Anger from Europe and US as two security council powers argue implied threat of sanctions will not bring peace
Russia and China have vetoed a European-backed UN security council resolution that threatened sanctions against the Syrian regime if it did not immediately halt its military crackdown against civilians.
The resolution would have been the first such legally binding move adopted by the security council since President Bashar Assad's military began using tanks and soldiers against protesters in mid-March. The UN estimates there have been more than 2,700 deaths.
The European sponsors of the resolution had tried to avoid a veto by watering down the language on sanctions three times, to the point where the word "sanctions" was taken out. The eventual vote was 9-2 with four abstentions: India, South Africa, Brazil and Lebanon.
It is the first double veto by Russia and China since July 2008 when they rejected proposed sanctions against Zimbabwe. In January 2007 they both vetoed a resolution against the Burmese regime.
Russia's UN 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. He complained that the resolution did not call for the Syrian opposition to disociate itself from "extremists" and enter into dialogue.
China's ambassador, Li Bandong, said his country was concerned about the violence and wanted reforms but opposed the resolution because "sanctions, or threat of sanctions, do not help the situation in Syria but rather complicates the situation".
France's UN 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 UN 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.
The US 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. 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.
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 and China, along with Brazil, India and South Africa, pressed for more time for the Assad government to implement reforms and for political dialogue with the opposition.
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 US, then pressed for a council resolution calling for an immediate arms embargo and other sanctions.
But Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil have argued the UN resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians in Libya was misused by Nato to justify months of air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime. They expressed fear a new resolution might be used as a pretext for armed intervention in Syria.
The final watered-down document called for Syria to end all violence, respect rights and freedoms, and let in the media and human rights investigators – or, after 30 days, the security council will "consider its options, including measures under article 41 of the charter of the United Nations".
Article 41 authorises the council to impose non-military measures such as economic and diplomatic sanctions.
The defeated draft 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 UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, the last speaker after the vote, criticised "the prejudice in certain western capitals against our country" and insisted a comprehensive package of pro-democracy reforms was being implemented by the government.
Without naming the US, Ja'afari said it had 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, US diplomats, led by Rice, walked out of the council chamber.