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Reading the Veto on Syria

Dr Saurabh Misra is Associate Professor at Amity Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Noida.
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  • October 21, 2011

    The rare October 4 double veto by Russia and China on the draft resolution against Syria sponsored by France, Germany, Portugal, and UK condemning Syrian action on its civilian population has come to bolster the divide within the Security Council. Such double vetoes were last used by the same countries in 2007 and 2008 to save Myanmar and Zimbabwe, their traditional allies. Tripoli has fallen down to the rebels and the same two countries had let resolution 1973 pass by just abstaining despite their reservations and gave way to others to enforce sanctions and a ‘no flying zone’. But, they have blocked a comparatively weaker resolution against Syria.

    Nine of the Council members (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, France, Gabon, Germany, Nigeria, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States) voted for the resolution, four (India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon) abstained and two (Russia and China) have voted against. The Russian and Chinese response to the western initiative has been negative since the beginning and the earlier draft was watered down to accommodate differences. Countries pursuing the draft claim there was nothing in the resolution that provided for sanctions or military action.

    The rejected resolution was mostly repetitive of the language of the presidential statement issued on August 3 as it called for “an inclusive Syrian-led political process addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syria’s population”. Expressing “grave concern”, the resolution called “to halt its violent offensive at once” and “independent investigation of all human rights violations” and reiterated the need to “hold to account those responsible”. The later part of the resolution was different, though, the resolution wasn’t providing for any sanction or military action immediately. The resolution went a step ahead by inclusion of clause 11, the bone of contention, mentioning ‘measures’ under Article 41 of the UN Charter to be taken after a review of resolution’s implementation within 30 days in case Syria doesn’t comply with. The reading of this clause by the vetoing countries largely differs from the western powers. The resolution also called for “vigilance and restrain” on arms supply, military and related assistance. This might have hurt Russia and China indirectly as they have been supplying arms and military assistance to Syria.

    Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, said that his country did not support the resolution because it was based on “a philosophy of confrontation”, and contained “an ultimatum of sanctions”. He strongly linked the Syrian situation with the events in Libya. Highlighting the ‘exemplary model’ of ‘united defenders’ in the name of the “responsibility to protect”, he called for abolition of such practices from the world “once and for all”. In the Russian opinion, the Syrian population does not share the demand for an immediate change and the people of Syria deserve “transformations in conditions of peace”. The outcome of the vote on the resolution, in his opinion, was not a matter of wordings but ‘political approaches’. He suggested “substantive dialogue” to achieve “civil peace and national consensus” in Syria. Threat of sanction and military action, he argued would only destabilize the whole region, and that is not in the interest of the world community.

    The Chinese ambassador, Mr. Li Baodong, explained that the draft resolution is “threatening to impose sanctions” and “does not help to resolve the question of Syria” rather it may “complicate” the situation. He said that the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of States” should be respected for the “security and survival of the developing countries”.

    Ms. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, tried to explain that it is not about military intervention and linking it with Libya is a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people”. She expressed “outrage” at the UN Security Council's “utter failure” to pass a resolution on Syria “to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security”. She walked out in protest from the meeting while the Syrian representative was criticizing the US.

    British ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, expressed deep disappointment on the veto and explained how they had left no scope in the resolution for military action by including article 41 of the UN Charter and have tried to remove any sense of automatic action after 30 days. The French representative was more enthusiastic in his words saying “this state of affairs will not stop us” which may be hinting towards a possibility of a different strategy by the western powers. He mentioned that Assad has lost legitimacy by murdering his own people.

    India, as expected, had abstained arguing on consistent lines—respect to the sovereignty and integrity of a nation and a fear of development of a situation like Libya or worse. In his explanation of vote, the Indian permanent representative Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri urged the international community to give “time and space for the Syrian Government to implement the far-reaching reform measures”. He told that India had abstained as the draft does not accommodate the “concern about threat of sanctions” and places “responsibility on the opposition to abjure violence”. India condemned violence irrespective of who its perpetrators were and strikingly took note of the violence “perpetrated by the Syrian opposition”.

    Lebanon, given its peculiar relationship with Syria cannot go against it. Brazil and South Africa, like India, have opted to abstain for their traditional commitment to robust principles and safe international environment for sovereign survival of developing and weak states. They are well aware of the humanitarian nature of the crisis which may worsen but, probably, they are waiting for some other historic din created by Bashar.

    According to the UN more than 2700 civilians are dead, more than ten thousand arrested, and many more than these have taken refuge in the neighbouring states which cannot be ignored. The Russian and the Chinese insistence on use of political dialogue rather than intervention pertain to their long-term relations with Syria and their mistrust of the Western powers who, in their opinion tend to transgress UN resolutions. The rare double veto, despite no provision of military action, hints at the sensitivity of the two countries for Syria, a long term ally.

    The veto has given rest to the efforts of the countries to bring resolution against Syria for sometime. Assad may utilise this to bring reforms and settlement within. But, if he continues with heavy crackdowns resulting in more civilian deaths and refugees and introduces no real reform, both Russia and China may find it difficult to defend his regime as they will definitely be unable to counter an independent NATO initiative in support of a united Syrian opposition, if there is any. However, given the Syrian position in West Asia, the condition of world economy and reluctance of the US in getting embroiled in another military misadventure, the West has seemingly toned down the idea of military intervention. Russia and China hinted that they may bring their own draft resolution but, at the moment, there is no sign of reconciliation or unanimity among the P5. Now, the West would most likely look at the developments in the Syrian opposition.