With Russia’s support clearing the way, the United Nations Security Council adopted the first legally binding resolution calling for increased access for humanitarian aid in Syria and threatening unspecified punitive action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The 15-member Security Council voted unanimously yesterday for the proposal by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg. Russia previously used its veto power to block similar efforts in Syria, its main Mideast ally and weapons buyer.
The resolution comes near the third anniversary of the Syrian civil war that began on the heels of peaceful protests in early 2011. The document obliges warring Syrian parties to guarantee humanitarian aid access, end sieges of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, and cease shelling and aerial attacks against civilians -- demands backed by a pledge to respond to noncompliance with “further steps.”
Russia -- with the support of China -- had blocked three similar Security Council resolutions since the civil war against Assad’s government began in March 2011. China also voted in favor of yesterday’s resolution.
UN officials have expressed frustration with the deadlock in the council, as more than 130,000 Syrians have been killed in the country’s conflict. The fighting also has left more than 9.6 million people in need of aid inside the country, while more than 2.4 million have fled to refugee camps in neighboring nations.
“This resolution should not have been necessary,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council after the vote. “Humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law.”
“This is a resolution of concrete steps to answer the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today,” he said in a statement. “The test is whether the words of the Security Council are matched with the life-saving actions the Syrian people so desperately and urgently need.”
Negotiations for an initial draft of the resolution began Feb. 6, with Russia objecting to the intent to impose unspecified military and economic sanctions, as well as a referral to the International Criminal Court in the event of noncompliance and continued violence.
While Russia says it isn’t formally wedded to Assad and is focused on helping to end the violence, the U.S. says Russia’s stance in the UN has enabled the Syrian regime’s continued bombing of its own people.
The final version of yesterday’s resolution was watered down in its wording, with the threat of consequences described merely as “further steps.” An earlier version referred to possible action under the UN Charter, which authorizes use of armed force and economic sanctions, and to the need to bring to justice at the ICC “those who have committed or are otherwise responsible for such violations and abuses.”
Ban will be required to report on implementation of the resolution every 30 days, and depending on his assessment of progress or the lack thereof, the council may take the further steps, according to the resolution text.
Russia supported the resolution after its proposed amendments were added to make the text more “balanced,” Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said in his remarks to the Security Council. One change he noted was the review after 30 days, rather than an automatic use of sanctions for noncompliance.
While the U.S. is “not naive,” given the “abysmal” track record of UN efforts to deal with the Syria situation, the Russian support for the resolution shows new unity on the horrors being committed in Syria, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said.
“It’s not like the fairies come out of the sky, and the angels descend, and suddenly implementation happens,” Power told reporters after the vote. “It happens because those of us who have leverage on various parties on the ground use that leverage.”
The Security Council’s action is a “political breakthrough, but desperately hungry Syrians can’t eat these words,” Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. “Syria’s allies, particularly Russia and Iran, should ensure that the Syrian government gets the message and stops using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war.”
“If we don’t see real progress within a month, sanctions should be the next step,” Hicks said.
Western and Arab members of the Security Council last month renewed an effort to introduce a legally binding resolution, after the first round of UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, failed to yield any tangible progress between the Syrian government and the opposition.
The second round of the so-called Geneva II talks ended on Feb. 15 without an agreement on a date for the next meeting. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi apologized for failing to bridge the delegations’ differences over the talks’ agenda.
The Assad government insists the dialogue must be centered on tackling terrorism -- its term for the opposition -- while the rebels want to focus on a transitional government to replace the regime. Brahimi said Assad’s envoys refused to discuss a transitional governing body.
President Barack Obama has asked for a review of U.S. options in the conflict, Kerry said on Feb. 13. Two days earlier Obama said his administration isn’t moving closer to taking military action against Syria.
Obama in September withdrew his decision to carry out a military strike as an agreement engineered by Russia was reached calling for Assad’s regime to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal.
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