Russia Doesn’t Want Syria’s Leaders Facing War Crimes Trials

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Russian president Vladimir Putin meet in 2006 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RIA NOVOSTI, MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV, PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE, FILE
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Russian president Vladimir Putin meet in 2006 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RIA NOVOSTI, MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV, PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE, FILE

Days ahead of a scheduled vote, Russia is threatening to veto the best chance yet of bringing the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The United Nations Security Council was set to vote on a French-drafted resolution referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court on Thursday, the first step in bringing up war crimes charges against perpetrators. As Syria isn’t a signatory of the Rome Statute, the only way to actually refer the situation to the Court is a referral from the 15-member panel. The United States, France, and United Kingdom all support the draft text, and had hoped that their fellow veto-wielders — the Russian Federation and China — would hold their fire.

But now it seems that a Russian abstention allowing the resolution to pass is too much to hope for. “The draft that has been submitted to the U.N. Security Council is unacceptable to us, and we will not support it,” Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said, according to Interfax news agency. “If it is put to a vote, we will veto it.” Russia has previously vetoed three resolutions related to Syria, with China joining in voting ‘no,’ ignoring criticism that it is granting the Assad government impunity in the face of a long list of crimes against humanity.

The sponsors of the draft — which is also backed by nearly sixty members of the U.N. — are less than clear on just what it is that the Russians are objecting to in the language. “This resolution is about sending the message that the atrocities in Syria must stop and perpetrators must be held accountable,” British Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Lyall Grant said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “On this basis, we see no reason why all UN Security Council members would not support this resolution.”

“The text is not politicized,” a member of the French mission to the U.N. agreed in a phone call with ThinkProgress. “It doesn’t target specifically the regime or the opposition, it’s balanced,” the mission said, adding that it calls on all delegations to support the draft resolution. ICC referrals are not specifically targeted against individuals, leaving open to the possibility that members of both the government and rebels documented on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s list of war crimes perpetrators could find themselves charged.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, in a statement provided to ThinkProgress from their Washington, DC Mission, also expressed dismay at the veto threat. “This referral would allow investigation of all parties without bias,” the statement reads. “If Russia vetoes the resolution, it will be clear that Russia is worried about the truth and is once again using extraordinary diplomatic measures to protect this regime, resulting once again in allowing the killing to continue without accountability or justice.” The Syrian opposition’s missions recently received full diplomatic accreditation from the Obama administration.

That the ICC referral text was coming to a vote at all is a shift from the past, as the United States only recently came on-board with the idea of sending Assad to The Hague. Previously, the Obama administration has eschewed the idea of using the Court as a means to change the Assad regime’s behavior. “What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral?” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power asked during a speech at the Center for American Progress last fall, as the administration was making its case for launching strikes against the regime for using chemical weapons. “Would a drawn out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks?”

Previously, the Security Council has referred two situations to the ICC: the strife in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2005 and Libya in 2011. That former referral led to the indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, the first sitting leader to be brought up on war crimes under the Rome Statute. Even if Russia were to abstain and allow the vote to go through, however, Assad wouldn’t necessarily find himself on the inside of a jail cell in the Netherlands anytime soon, if Bashir is any indication. Since the warrant was released for his arrest, the leader has visited several African states with relative impunity, casting doubt on the ability of the international community to enforce the ICC’s mandate.