Russia, China Block U.N. Effort To Investigate Syrian War Crimes

Russia and China have vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have referred the war in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Russia called the vote a publicity stunt. Nearly 60 nations backed the effort, which gained steam after a defector provided photographs detailing the mass killing and torture of prisoners under Bashar Al Assad's regime.

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Russia and China used their veto powers today at the U.N. Security Council. They blocked a resolution that would have sent the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court. More than 160,000 people have died in Syria's civil war. And the United States accused Moscow of aiding impunity with its veto. But Moscow's ambassador called the whole U.N. resolution a publicity stunt.

Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Barrel bombs, chemical weapons, starvation as a weapon of war. These are just some of the atrocities that are being documented each day in Syria, according to U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: Sadly, because of the decision of the Russian Federation to back the Syrian regime no matter what it does, the Syrian people will not see justice today. They will see crime but not punishment.

KELEMEN: She says the Security Council was briefed recently on the tens of thousands of photos, provided by a Syrian defector, of corpses showing signs of starvation and torture.

POWER: These photos shock and horrify, even after some of us wondered if there was anything the regime could do could still shock.

KELEMEN: Power suggested that history books should show those pictures of emaciated corpses, next to pictures of the two diplomats who - in her words - prevented justice for the victims.

POWER: Our grandchildren will ask us years from now, how we could have failed to bring justice to people living in Hell on Earth.

KELEMEN: Russia's Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, wasn't moved, calling those photos by the defector: unconfirmed and unverifiable, and arguing that those who were pushing for the U.N. resolution are really looking for a pretext to armed intervention. Churkin is calling for local truces, like the one in the city of Homs, which was recently retaken by government forces.

AMBASSADOR VITALY CHURKIN: (Through Translator) One cannot but recall a Russian saying: A bad peace is better than a good quarrel. And what our Western colleagues proposing instead: talk, good for naive people, that they will be providing new types of weapons to good opposition groups only.

KELEMEN: The French Ambassador Gerard Araud, who drafted the resolution, calls this a sad day when Russia covers up crimes with its veto and then spouts invective against other council members.

AMBASSADOR GERARD ARAUD: (Through Translator) It's called Chutzpah in New York. the West is accused of providing weapons to the opposition, when Russia has never stopped providing weapons to the regime.

KELEMEN: Though it was a day of high diplomatic drama, the Security Council remains on the sidelines of the war in Syria, which is heading into elections likely to give Syrian president Bashar al-Assad another seven-year term.

Diplomats may try again next week to press for humanitarian access. A resolution calling for that was approved earlier this year, but aid workers say millions of Syrians remain out of reach to them and civilian areas are still targeted with barrel bombs. France's Ambassador Araud isn't sounding very hopeful.

ARAUD: There is a moment where suddenly you realize that, you know, you are powerless in front of barbarians and their supporters.

KELEMEN: The U.S. State Department says it will continue to gather evidence for future war crimes trials. And look into alternatives to the International Criminal Court.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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