London—It caught the world’s attention when the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauru were two of just 10 nations at the UN General Assembly that voted for a ceasefire in Gaza. Few others noticed that the Marshall Islands and Tonga abstained.
Besides the arithmetic, why is it so significant?
The first thing to note is that UNGA votes aren’t necessarily legally binding. UN Security Council resolutions are and require all of the “big five” (U.K., U.S., France, Russia and China) to vote in favor of it to pass. Since these votes may not matter, it’s a place to show your foreign policy hand – or lack of it.
Let’s look at some recent UN votes among the Pacific island nations to get some clues. On a vote to eradicate rural poverty and promote sustainable development, Fiji, the RMI, FSM, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru and Tuvalu were all absent. Palau voted against it. Only Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu voted in favor of the resolution.
An almost identical voting pattern followed on a vote for a global call to eliminate racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. The only difference this time was Nauru voting no, and that Tuvalu and Vanuatu were absent.
What about a vote to strengthen the UN’s role in promoting democracy and ensuring fair elections? Fiji and Nauru didn’t vote. All the others were in favor.
At first glance, you’d be correct to ask why. This seems like something each nation would benefit from. But the UNGA voting from the Pacific is best described as purely symbolic. Sometimes a vote is scheduled when the representatives are busy.
So it symbolizes other important work going on behind the scenes. It isn’t untypical at the UN for a country not to show up when a vote has less consequence for it. Your vote may not carry much weight morally, ethically or otherwise. Even if it did, you won’t stand to benefit anyway.
So why not work on something else that does? It can also be a political move or part of a boycott. Take the elimination of global poverty and racism votes. Both passed and were always likely to. So boycotting it for not going far enough makes one look principled, while still benefiting the resolution.
The UN has sustainable development offices in five Pacific countries, so it’s not like anybody lost. On the UN’s role in democratic elections, there are two local stories to unpack.
Nauru doesn’t really have organized political parties, meaning, less election observers are needed. Most candidates in the 19-member parliament are independents. Alliances between families are more important. Voting is also compulsory in Nauru. The country thinks it has a pretty good handle on its elections.
Fiji has had a rocky democratic history since gaining independence. There have been recent concerns about the state of its democracy, underscored in this vote.
More worrisome is that Fiji’s UN representative, Filipo Tarakinikini, has been missing a lot of votes lately. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Horse trading plays some role, especially in the most contentious votes like the war in Ukraine. The Pacific nations will support resolutions from Western nations in return for cold hard cash, military support and efforts to clean up the environment. Case in point, consider a vote on the situation of human rights in Crimea and other territories occupied by Russia. The Pacific nations either voted yes or missed it due other commitments.
When it comes to Palestine, it has always been something considered to be of historical significance at the UN. The UN’s goal has forever been to find a two-state solution. But that is left to the heavyweight nations. The Pacific’s position can be summed up as, "We’ll support a solution if you can find it – good luck with that."
Back to the FSM and Nauru’s votes on the ceasefire, then. The FSM supports the U.S. in its foreign policy and had nothing to lose. The Marshall Islands also supports the U.S., but it read the room at the UNGA.
With Nauru and Tonga, it’s a little less clear. Consider this recent resolution, which produced peculiar voting behavior. A resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran condemned Iran’s intensified, targeted repression of women and girls, both online and offline, and strongly urged it to eliminate all forms of systemic discrimination and verbal and physical harassment against women and girls.
Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tuvalu did not vote to condemn Iran. The others all did. This is one for policy wonks. My inbox is open.
Dr. James C. Pearce previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. He is the author of “The Use of History in Putin's Russia”, and has written on Russian memory politics, historical narratives, education policy and historical anniversaries. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.