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In the UN General Assembly, abstentions are fairly common. For example, this vote about Nazism had far more abstentions than oppose votes.

Why are abstentions so common?

I'm asking specifically about the General Assembly, because in the Security Council, a permanent member may choose to abstain to avoid vetoing a bill, but similar logic does not apply in the General Assembly.

  • 2
    Was that vote on a day when there were good Pokemon outside the voting chamber? – PoloHoleSet Nov 18 '16 at 13:23
  • @AndrewMattson "If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions." - Abba Eban. While Nintendo has been around since 1889, the Pokemon franchise, not so much – Andrew Grimm Nov 18 '16 at 13:31
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    To be fair, an Israeli politician stating that UN resolutions against Israel are unfair and baseless is not much of a proof of anything (and yes, you may change Israel for Iran, USA, Russia, China, Sweden, etc. at will). Of course, unless it was not rethoric and Algeria did in fact introduce such a resolution. – SJuan76 Nov 18 '16 at 14:36
  • @SJuan76 it was just an example of an old quote mentioning abstentions. – Andrew Grimm Nov 18 '16 at 23:57
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You should note that the votes in UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) on such political issues are nothing but symbolic and aren't always binding. In other words, they mean just political declaration or opinion. Therefore, not all the participant nations take a political agenda very seriously unless it affects their or their allies' interest directly. For example, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262

was adopted on Mar. 27, 2014 in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and entitled "Territorial integrity of Ukraine".

As you can see in the link, 10 countries (11 including Russia) such as N. Korea, Venezuela, Syria, etc. maintaining close ties with Russia rejected it and 58 countries which are not close enough to introducing and approving countries abstained and 24 countries were absent.

The non-binding resolution, which was supported by 100 United Nations member states, affirmed the General Assembly's commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders and underscored the invalidity of the 2014 Crimean referendum.

Russia's annexation of Crimea didn't affect other unrelated countries as much as it did Ukraine and it is not surprising that so many countries voted to abstain or didn't even participate in the voting.

  • Note that not all UN resolutions are non-binding. However, there are often resolutions about recognizing this or condemning that which don't have any actual practical implications in which case your answer about voting being mostly symbolic applies. – Philipp Nov 18 '16 at 14:54
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It has to do with international relations. If a big country (say, the US) votes against, but you want to vote for, you abstain to stay in good terms with the US. Good terms can mean here financial, military support.

Here is a The Economist article (only available for people who subscribed) that explains how some countries decide to vote in the UN.


Brief summary of the article:

UN resolutions condemning North Korea should be voted almost unanimously, as North Korea has one of the worst records on earth. But on one instance, 19 countries voted against and 48 abstained, probably because China gives aid to countries that votes like it. AidData, a project based at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, reckons that if African countries voted with China an extra 10% of the time, they would get an 86% bump in official aid on average. (The relationship is not a simple one, as the poorest countries receive the greater aid either way)

The image below gives estimates of change to aid received by African countries from China, if they were to vote differently.

Official development assistance commitments from China, 2000-12 annual average, $m

  • Given the linked article is behind a pay wall, it might be good to pull some of the key details into the answer. – Jontia Sep 26 '18 at 7:42
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    @Jontia I added a quick summary, if you care to review it. – SdaliM Sep 28 '18 at 15:08

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