Is the safest option to abstain?
In a recent vote on whether or not to expand sanctions against Iran for its "flagrant" violations of UN directives regarding its nuclear policy saw Indonesia cast the lone abstaining vote in a vote that saw no 'nay-sayers' at all. Interestingly, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is on the record as saying that Iran is making progress and cooperating. Obviously this progress and cooperation is not what is expected by some and hence the need to ratchet up the pressure.
The problem seems to be that Ahmadinejad continues to state that Iran as a sovereign nation has the right to power its cities and communities with nuclear power. In that sense there can surely be no objection. But when this is combined with what appears to also be an intention to develop a nuclear weapons capacity and the subsequent statements attributed to the Iranian President that Israel does not deserve to exist and should be wiped off the map, and presumably the face of the earth, it is understandable that this raises some concerns.
So, should Indonesia have abstained?
This question relies as much on local and domestic politics in Indonesia as it does to world politics. The last time around on the issue of imposing sanctions on Iran for developing a nuclear weapons capacity and failing to comply with IAEA inspections saw Indonesia vote for sanctions. This in turn led to the street protests seen in and around Jakarta and a movement to formally question the President regarding Indonesia's decision to vote for sanctions at the Security Council.
Indonesia's position was further complicated by the fact that President Yudhoyono plans to visit the Iranian Republic soon. So, perhaps the thinking here is that it is better not to annoy the hosts before you travel.
The other concern is that with a general election due in Indonesia in 2009 that it problem is not worth the problems a 'yes' vote might entail. This is particularly true when you do not have any veto power and the resolution was overwhelmingly in favour of expanding the sanctions.
It is naive to think that Security Council votes occur in a vacuum where only the State's moral and ethical convictions are important. The five permanent members and the rotating non-permanent members of the Security Council have been known to use abstaining votes and the five permanent members have used their veto powers to ensure that resolutions do not proceed. A simple search of the UN website will highlight this. In essence, the idea that abstaining from a vote is the same as saying you oppose it is just too much of an over-simplification of the issue.
An abstaining vote is not always a flip flop position. A State might choose to abstain from a vote because where they may generally agree in principle there might be problems with the wording of the resolution that make it unsupportable. Or where in a particularly fluid situation, events on the ground outstrip the wording of the resolution. The idea that you have to vote one way or the other is the same mentality that allows people to make claims like "you're either with us or you're against us". Unfortunately, the geo-political landscape is not always that simple and hardly that easy.
If we are going to simplify everything in the world to that degree, then anyone who goes against the grain would have to be called a coward or a wimp and dismissed out of hand, this is plain stupid! It is the sort of mentality that would have us believing that the earth is still square and the sun rotates around the earth!
Bottom line is that Indonesia's decision to abstain should be defined for what it is -- a position that says sanctions at this stage are premature in light of Indonesia's belief that Iran is making moves towards compliance. Whether Iran really is making moves to compliance is a matter of interpretation and their are currently 14 other members of the Security Council that do not agree that Iran is making progress at the speed required. But last time I checked the UN was still an organization that was founded on democratic principles and equality between States (yes, I know I am a dreamer!) and therefore if Indonesia chooses to abstain then it has that right!
If we judge a person by their deeds then so we should also judge a State by their deeds and actions. If an abstaining vote is squandering one's rights then let those who believe so make their case and to each their own. But simply, if the idea was that States had to vote one way or the other then the mistake is with the organization that allows the "easy out" with an option to cast an abstaining vote and not with the State that chooses to exercise the option provided for it.