An abstain vote is understandable!

Alongside four other members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam -- the Philippines voted no to the resolution calling for full and free access to humanitarian aid for thousands of minority Rohingya in Myanmar who are the subject of “ethnic cleansing” from fanatic Buddhist militants, in cahoots with state forces, or vice versa. Three predominantly Muslim ASEAN members – Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei -- voted in favour of the resolution. Singapore and Thailand abstained from voting.

Last week, 135 UN members voted in support of the draft resolution. The Philippines was one of the 10 nations that last week opposed the resolution, which also called on Myanmar to grant full citizenship rights to members of the Muslim minority who had fled to nearby Bangladesh to escape abuse.

To our mind, a no vote is too difficult to comprehend, because the issue here is about principle; it is about the inalienable right of people, Muslims or non-Muslims, to be protected by states and the United Nations and member states. And principles are not subject for compromise.

The principle of R2P (Responsibility to Protect) is the issue here. It refers to the obligation of states toward their populations and toward all populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.  It stipulates three pillars of responsibility namely: 1) Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing; 2) The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility; 3) If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN Charter.

If the Philippines had only abstained from voting, it is very understandable. It neither condones the persecutions nor condemns the same. At least, the vote can still be defended, although it is a weak decision, if not a flawed one.

We surmise that the negative vote was only decided at the level of the Department of Foreign Affairs; and it seems it was made in haste. Even the Philippines permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Teodoro Locsin Jr., seems not aware of this decision. We also doubt deeply whether the decision has been cleared with the president before it was cast.

We hope and strongly appeal to the Philippine government to change its no vote to abstain in time for the deliberation of the resolution during the forthcoming UN plenary session. Of course, we would prefer a yes vote, but we also look at the difficulties being faced by the Philippines as this year’s chair of ASEAN.