Russia and China on Thursday vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have empowered the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Syria, defying widespread support for such a move by human rights advocates and many U.N. members, including the United States.
It was the fourth time that Russia and China used their veto power as permanent Security Council members to block any coercive action by the international body in the Syrian conflict, which began more than three years ago and has claimed at least 150,000 lives.
The vote on the resolution, sponsored by France, was broadcast live on the U.N. website. The measure received 13 yes votes in the 15-member council.
More than 50 members of the General Assembly had urged the council to approve the measure, and many rights advocates had pressed for a favorable vote, even though they had expected a veto at least by Russia, the Syrian government's most important backer.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin had announced Wednesday that Russia would veto the resolution, arguing that it was a "publicity stunt" that would be counterproductive and subvert any diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict. Syria's government had also publicly opposed the resolution, calling it a one-sided attempt by France and its allies to intervene in Syria's internal affairs.
China's position before the vote had not been entirely clear. While China had not been expected to approve the resolution, it could have abstained, which would have signaled less-than-emphatic solidarity with Russia on the issue.
But Deputy Ambassador Wang Min, who represented China at the council Thursday, was frank about his country's objections to the resolution, describing it as an unwarranted action that would violate Syria's judicial sovereignty and ruin any prospects for a third round of peace talks in Geneva. "To forcibly refer the situation of Syria to the ICC is neither conducive to building trust among all parties in Syria or to early resumption of negotiations in Geneva," he said.
Syria is not a signatory to the treaty that created the International Criminal Court more than a decade ago, with the goal of holding accountable those who commit war crimes and other atrocities. Under the treaty, however, the Security Council has the power to authorize the court to investigate and prosecute cases in countries that are not signatories.
Before the vote, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson urged the council to take action. "The Security Council has an inescapable responsibility in this regard to ensure justice for victims of unspeakable crimes," he said.
French Ambassador Gérard Araud emphasized that the resolution would apply to crimes committed by all sides in the conflict, which have been widely documented. He said a veto of the measure was equivalent to "vetoing justice."
Speaking later to reporter, Mr. Araud said he could not understand the logic of the veto. "It's very sad," he said. "More people are going to die, more people are going to suffer."
Having expected at least the Russia veto, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power had her reaction prepared, telling fellow council members: "Sadly, because of the decision of 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."