Behind the Scenes in Today’s UN General Assembly Vote on Syria

The United Nations General Assembly this afternoon passed a Saudi Arabia-drafted resolution condemning the violence in Syria and fully supporting the Arab League’s plan for political transition. The move to the General Assembly came after a UN Security Council resolution was vetoed by Russia and China.  A briefing on Monday before the Assembly by UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stressed that “crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed since March 2011,” setting the stage for today’s vote.

For a short time leading up to the session, word spread among journalists and the Missions that the draft would be voted on as an Important Question, under Article 18 of the UN Charter, requiring it to need a 2/3 majority to pass. The President of the General Assembly’s Office made clear that the vote would proceed requiring only a simple majority for passage, barring the objection of a Member-State. Syrian Permanent Representative Bashar Ja’afari attempted to voice that objection and delay the vote, but was ruled against by the President.

Egypt introduced the resolution, the work of the Arab bloc of countries in the Assembly, having been edited to reflect Sunday’s meeting of the League of Arab States, and implored the body to pass the draft by a consensus. That wasn’t to be the case, with Syria of course speaking opposed. It was telling, however, that only Venezuela and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea joined Syria in its vocal objection to the procedures of the General Assembly. By the time of the vote, over 70 co-sponsors had been listed on the draft. In the end, the final vote was 138 countries in favor, with 12 against and 17 abstentions. Those Member-States that voted against the resolution included the DPRK, Russian Federation, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Cambodia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, China, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Syria.

Such a lop-sided vote against Assad’s government closely mirrors the vote in the General Assembly in November to condemn Syria’s human rights abuses, which was 133 in favor and 12 opposed. While the Assembly’s resolution is non-binding, it does send a strong message to Damascus that the vast majority of the world is united against the ongoing violence and places enhanced weight behind the Arab League’s transition plan. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will likely soon appoint a Special Envoy for Syria as the Assembly has requested, who will have an impressive mandate from the international community to seek a deal to halt the killing. Whether that Envoy will be met with open arms is up to Syria.