Today, the people of Syria are waiting. Waiting for the world to wake up and take action as their oppressive leader Bashir Al-Assad's regime has killed over 2,700 people since March, and continues to jail and torture civilians who only ask for the right to protest their government.
Russia and China have kept the Syrian people waiting for relief from the violence. This week, the two permanent members of the Security Council rejected a resolution (which was watered down to gain their support) that called for an immediate end to violence and demanded that those responsible for perpetuating violence against the unarmed protesters be held accountable. Sanctions or other measures against the Assad regime would only come into affect if Syria failed to meet these demands.
A quick history lesson (stay awake -- this is important!): back in 2005, the largest gathering of world leaders ever met at the U.N. and adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm. This doctrine says that while nations are sovereign, they have a responsibility to protect their populations from four types of "mass atrocity" crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. When a nation cannot or will not meet this responsibility, then it becomes the job of the international community, working though the Security Council, to protect these people.
Here's the problem with veto of the Syria resolution: there are clearly major human rights violations being committed in Syria. By using their veto power, Russia and China are not meeting their responsibility to protect and are also preventing the rest of the world from doing so. Permanent Security Council members who wield the veto have a special responsibility not to use it in situations dealing with mass atrocities.
Russia and China vetoed the resolution on Syria because they believe that NATO forces had manipulated the Security Council resolution on Libya to wage war against the Gaddafi regime. It is clear that the two governments have put national interests ahead of their international responsibility. Perhaps they are more concerned with the continuation of Syrian arms deals (or fear of retribution for their own internal human rights violations) than basic human rights for the Syrian public.
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., condemned the veto, stating that "during this season of change, the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators." She further denounced claims that the resolution was a Western issue, arguing that countries throughout the Arab region and the world came together to clearly condemn the brutality of the Assad regime.
Ambassador Gérard Araud of France made a statement that the opponents of the resolution went against the spirit of the Arab Spring movement. Denying the democratic aspirations of the region is a tacit compliance with the tactics and schemes of the cruel Assad regime, and such compliance by Russia and China is deserving of the shame of the international community.
In the short term, the Security Council must continue working towards a new resolution sanctioning the Assad regime for the atrocities perpetuated against demonstrators in Syria. The situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court. In the meantime, individual nations should increase sanctions against the Syrian government.
In the long term, Russia, China and all of the five permanent Security Council members have a choice: either they agree to stop using the veto in situations dealing with mass atrocities, or they can maintain their status as controlling members of a body that will become increasingly irrelevant. It's their responsibility.