U.S., U.K., and France strongly condemn the vetoes, but did they overreach?
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which was established in August 2015 under a unanimously approved Security Council resolution, was assigned the responsibility to determine who was responsible for a series of chemical attacks since 2013 that killed Syrian civilians. The independent expert panel concluded that there was sufficient evidence to determine that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on three separate occasions from 2014 to 2015, while ISIS had used them at least once. With that conclusion in hand, the United States, United Kingdom and France introduced a draft resolution on February 28th imposing sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter on Syrian government officials and entities linked to the chemical weapons attacks; placing an embargo on arms sales and chemicals intended to be used as weapons; and establishing a sanctions committee and panel of experts to monitor the implementation of these measures. Russia and China vetoed the draft resolution, which blocked its adoption. Bolivia also voted no. Nine Security Council members voted yes, and three abstained.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, along with the British and French ambassadors, strongly criticized the vetoes. Ambassador Haley accused Russia and China of indefensibly refusing to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “accountable for the use of chemical weapons.” She added, “They turned away from defenseless men, women, and children who died gasping for breath when Assad’s forces dropped their poisonous gas. They ignored the facts. They put their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security.”
British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the Security Council: "This is about taking a stand when children are poisoned. It's that simple. It's about taking a stand when civilians are maimed and murdered with toxic weapons." He added, “We've seen yet again Russia is prepared to abuse veto power to stand by regime that has no regard for its own people.”
French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre expressed his country’s disappointment with the outcome of the Security Council vote, but told reporters that the “fight against the use of weapons of mass destruction must be our common fight and France will never give up.”
Russia claimed that the “Western states” proposing the draft resolution were seeking confrontation. "Today's clash or confrontation is not a result of our negative vote. It is a result of the fact that you decided on provocation while you knew well ahead of time our position," said Russia's Deputy UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov. "God will judge you," Ambassador Safronkov declared in addressing the criticisms of Russia leveled by the ambassadors of the three Western permanent members of the Security Council. Apparently, Ambassador Safronkov was not worried that God might well judge him and his superiors back in Moscow for protecting the Syrian regime from any accountability for its crimes against humanity. The regime caused innocent civilians to suffocate to death as they gagged on the chlorine dropped by the regime. The fact that ISIS sunk to the same level of barbarity as the Assad regime does not excuse the barbarity displayed by a member state of the United Nations against its own people. “Both used chemical weapons,” Ambassador Haley observed. “Both should face the consequences.”
China's UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi made it clear that his country opposes the use of chemical weapons. He explained that China’s decision to veto the proposed resolution was based on an objection to its timing. The ambassador noted that the chemical weapons investigation has not yet been wrapped up, claiming that it was still too early to reach any final conclusions on accountability. Such conclusions, he said, must be based on objective, reliable evidence that can stand “the test of history.” In the meantime, Ambassador Liu added, the focus of the international community should be on efforts to help the Syrians achieve a political solution to the conflict.
The Security Council’s inaction on Syria in the face of multiple vetoes of resolutions by Russia and China continues to bring into question the Security Council’s effectiveness in dealing with the gravest threats to international peace and security when its permanent members have conflicting geopolitical interests at stake. However, in this case, a complete impasse might have been avoided if the resolution’s sponsors had referred the sanctions issue to a UN sanctions committee of experts, who could take more time to determine which specific individuals and entities were involved somehow in enabling the chemical attacks. The UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) had determined only the culpability of the Syrian regime and ISIS, not the guilt of any specific individuals or entities. The ambassadors from Egypt and Kazakhstan, which both abstained on the draft resolution, pointed out this fact in their remarks.
In response to a question submitted by Inner City Press regarding whether the Joint Investigative Mechanism had provided the names listed in the draft resolution for purposes of sanctions, JIM provided the following information:
“The JIM's reports to the Security Council did not include any names of individuals, it only referred to the finding by its Leadership Panel that Syrian Arab Armed Forces helicopters were used to drop barrel bombs in three cases (Talmenes, 21 April 2014; Qmenas and Sarmin, 16 March 2015). The report also stated that the helicopter flights in the three cases originated from two government-controlled airbases (Hama and Humaymin airbases) and made reference to the 253 and 255 squadrons both belonging to the 63rd helicopter brigade and the 618 squadron based at these two airbases."
Perhaps the Security Council would not have failed yet again to deal effectively with the Syrian crisis if a more narrowly tailored consensus resolution had been proposed. The resolution could have aimed to accomplish two things: (1) provide a clear mandate to a UN sanctions committee of experts to verify that the individuals and entities named on the proposed sanctions list had some demonstrable involvement in enabling the chemical attacks to take place, including by supplying any chemical components or means of delivery such as helicopters used to drop bombs containing the chemicals, and (2) direct the Syrian regime to comply with its obligations under the UN Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 by opening up its remaining stockpile of chemical weapons, including chlorine, for inspection and disposal under U.S. and Russian auspices, as was done before. If the regime does not fully cooperate, sanctions against the individuals and entities appropriately identified by the expert sanctions committee as being complicit in enabling Syria’s chemical weapons program and means of delivery could then be triggered right away.
The vetoes might still have occurred, to be sure. However, at least there likely would have been more yes votes for the proposed resolution, and Russia and China would have had a much harder time justifying their negative actions.