The UN General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution condemning Syria's violent crackdown, following an impassioned speech by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in which he said "the conflict in Syria is a test of everything this organization stands for."
The resolution was adopted 133-12, CBC's Melissa Kent reported from the United Nations in New York. There were 31 abstentions.
Friday's vote came after the more powerful Security Council had been deadlocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes on resolutions that would open the door to sanctions on Syria.
General Assembly resolutions are unenforceable, but can carry moral weight. The resolution says "the first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities."
The General Assembly resolution's Arab sponsors this week weakened two key provisions — a demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign and a call for other nations to place sanctions on Syria over its civil war. Russia and China had objected to those provisions, and also voted no on Friday.
The UN secretary general said before the vote that "the conflict in Syria is a test of everything this organization stands for. I do not want today’s United Nations to fail that test. "
The resolution condemns attacks on civilians, including children, by the Syrian government, military intelligence services and militias, as well as "killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill treatment, including sexual violence, and use as human shields."
Addressing the General Assembly, Ban said "we are all witnesses to the horrors of Syria being ripped apart by violence.
"As we meet here, Aleppo, one of the most ancient and storied cities in the world … is the epicentre of a vicious battle between the Syrian government and those who wish to replace it.
"The acts of brutality that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes. Such acts must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account."
The resolution condemns the increasing Syrian military reliance on heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters, and "failure to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons to their barracks" in line with proposals from Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria.
The resolution backs Annan's "demand that the first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities."
Ban noted that after the horrors of Srebrenica, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the genocide in Rwanda, world powers and the UN developed the concept of responsibility to protect.
"All of us have a responsibility to the people of Syria. We must use all of the peaceful means in the UN Charter to help them unite around a Syrian-led transition process that is based on dialogue and compromise, not bullets and arrests."
The resolution expresses "grave concern" over the "continued widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and the continued use of heavy weapons by the Syrian authorities against the Syrian population," as well as the threat by Syrian authorities to use chemical or biological weapons.
Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja'afari reacted angrily to the resolution, calling its main sponsors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, "despotic oligarchies." The vote was a "piece of theatre," Ja'afari said.
Resolution weakened before vote
The vote came a day after Annan announced he would not seek to renew his post. Annan, a former UN secretary general, said Thursday that he accepted the assignment when it was offered several months ago because he believed he had a duty to help Syrians find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
"Yet the bloodshed continues, most of all because of the Syrian government’s intransigence and continuing refusal to implement the six-point plan, and also because of the escalating military campaign of the opposition — all of which is compounded by the disunity of the international community," said Annan.
The revised resolution still demands that the Syrian army stop its shelling and helicopter attacks and withdraw to its barracks. It also takes a swipe at Russia and China by "deploring the Security Council failure" to act.
Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, had said beforehand that Moscow would vote against the resolution.
"Those same countries who are pushing this resolution most actively are the countries who are providing weapons to the armed opposition groups," he said. "This is unfortunately the tragedy of the matter, and something which made Kofi Annan's mission so difficult."
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Many Western diplomats have a different interpretation — they blame Russia and China for blocking resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Syrian authorities to comply with Annan's six-point peace plan.
"You know you look at the TV, you see what is happening in Aleppo. You look at what is happening in Syria. And we are bumping again and again into the same wall of Russia and China, and frankly it's a pity," said Gérard Araud, France's ambassador to the UN and current president of the Security Council.
Speaking in Sudbury, Ont., Friday, Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird said that "the government in Moscow [has] enabled and allowed Assad to soldier on in a war against his own people and it's deeply disturbing."
Baird said that Canada has "some of the toughest sanctions in the world against [Syrian] banks and designated persons, basically shutting down most activity from the Canadian side, economic activity from the Canadian site with the Assad regime. Obviously the United States and much of Europe and even the Arab League have brought in similar sanctions, but while they're certainly beginning to have a significant impact on the economy, they're not as strong as they could be if there was UN Security Council sanctions like they were in Libya."
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said after the vote that a reference in the resolution did amount to a demand for Assad leaving power: "Importantly, the resolution also welcomes the Arab League's July 22 decision, which calls for Assad to step down and for a transitional government to be formed."
No veto power
Today's vote at the UN General Assembly was non-binding, unlike votes at the Security Council. But unlike the council, no country had the power to veto the resolution.
Annan, who had previously developed a six-point plan to try to deal with the conflict, also took aim at the Security Council on Thursday, saying there continues to be "finger-pointing and name-calling" there at a time when Syrians need action.
Another likely victim of the Security Council bottleneck is the group of UN military observers that have been monitoring the spiralling violence in Syria, and reporting back to UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous at UN headquarters. The mission is in the midst of a 30-day extension of its mandate, which expires on Aug. 19.
Extending it would require passage of another resolution in the Security Council — and no Russian or Chinese veto. It is already being cut back, from its original authorized strength of 300 to currently 115 monitors and 80 civilians.
"There will be no agreement, I think," Araud said. "It is clear that the mission will disappear by Aug. 19."
Ladsous tried to sound optimistic as he left the Security Council briefing Thursday: "We have another 17 days to see whether something happens that will change the situation."
The UN doesn't have exact figures, but it estimates more than 10,000 people — mostly civilians — have been killed since an uprising against Assad's regime began roughly 17 months ago.
This week has seen clashes in Aleppo, the country's commercial hub in the north, as well as near the capital, Damascus.
Although the draft resolution largely focuses on the regime's violence, rebel forces have also been blasted for their tactics after videos surfaced that apparently show opposition forces executing the people they captured.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the tactics were "abhorrent and inconsistent with the type of struggle for freedom and a new Syria that the broad opposition is looking for."
Ban on Thursday urged restraint on all sides, saying both government and the opposition forces "continue to demonstrate their determination to rely on ever-increasing violence."