Who will be held accountable for crimes against civilians?
Russia and China vetoed a proposed United Nations Security Council resolution on May 22nd which would have referred the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The draft resolution, submitted by France and co-sponsored by 65 countries, sought to hold Syrian government authorities, pro-government militia and opposition “non-State armed groups” accountable for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. Despite the balanced nature of the resolution and its focus on accountability of both sides to the conflict for their actions, Russia and China chose by their vetoes to effectively perpetuate impunity. This is the fourth time that both countries have used their veto power as permanent members of the Security Council to thwart various efforts by the Security Council over the last three years to deal with the worsening crisis in Syria.
Since Syria is not a State Party to the ICC, the court has no jurisdiction of its own over crimes committed in Syria. Either Syria itself must refer the situation to the ICC, which is not about to happen, or there must be a referral from the Security Council.
Before the vote, Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson said in remarks delivered on behalf of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:
Since the outbreak of the war in Syria, I have persistently called for accountability for perpetrators of grave human rights violations, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Security Council has an inescapable responsibility in this regard. If members of the Council continue to be unable to agree on a measure that could provide some accountability for the ongoing crimes, the credibility of this body and of the entire Organization will continue to suffer.
The Security Council failed to meet this responsibility because of the double veto.
China’s representative explained China’s decision to veto the resolution as a reflection of its concern for preserving the principle of national sovereignty and its concern that a referral to the ICC at this time would make negotiations of a political settlement even more difficult than it already is. This assumes that negotiations, which are already going nowhere in any event, and accountability for commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity are mutually exclusive. There is no such dichotomy. Parties on both sides of the conflict have flagrantly violated an earlier Security Council resolution passed last February, which had called for both sides to enable unfettered access for humanitarian relief to reach those in need. These violations occurred during the Geneva peace negotiations and after their suspension. They will go on and on unless perpetrators of serious crimes against the civilian population have reason to believe that they may be held to account for their actions.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin minced no words in his statement explaining Russia’s veto. He also rationalized that peace amongst the various factions in Syria is first needed before there can be accountability. However, he went further in accusing Western powers of endlessly escalating the conflict. He questioned France’s motives in presenting the resolution in the first place when it knew that the resolution would be vetoed. Ambassador Churkin surmised that France might have been looking for a pretext for further armed intervention to help the opposition including jihadists, a theme picked up later by Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari in his remarks to the Security Council. Ambassador Churkin added that previous referrals to the ICC approved by the Security Council, namely regarding Darfur and Libya, achieved very little.
As the Security Council meeting proceeded, Ambassador Churkin and French UN Ambassador Gérard Araud exchanged barbs and accusations. In one such volley by Ambassador Araud, to which Ambassador Churkin did not directly respond, Ambassador Araud accused his Russian counterpart of engaging in “chutzpa” when Ambassador Churkin had said that France was seeking an excuse for armed intervention. “Russia has never stopped supplying arms to Syria,” Ambassador Araud observed. He then said that France would support an arms embargo but did not think that Russia would support such a proposal. Ambassador Churkin was silent on that point. Toward the very end of the Security Council meeting, Ambassador Churkin baited Ambassador Araud by stating: “My French colleague does not sound very convincing.” Ambassador Araud responded in kind: “Only those who wish to be persuaded are persuaded.”
Ambassador Araud later expressed to reporters his revulsion at the vetoes: “There is a moment when you realize you are powerless in front of barbarians and their supporters.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power focused on condemning Russia in particular for its veto. “Sadly, because of the decision by the Russian Federation to back the Syrian regime no matter what it does, the Syrian people will not see justice today. They will see crime, but not punishment.”
Ambassador Power personalized the issue of accountability. She asked a victim of the atrocities in Syria, Qusai Zakariya, who was sitting in the Security Council chamber gallery, to stand up while Ambassador Power recounted the horrible impact of last August’s chemical attack this victim had witnessed firsthand:
His eyes afire, Qusai’s heart stopped and he was left for dead until a friend stumbled upon him and realized he had again begun breathing. Qusai recounts his bewilderment as he watched neighbors suffocate, friends panic, and families perish. He remembers the face of a 13 year old boy just a few feet from his home…the expression on this 13 year old’s face was the most terrifying thing Qusai has ever seen, as white foam streamed from his mouth and death crept in.
Several non-permanent members of the Security Council who voted for the resolution expressed support for an idea floated by France to reform the veto process. The five permanent members would be asked to agree to guidelines under which they would voluntarily refrain from using their veto on resolutions involving measures to address acts of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. While reasonable in principle, the problem is that the machinery of the Security Council could then be abused, much like the UN Human Rights Council, to single out Israel for special condemnation while protecting countries with far worse human rights records. Indeed, Syrian UN Ambassador Ja'afari signaled just such an approach in his remarks to the Security Council. Trying to deflect attention from the 160,000 plus fatalities and millions displaced in his own country, Ambassador Ja'afari lashed out at Israel’s “war criminals” “occupying” the Golan Heights. He left out the fact that there has been relative calm for decades since the 1967 Six-Day War, until just recently due to clashes near the ceasefire line during Syria’s civil war. That was not so before Israel took control of the Golan Heights.
Indeed, from 1948 to 1967, when Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it used the area as a military stronghold from which its troops randomly shot at Israeli civilians in the valley below, sending children scurrying to bomb shelters. In late 1966, a youth was blown to pieces by a mine while playing football near the Lebanon border. The Soviet Union vetoed a 1966 Security Council resolution deploring such incidents “as well as the loss of human life and casualties caused by them.” The resolution simply invited the Government of Syria “to strengthen its measures for preventing incidents that constitute a violation of the General Armistice Agreement” and urged both Syria and Israel “to refrain from any action that might increase the tension in the area.” Even this bit of pablum was too much for the Soviet Union to swallow.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is continuing the Soviet Union tradition, still protecting the Syrian regime from accountability for its crimes against civilians. The people of Syria and the credibility of the UN Security Council are the casualties.
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