Russia will veto a U.S.- and French-backed Security Council resolution that would have authorized an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into mass crimes by Syria’s government and rebels, dealing a decisive blow to international efforts to hold Syria’s mass killers to account for their crimes.
The Russian threat, which was delivered to reporters by Russia’s U.N. envoy, came less than a day before the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to vote Thursday morning, May 22, on a French draft resolution granting the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, the power to launch a probe into excesses committed in a conflict that has left more than 150,000 people dead.
Asked whether Russia was prepared to block the initiative, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters on Wednesday outside the U.N. Security Council: "Yes, we do. Yes, we do. Yes, we do."
Churkin defended his government’s decision, which would mark the first time a resolution calling for an ICC investigation has been vetoed. He said the West’s decision to put the doomed resolution to a vote is a "publicity stunt" that would "have a detrimental effect unfortunately on our joint efforts in trying to resolve politically the crisis in Syria. But what will come will come."
The Security Council clash underscores the challenges of holding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his armed supporters, and anti-government Islamic extremists accountable for alleged crimes in Syria’s more than three year long civil war. The clash is expected to send supporters of the court scrambling to find another venue for prosecuting perpetrators of crimes in Syria.
The push for an ICC prosecution has been gaining ground in recent months, with the United Nations’ top human rights official, Navi Pillay, making repeated calls for the Security Council to approve an ICC investigation into crimes. Switzerland, meanwhile, has organized a group of 58 countries that urged the council to support the resolution. "We should not forget that we are responsible not only for our actions but also for our inactions," the group said in a statement. "We therefore call upon the Security Council to go forward and to adopt the resolution."
The effort received a major boost two weeks ago when the United States agreed to back the resolution. The United States had previously expressed misgivings about the virtue of supporting an ICC investigation, saying a lengthy trial would do little to halt the violence on the ground. But with U.S.- and Russian-sponsored political talks having largely collapsed, the United States showed renewed interest in sending the ICC to Syria, as long as it received assurances from France that the resolution would not target American or Israeli troops in the region.
The Russian veto appears to be unprecedented. The Security Council previously authorized ICC investigations in Darfur, Sudan, in 2005 and in Libya in 2011. Russia voted in favor of both resolutions. The United States and China, two other powerful council members that have not joined the ICC, abstained on the Darfur vote but supported the resolution approving an investigation in Libya. U.N.-based diplomats said they believe that China would cast a veto alongside Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, this week made a state visit to Beijing.
But even if China joins Russia, the resolution is expected to enjoy broad support in the 15-nation council, including from African governments Chad, Nigeria, and Rwanda, whose president, Paul Kagame, has been among the region’s harshest critics of The Hague-based court.
This article has been updated.