UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The U.N. Security Council faces a dramatic vote Thursday on referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes, with dozens of countries signing on to embarrass Russia which vowed to kill the measure that demands a path to justice.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Wednesday that his country will veto the French-drafted resolution, calling it a "publicity stunt" that will hurt efforts to find a political solution to a crisis that activists say has killed more than 160,000 and sent millions fleeing.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud retorted that Churkin can't say the resolution will undermine a political process "because there is no political process." He challenged Russia to explain why it's really casting a veto.
The draft resolution condemns the "widespread violation" of human rights and international humanitarian law by Syrian authorities and pro-government militias as well as abuses and violations by "non-state armed groups" during the last three years. It would refer the conflict to the world's permanent war crimes tribunal without targeting either side.
The Security Council has been deeply divided over Syria, with Syrian allies Russia and China at odds with the U.S., its Western allies and other members who support the opposition.
This will be the fourth time Russia has used its veto power as a permanent council member to deflect action against the government of President Bashar Assad. China also supports Assad's government and joined Russia in earlier vetoes, and diplomats said Beijing is likely to do so again Thursday.
With attempts at peace talks at a standstill, leading the joint U.N.-Arab league envoy who tried to broker them to resign, frustration has soared as the international community struggles to find a solution to the war, deliver humanitarian aid to almost 3.5 million Syrians in need and end impunity for horrific crimes.
Some 50 U.N. countries have taken the unusual move of signing on as co-sponsors to the latest Security Council resolution, saying they want to send "a strong political signal ... that impunity for the most serious crimes under international law is unacceptable."
Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, so the only way it can be referred to The Hague, Netherlands-based tribunal is by the Security Council. The council has previously referred conflicts in Darfur and Libya to the court, but not with so many non-council members signing on in support.
Lobbying on both sides continued this week, with Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari sending a letter Tuesday asking countries not to support the resolution. A copy of the letter, obtained by The Associated Press, calls the proposal "biased" and an effort to "sabotage any chance of peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis led by the Syrian people themselves."
Ja'afari also accused France of supporting "terrorist groups" operating inside his country.
In a letter Tuesday to the Security Council, Najib Ghadbian, U.N. representative of the opposition Syrian Coalition, blamed the Syrian government for a range of crimes including the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs.
"There is every indication that many of the most heinous acts committed by Syrian armed forces have received the approval, and indeed the complicity, of the highest level of government, including Syria's head of state," Ghadbian wrote.
The Security Council has managed twice to reach agreement on a Syria resolution, once to get rid of its chemical weapons and earlier this year to demand access for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The resolution on aid has largely failed.
The new resolution takes note of reports by an independent commission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate rights violations in Syria. In its latest report in September, the commission said at least eight massacres had been perpetrated in Syria by Assad's government and supporters, and one by rebels in the previous year and a half.
A confidential list of suspected criminals is being produced by the commission and kept under lock and key by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.