Russia has cast its second veto at the UN Security Council in two days, blocking the continued investigation of chemical weapon use by its ally Syria. This decision illustrates the partisan nature of the Security Council, which should not be used as the decision-making mechanism where chemical weapons are involved.
The Japan-led resolution would have extended the joint investigative mechanism (JIM)’s work while the international community continued negotiations with the Assad regime. Assad’s use of chemical weapons has been extensive, and has had huge impacts on Syrian civilians while achieving little militarily. This combination of factors should warrant removing such a resolution from the Security Council’s highly politicized purview, or at the very least negating countries’ veto right.
A resolution normally requires nine votes to be adopted by the council. Twelve council members voted in favour of the extended mandate, while Bolivia voted against it and China abstained. Russia used its veto power, causing outrage from other council members.
This is the 11th time Russia has used its veto power – unique to the Security Council’s permanent member states, Britain, France, China, Russia, and the US – to stop actions targeting the Assad regime.
US ambassador Nikki Haley said after the vote that “Russia is wasting our time.” She added that Russia had no interest in compromising with other council members, and would not agree to any actions that would expose Syrian chemical weapon use further. “It’s as simple and shameful as that,” Haley said.
Russia initially vetoed a US-led resolution to extend the joint investigative mechanism (JIM)’s mandate by 12 months, and then a second resolution put forward by Japan to extend it by 30 days. After the second veto, the council met again at Sweden’s request to negotiate a temporary extension. Russia again declined. This left council members scrambling to formulate a new resolution, or find a way of extending the JIM without needing council approval.
Russia claims that the JIM itself is flawed, and needs to be altered before it will agree to any extension. Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that the JIM panel put forward “baseless accusations against Syria.” This came just a month after the JIM reported that the Syrian was responsible for the sarin gas attack on the rebel-held village of Khan Shaykhun in April 2017.
Images of the attack shocked the world. The UN report reveals that a Sukhoi 22 jet, the same kind flown by the Syrian air force, dropped four bombs at 6:45 am on April 4. Three carried explosives, while the fourth was full of the extremely potent nerve agent. The fourth bomb struck a road and released its contents which were carried by the wind for approximately 600 metres. The attack killed 74 villagers and wounded 557 others.
Though the use of chemical weapons is not new, it is widely considered an unconscionable act in the international community. Barack Obama said during his presidency that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” warranting US intervention. Following the sarin gas attack in April, US President Trump authorized missiles targeting a Syrian air base believed to have been used in the attack. Chemical weapons are clearly a step beyond traditional warfare, and sarin is particularly deadly.
First developed as a pesticide in Nazi Germany, it was quickly discovered that sarin could make a powerful weapon. Chlorine gas had been used by Germany in the First World War with such devastating effects that soldiers in subsequent battles were equipped with gas masks. However, the Nazi administration never used sarin, reportedly because they understood its horrible potential and feared a similar scale of retaliation.
Sarin is a nerve agent that alters the way that the human body responds to impulses from the brain. This means that any signals sent to the body via neurotransmitters do not expire once completed, but continue to be sent with horrifying frequency. Seconds after exposure, a victim’s muscles and secretions are out of their control. They might exhibit an uncontrollable runny nose, crying, drooling, vomiting, and defecation. A large exposure means paralysis and death within ten minutes. If victims are only mildly exposed, however, there are several antidotes available and they can make a full recovery.
This makes sarin less of a tool for military conquest and more for shocking and disturbing one’s opponents, not unlike the US use of atomic bombs in Japan in World War II. This was clearly the goal when the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own civilians in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017.
Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said chemical weapons are a sign of a regime with few military alternatives. Assad’s strategic success, especially through powerful allies like Russia, does not necessarily equate with military dominance on the ground. The regime has repeatedly resorted to bombing and starving civilians in rebel-held regions throughout the six-year conflict. The recent turn to chemical weapons, now proven with piles of damning evidence, is a marked escalation in the ongoing attacks on Syrian civilians.
From the start, Russia and Syria colluded to deny responsibility for the chemical weapon attacks. Assad claimed a bomb dropped by his air force hit a rebel-held store of chemical weapons. The JIM quickly disproved this theory, though ongoing investigation has now been blocked.
Despite clear blame, Assad has faced few if any repercussions for his use of chemical weapons prior to the most recent sarin gas attacks. Government forces used sarin gas in a Damascus suburb in 2013, and chlorine gas in several attacks since, with virtually no consequences. Some observers suggest this may have emboldened Assad to use sarin more extensively, as it is deadlier but much easier for investigators to detect. Russia’s recent veto marks another attempt to obstruct investigations against Assad, already implicated by the UN for war crimes.
The ongoing Syrian civil war has brought out the worst in UN Security Council regionalism and obstinance. Russia, itself guilty of human rights abuses and oligarchism within its borders, has backed its ally Syria at every turn. When it comes to geopolitical war, alliances are unavoidable. However, the chemical attacks in Syria are more about wounding civilians than obtaining strategic objectives. This extremely serious matter should not be susceptible to the same veto power as other Security Council measures. Instead, investigations like the one led by the JIM should be voted on by the UN General Assembly and proceed with a majority, regardless of a country’s powerful friendships.
Obama was right when he described the use of chemical weapons as a red line, an unforgivable offense. Once this line had been crossed, serious measures need to be taken to protect civilians from attackers, in this case their own government. This does not necessarily mean military intervention, but at least an unimpeded investigation with the potential to result in universally recognized and damaging punishments. The use of chemical weapons is such a gross violation of international law and humanitarian principles, even during a civil war, that the work of groups like the JIM needs to be immune from political allegiances.
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