UNITED NATIONS — Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution Thursday 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 UN 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 on the UN 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.
Russia’s 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 Wang Min, the deputy ambassador who represented China on Thursday at the council, 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 nor 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, Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary general, urged the council to take action: “The Security Council has an inescapable responsibility in this regard to ensure justice for victims of unspeakable crimes.”
Gérard Araud, the ambassador from France, 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 reporters outside the council chambers, 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, the US ambassador, Samantha Power, had her reaction prepared, telling fellow council members that “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.”
Rights advocates also condemned the outcome.