Russia and China have once again blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. The latest resolution, proposed with great consideration by France and co-sponsored by 65 countries, including the United States, was to take a long-awaited, assertive step forward by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation of atrocity crimes.
The investigation by the court, the world’s only permanent judicial body to try heinous crimes, would have looked into accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government and the opposing parties.
For now, though, such an investigation cannot happen without a Security Council referral, as Syria is not a member of the court and not under its jurisdiction. The resolution was painstakingly negotiated, particularly with the US, to avoid language that could leave the US, which is also not a member of the court, exposed to any investigations regarding American military personnel who may end up in Syria under Security Council authorization — as part of an intervention there, for example, should that ever occur.
The resolution was never actually expected to pass, given Russia’s strong opposition to condemnations by the Security Council over the Syrian government’s military warfare, including its unrelenting deadly attacks against its own civilians. The three-year conflict has a current total death toll of around 160,000 and has left at least nine million people displaced from their homes, scattered around the country and elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the specter of the two no votes produced by China and Russia cast a pall in the council chambers in the morning session, turning a somber crowd more glum.
The strategy of France to propose the resolution was to show to the world that Russia’s support of the Syrian government’s military barrage is a huge barrier to stemming the death toll in Syria and for justice to be served to innocent Syrian civilians. The vote was not only meant to ostracize Russia but it also reflected how desperately France and like-minded powers are searching for ways to stop the impunity that they say the Syrian government enjoys in its assaults on civilians with barrel bombs, starvation, torture and chemical weapons. The opposition is also accused of war crimes but on a far lesser scale.
China also voted no, spouting an unusually defensive line about being forced to take such a position when it preferred private consultations on the matter instead. This sounded a false note as such consultations in the council on Syria continue to be an option that China, for starters, does not fully exercise. The failed resolution was the fourth in three years to be vetoed by both China and Russia regarding action on Syria.
“It is very sad,” Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, said in his customary pathos, speaking to the media immediately after the vote on May 22. “There are times when even diplomats feel sadness. More and more people are going to die. More and more Syrians are going to suffer. We have tried three resolutions which did not even contain sanctions. They only contained threats of sanctions. And they were vetoed by Russia. This resolution which is about accountability for all criminals was also vetoed by Russia. There is a moment when you realize you are powerless in front of barbarians and their supporters.”
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s stiff-faced ambassador to the UN, had called the vote a “publicity stunt.” He singled out France during the council session, asking why it was damaging the unity of the five veto-wielding permanent members (including Britain and the US), who have agreed on earlier resolutions to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and on strengthening humanitarian aid delivery. The latter resolution has barely produced improved results.
“Is it just to try once again to create a pretext for armed intervention in the Syrian conflict?” Churkin asked.
Unity was in evidence among the council’s other 13 elected and permanent members, who all voted yes to the resolution on May 22.
Australia, consistently a voice of reason, said the council would be judged harshly for its inability to come to grips with the fact that its defiant inaction contributes to the bloodshed each day in Syria.