UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia and China vetoed a European-backed U.N. Security Council resolution Tuesday that threatened sanctions against Syria if it didn't immediately halt its military crackdown against civilians.
It would have been the first legally binding resolution adopted by the Security Council since President Bashar Assad's military began using tanks and soldiers against protesters in mid-March. Its defeat reflects the deep divisions in the U.N.'s most powerful body over how to address the ongoing violence in Syria, which the U.N. estimates has led to more than 2,700 deaths.
The European sponsors of the resolution tried to avoid a veto by watering down the language on sanctions three times, to the point where the word "sanctions" was taken out, but they failed.
The vote was 9-2 with four abstentions — India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon.
It was the first double veto by Russia and China since July 2008 when they vetoed proposed sanctions against Zimbabwe. In January 2007, they also vetoed a resolution calling on Myanmar to release all political prisoners, initiate a wide-ranging dialogue and end military attacks and human rights abuses.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the council after the vote that his country did not support the Assad regime or the violence but opposed the resolution because it was "based on a philosophy of confrontation," contained "an ultimatum of sanctions" and was against a peaceful settlement of a crisis. He also complained that the resolution did not call for the Syrian opposition to disassociate itself from "extremists" and enter into dialogue.
China's Ambassador Li Bandong said his country is concerned about the ongoing violence and wants to see speedy reforms but opposed the resolution because "sanctions, or threat of sanctions, do not help the situation in Syria but rather complicates the situation."
Supporters of the resolution expressed disappointment and outrage.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud called the veto "a rejection of the extraordinary movement in support of freedom and democracy that is the Arab Spring" and commended "all of those who fight against the bloodthirsty crackdown in Syria."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the veto "will be a great disappointment to the people of Syria and the wider region that some members of this council could not show their support for their struggle for basic human rights."
"By blocking this resolution, the onus is now on those countries to step up their efforts and persuade the Syrian government to end the violence and pursue genuine reform," he said.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said "the courageous people of Syria can now clearly see who on this council supports their yearning for liberty and human rights — and who does not."
"Those who oppose this resolution and give cover to a brutal regime will have to answer to the Syrian people — and, indeed, to people across the region who are pursuing the same universal aspirations," she said. "The crisis in Syria will stay before the Security Council, and we will not rest until this council rises to meet its responsibilities."
Rice accused Russia and China of wanting to sell arms to the Syrian regime rather than stand with the Syrian people — an accusation vehemently denied by Russia's Churkin.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising, the council has been split.
Western members, backed by some African and Latin American nations, demanded an end to violence, and when it was not heeded they pushed for Security Council action, including the threat of sanctions. On the other side, Russia, China and the newly emerging global powers — Brazil, India and South Africa — pressed for more time for the Assad government to implement reforms and for political dialogue with the opposition and strongly opposed even mentioning sanctions.
It took four months of arguments between supporters and opponents of Assad's regime for the Security Council to issue a presidential statement in August condemning the escalating violence.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal, backed by the United States, then pressed for a council resolution calling for an immediate arms embargo and other sanctions aimed at stopping the Assad government's crackdown on protesters.
But Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil opposed that sanctions resolution. They argue the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya was misused by NATO to justify months of air strikes against Moammar Gadhafi's regime and expressed fear a new resolution might be used as a pretext for armed intervention against Syria.
The final watered-down draft that was voted on and defeated demanded that Syria immediately end violence, allow fundamental rights and freedoms, lift all media restrictions and allow unhindered access for human rights investigators.
It expressed the council's intention to review Syria's implementation of these demands within 30 days, and "to consider its options, including measures under Article 41 of the Charter of the United Nations."
Article 41 authorizes the council to impose nonmilitary measures which can include economic and diplomatic sanctions.
The draft also would have strongly condemned "the continued grave and systematic human rights violations and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities" and called on all states "to exercise vigilance and restraint" in supplying weapons to Syria.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, the last speaker after the vote, criticized "the prejudice in certain Western capitals against our country" and insisted a comprehensive package of reforms is now being implemented by the government, "enhancing the democratic process."
Without naming the U.S., Ja'afari said that it used its Security Council veto 50 times since 1945 to protect Israel and deny the Palestinians their rights.
Therefore, he said, it could be considered a party to "genocide, as this language is tantamount to turning a blind eye and supporting the Israeli massacres in occupied Arab lands."
As he spoke, U.S. diplomats led by Rice walked out of the council chamber.
Associated Press Writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations
(This version CORRECTS Corrects in paragraph 5 that last Russia-China veto was on a Zimbabwe resolution in 2008. For global distribution.)