The Security Council Votes on an ICC Resolution on Syria. But To What Effect?

UPDATE: The veto is official. The resolution has failed 13-2, with China joining Russia.

UPDATE II: The US Mission to the United Nations just posted this rather stinging infographic.

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Originally posted May 13

France is circulating a resolution in the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. This move is long overdue, but will almost certainly be dead on arrival at the Council. Russia, and probably China, will cast a veto and in doing so demonstrate that the distance between the West and Russia over how best to approach the Syria conflict is growing ever wider.

It’s not that Russia, China or the USA — the three permanent members of the Security Council that are not members of the ICC — are inherently against the ICC. In two prior occasions, these three countries either voted for a Security Council resolution granting jurisdiction to the ICC, or abstained from the resolution to let it pass. The USA, China and Russia abstained from a 2005 resolution granting the ICC jurisdiction in Sudan to investigate crimes in Darfur; and in 2011 the China and Russia abstained from a resolution, supported by the USA, to refer alleged crimes in Libya to the ICC.

The point is, Russia and China are not fundamentally opposed to the ICC.  But it is still very likely that Russia would veto this resolution given its past track record on Syria. Russia has vetoed three previous resolutions that condemned the Assad government for alleged war crimes. There is nothing in Moscow’s recent statements or posture that suggests Russia would consent to an ICC investigation in Syria. That would signal a major shift in Russian diplomacy on Syria, to say the least.

So why put forward this resolution now?  France has had this resolution in its back pocket since 2011. It so far held off in forwarding the resolution pending an international diplomatic process to find some political solution to the civil war. France’s decision to table the resolution now signals just how frayed the international diplomacy on Syria has become.  Russia and US backed talks in Geneva have failed, while the Ukraine crisis has caused levels of acrimony between Russia and the West not experienced since the end of the Cold War.

Putting forward this resolution when it is well understood that Russia will simply veto it is a very public way of demonstrating that international diplomacy on Syria has reached a possibly insurmountable dead end. This is the practical purpose of this resolution, and it is useful to the extent that it clarifies something most everyone already knows. International diplomacy on Syria, at least through the Security Council, is at an impasse.

Amb. Gérard Araud of France. UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz