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(New York) – The Russian and Chinese vetoes on May 22, 2014, of a UN Security Council resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) betray victims of serious crimes there. The resolution has broad international support and was approved by the other 13 Security Council members.

“Moscow and Beijing can veto a resolution but they can’t suppress the desire for justice by the Syrian people and the dozens of governments that stood for their rights,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “With the Syrian crisis entering a fourth year, atrocities raging on all sides, and the death toll skyrocketing well over 150,000, Russia and China’s vote for continued impunity is a disgrace.”

Syrian authorities and leaders of non-state armed groups have not taken any meaningful steps to ensure credible justice for past and ongoing grave human rights crimes. The failure to hold those responsible for these violations to account has only fueled further atrocities by all sides, Human Rights Watch said.

At least 60 countries from all regions stood on the side of victims by supporting the referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC. A referral would have given the court jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes, regardless of the Syrian side that perpetrated them.

On May 15, over 100 nongovernmental organizations from around the world issued a statement urging the Security Council to approve the French-proposed resolution. Broad support for the resolution from governments and nongovernmental groups alike reflects the widespread determination to achieve justice for serious crimes in Syria, Human Rights Watch said.

It was the fourth time that Russia and China had jointly vetoed resolutions on Syria since the crisis began in 2011. The Security Council has adopted two unanimous resolutions, one on the use of chemical weapons and the other designed to open up humanitarian access – though with little success so far. But neither included concrete provisions to ensure justice for the serious ongoing crimes in Syria.

The French-proposed resolution contained some flaws. As a concession to the United States, diplomats have reported, the text included a provision that would exempt the nationals of non-ICC states parties from the court’s jurisdiction should they participate in operations in Syria mandated by the UN Security Council. The draft resolution also imposed the entire financial burden of a Syria investigation on ICC states parties, barring any UN funding for prosecutions that result from a Security Council referral, and did not make cooperation for non-ICC member countries mandatory.

While ultimately supporting the resolution as a leap forward for justice in Syria, Human Rights Watch believed those provisions would have undermined the court’s ability to work effectively and risked creating a double standard in the application of justice.

Russia has in the past expressed objections to involving the ICC, as far back as January 15, 2013, describing efforts to seek a referral as “ill-timed and counterproductive.” The Russian UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the media in two recent statements that Russia’s position had not changed and that the bid to involve the court was, in Russia’s view, not a “good idea.” China had publicly remained silent on an ICC referral leading up to the May 22, 2014 vote. Neither Russia nor China has proposed any credible mechanism to ensure accountability for victims of grave abuses in Syria.

Over the last three years, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented abuses by government and pro-government forces and concluded that they have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. The government is carrying out indiscriminate air and artillery attacks, hitting civilian areas, and arbitrarily detaining, torturing, and extra-judicially executing civilians and combatants. Human Rights Watch has also documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by many non-state armed groups, including the use of car bombs to target civilians, indiscriminate use of mortars, kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial executions.

The latest report from the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry, published on March 5, found that fighting parties from all sides were committing crimes considered serious under international law and held that the Security Council was failing to take action to end the impunity. The commission, which has published seven in-depth reports since its establishment in August 2011, recommended that the Security Council give the ICC a mandate to investigate abuses in Syria.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has, on multiple occasions, recommended that the Security Council refer the situation to the ICC, most recently during a briefing with the Security Council on April 8, 2014.

Despite the double veto, the May 22 Security Council vote is the beginning, and not the end, of a determined push to bring justice to victims in Syria, Human Rights Watch said. Going forward, the need for accountability in Syria will be no less pressing or vital. Governments that supported the effort to seek an ICC referral should remain committed to seeking justice for victims in Syria, whether in the Security Council, UN General Assembly, UN Human Rights Council, or through other avenues including the use of universal jurisdiction, Human Rights Watch said.

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. As a result, the ICC can only obtain jurisdiction over crimes there if the Security Council refers the situation in Syria to the court, or Syria voluntarily accepts ICC jurisdiction. The Security Council has made similar referrals twice, for the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005, with Russia supporting and China abstaining, and for Libya in 2011, with both Russia and China supporting.

“Russia and China stand increasingly isolated in their heartless insistence on continued impunity for mass atrocities in Syria,” Dicker said. “The movement for justice in Syria is stronger than ever and the crimes are far too horrendous to be swept under the rug with a veto.”

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