did not even mention the referendums that were conducted by Russia as the military occupier.

Sponsored by the US and Albania, the draft UNSC resolution garnered four abstentions from India, China, Brazil and Gabon. Ten votes were in favour, but the draft was not adopted as Russia wielded its veto.

This is likely the 12th time that India has abstained in voting on a draft resolution or a procedural matter related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at a major UN body since February 24.

India’s short explanation of vote only noted that New Delhi was “deeply disturbed by the recent turn of developments in Ukraine”, but made no direct reference to either the Russian president’s annexation announcement or the referendums organised in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia under the supervision of the Russian military occupation of those regions.

“Escalation of rhetoric or tensions is in no one’s interest. It is important that pathways are found for a return to the negotiating table. Keeping in view the totality of the evolving situation, India has decided to abstain on this resolution,” said India’s permanent representative to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj.

Ukraine has rejected the annexation – and Russia’s offer of talks – saying negotiations with Moscow will not be possible as long as Vladimir Putin remains president.

Kambhoj also brought up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement to the Russian president that ‘this was not an era of war’. “We, therefore, sincerely hope for an early resumption of peace talks to bring about an immediate ceasefire and resolution of the conflict.”

Also read: Why India’s Implicit Support to Russia on Ukraine War Is a Strategic Blunder

Stating that India’s position has been consistent from the start of the conflict, she reiterated, “The global order is anchored on the principles of the UN Charter, international law and respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all states.”

On September 21, Russia had announced its intent to partially mobilise its military reserves and hold referendums in the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Following the announcement, Albania and the US had requested an urgent UNSC meeting to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine.

At the September 27 meeting as well, India had not mentioned the referendums. Neither did India condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in line with its public position since February 24. Besides India, China, Gabon and the UAE had also not condemned the referendums at the UNSC meeting.

On the same day, the initial draft of the resolution was circulated by the US and Albania.

Russia had proposed several amendments, but they were not added in general to the text.

During the negotiations, the draft was diluted to remove mention of Chapter VII of the UN charter.

Three days later, the draft resolution was tabled, which saw a slight change in the position by the UAE and Brazil.

While Brazil had stated earlier that “it is unreasonable to assume that populations in areas in conflict can freely express their will”, the Brazilian representative said on Friday that its abstention was based on the grounds that the resolution would not “contribute to resolving the conflict”. In his explanation of vote, however, he reiterated Brasilia’s view that ” the actions that took place around the annexation of territories cannot be perceived as legitimate”.

The UAE’s permanent representative to the UN, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, said that her delegation had voted in favour of the text, but would have liked more time for the engagement on the language.

The final draft stated that the referendums that took place between September 23 and 27 were not valid. It had also called on the member states and international organisations not to recognise Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territories.

Russia was also asked to immediately withdraw all its military forces from Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders.

According to the Security Council Report, several references to Crimea and language describing the referendums as “shams” were omitted and revised.

China abstained from the resolution, but raised concerns about “a prolonged and expanded crisis” in Ukraine.

The Chinese envoy, Zhang Jun, argued that while “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be safeguarded,” countries’ “legitimate security concerns” should also be taken seriously. Beijing had abstained from voting on resolutions in the UNSC and UNGA on several occasions that condemned Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

More than six years ago, Russia had also vetoed a draft resolution that declared the invalidity of the referendum organised in Crimea before its annexation. After the UNSC’s failure, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution against the Crimea referendum on March 27, 2014, with 100 votes in favour, 11 against and 58 abstentions.

India was not a non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2014. But it had abstained during the voting in the UNGA. Back then as well, India did not give any explanation for its vote.

Similarly, the action will now shift to the UNGA. “We are moving to the General Assembly where every country has a vote. In the General Assembly, the nations of the world will say loud and clear: It is illegal, and simply unacceptable, to attempt to redraw another country’s borders through force,” said US permanent representative to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on Friday.

Also read: ‘Consistent With India’s Position on Ukraine’: Jaishankar on PM Modi’s Comments to Putin

India silent on the US sanctions on Indian firms

A day before the UNSC met to decide on the US-sponsored resolution, the US imposed sanctions on several companies, including an India-based petrochemical company, for facilitating financial transfers and shipping of Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products.

In a statement, the Department of Treasury said these entities had played a critical role in concealing the origin of the Iranian shipments and enabling two sanctioned Iranian brokers, Triliance Petrochemical Co. Ltd. (Triliance) and Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industry Commercial Co. (PGPICC).

According to the list, an India-based petrochemical company, Tibalaji Petrochem Private Limited, had purchased millions of dollars worth of Triliance-brokered petrochemical products, including methanol and base oil, for onward shipment to China. Earlier in June, a Ratnagiri-resident, Mohammad Shaheed Ruknuddin Bhore, was also sanctioned for being a broker for Triliance.

The UN has not imposed any sanctions on Iranian energy exports and Indian law also does not proscribe trade with Islamic Republic.

So far, India has not reacted to the imposition of US extra-territorial sanctions on an Indian firm or an Indian national. This is even though there is widespread consensus among legal scholars that unilateral sanctions are illegal under international law.

In a 2022 paper published in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law, a law professor at the University of Exeter, Julia Schmidt, observed, “extra-territorial sanctions contained in the US sanctions regimes against Iran and Cuba are … in violation of the law on sanctions..”

The database of the US treasury department’s Office of Asset Control shows that 22 individuals and entities, with Indian addresses, have been sanctioned. Till now, nearly all of them had been listed under anti-terror and anti-drug sanctions by the US. Besides, sanctions were also imposed on a North Korean government’s IT firm that opened an office in India and two Iranian firms with addresses in Mumbai.

It has been a long-standing position of India to oppose extra-territorial unilateral sanctions. This was also reiterated by Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi in April after US and EU had started to impose sanctions against Russia.

“Look, I don’t think our position on sanctions has changed one bit. We have always stood by the UN sanctions,” he had said on April 28.

The latest Shanghai Cooperation Organisation joint statement, which has India as a signatory, also criticised the imposition of unilateral sanctions. “They stressed that unilateral application of economic sanctions other than those adopted by the UNSC is inconsistent with the principles of international law and adversely affects third countries and international economic relations,” said the Samarkand Declaration dated September 16.