BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS: Russia and China Thursday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes, as President Bashar Assad’s troops backed by airstrikes broke a yearlong rebel siege of a prison in the northern city of Aleppo.
The U.N. secretary-general later said the U.N. is poised to help get humanitarian aid across borders into Syria even at crossings outside government control, in defiance of Damascus’ insistence that all aid go through its authorities.
Ban Ki-moon’s new report says access to humanitarian aid for millions of people trapped in the three-year conflict remains “unpredictable and woefully inadequate” and that the Assad regime has “failed” to care for its people.
The council has been pressured to back up a resolution passed earlier this year demanding access for delivering humanitarian aid.
Ban’s update on the resolution said, “We are ready to put in place arrangements at key border and line crossings to facilitate, improve and monitor access” including at crossings “currently outside the government’s effective control.”
The Aleppo ground development allowed regime forces to close in on a nearby command center of a coalition of Islamist rebel groups, opposition activists said.
The sprawling prison has witnessed deadly clashes between government and opposition forces for the past year. Rebels repeatedly have barreled suicide car bombs into the front gates and fought guards and troops holed up inside, seeking to free an estimated 4,000 inmates.
Aleppo has been carved into rebel- and government-controlled areas since opposition fighters launched an offensive in Syria’s largest city in mid-2012. The Syrian army has made gains in the center of the country and is seeking to advance against opposition-held areas in the north ahead of next month’s presidential election.
It would take a monumental army push to take back the entire city, and it is very unlikely to happen before the June 3 vote. But the army advances are a sign that the momentum in the city may be starting to shift decisively in favor of the government.
The Russian and Chinese use of the veto prompted angry responses from the supporters who said the two countries should be ashamed.
This is the fourth time Russia and China have used their veto power as permanent council members to deflect action against Assad’s government. The 13 other council members voted in favor of the resolution.
More than 60 countries signed on to support the French-drafted measure, in a dramatic demonstration of international backing for justice.
The resolution would have referred Syria’s crisis, now in its fourth year, to the world’s permanent war crimes tribunal for investigation of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, without specifically targeting either the government or the opposition.
Before the vote, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson pleaded with council members to find unity and “put an end to this long nightmare,” saying the council’s credibility was at stake. But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin walked into the meeting with a smile, telling reporters, “I’m going to be boringly predictable.”
Churkin, who had called the vote a French “publicity stunt” that would hurt efforts to find a political solution to a crisis, lashed out at Paris again Thursday. He asked why France was damaging the unity of the permanent members, who had agreed on earlier resolutions to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and on improving delivery of humanitarian aid.
“Is it just to try once again to create a pretext for armed intervention in the Syrian conflict?” he asked.
China’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Wang Min echoed Churkin, adding that a referral to the ICC won’t lead to an early resumption of peace talks.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power had her speech ready for the promised 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.”
The resolution would have condemned the “widespread violation” of human rights and international humanitarian law by Syrian authorities and pro-government militias as well as abuses by “nonstate armed groups” during the last three years. It would have authorized the ICC to investigate “the situation in Syria,” without targeting either side.
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.
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, who lobbied countries not to support the resolution, told the council that it was based on “nothing but mendacious allegations and fabricated lies.”
The U.S., Britain and France vowed to keep pursuing justice despite Thursday’s defeat. France’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said in an admission of frustration: “There is a moment you feel powerless ... in front of barbarians and their supporters.”