The United Nations Security Council meets in New York on January 31, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

Will history repeat itself at the United Nations (UN) Security Council? The last time South Africa was called to vote on a resolution on Syria, on October 4 last year, it chose to abstain, along with India and Brazil.

By doing so, the South African government empowered Russia and China to veto a draft resolution that was designed to pressure the Syrian government into ending the violence against its own people. At that stage, the civilian toll in Syria was, according to the UN, almost 2700 dead, which included many children and women.

Four months later, the death toll has more than doubled — the latest UN report was 5400 dead, but as the country descends into chaos, the UN said it could not keep track of the deaths any more.

We’ll never know how events might have unfolded and how many lives might have been spared had the Security Council sent a strong, united message in October. It is still not too late for the council to speak out on this crisis.

Once again, Russia has taken the lead in blocking Security Council action on Syria. This time, Moscow is opposing a strong resolution tabled by Morocco in support of an Arab League initiative aimed at ending the violence.

The draft resolution does not mention sanctions, nor any reference to the use of force, yet Moscow is stoking fears that this would lead to a Libya-style intervention.

Russia knows this resonates with South Africa, which has invoked the spectre of the use of force in Syria and warned of possible "hidden agendas."

But Russia might have its own "hidden agendas" in Syria. It seems bent on protecting its alliance with the Syrian government, which has long been a trading partner in the region.

Last week, a Russian newspaper revealed that Moscow had just signed a $500m contract to deliver 36 Yak-130 combat jets to Syria.

Earlier, a Russian ship allegedly full of ammunition made a dash for Syria after lying about its destination to Cypriot officials trying to enforce a European Union (EU) arms embargo against Damascus. The ship reached Tartus in Syria, Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet empire, providing a tangible sign of Russia’s support for the Syrian government.

Russia, which often claims in the Security Council to take its cues from regional organisations, has consistently undermined the efforts of the Arab League to end the violence in Syria.

When the league suspended Syria in November for reneging on its promise to stop the killing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the move "incorrect" and "pre planned."

He again criticised the Arab League this past weekend over the decision to suspend its monitoring mission in Syria.

South Africa has argued that the West misused the UN resolution on Libya, going beyond its purpose of protecting civilians to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and says it fears similar overreach in Syria.

Yet the resolution at the Security Council provides absolutely no authorisation for military intervention in Syria.

If South African diplomats are suspicious of spin by western powers, they could listen to Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights chief, who denounced the "ruthless repression" threatening to "plunge Syria into civil war" when she urged the Security Council to take action in December. The renowned South African judge said crimes against humanity had been committed in Syria and pleaded with the international community to take "urgent, effective measures in a collective and decisive manner to protect Syrians."

Pillay warned that "inaction by the international community will embolden Syrian authorities."

She was right.

South Africa did not listen, so it is once again faced with a historic choice.

Will it settle political scores with the West at the expense of the Syrian people? Will it hide in the shadow of Russia, which is arming and supporting the Syrian repression machine?

Or will it join the efforts of the Arab League and democratic countries trying to peacefully end the bloodshed?

We can only hope South Africa will do the right thing this time and support the Security Council efforts to protect the Syrian people. Let’s not wait for the death toll to double again.

Bekele is the executive director Africa and Bolopion is UN director at Human Rights Watch.