Russia vetoes UN resolution to condemn Syria chemical attack

Russia vetoed a UN resolution Wednesday that would have condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in a town in northern Syria.

Canada's foreign affairs minister urges Russia to condemn 'heinous and illegal use of chemical weapons'

Russian deputy UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov shows his hand to vote against a resolution on Wednesday condemning Syria's use of chemical weapons. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

Russia vetoed a UN resolution Wednesday that would have condemned the reported use of chemical weapons in a town in northern Syria and demanded a speedy investigation, triggering clashes between Moscow and the measure's Western backers. 

The vote on the Security Council resolution drafted by Britain, France and the United States was 10 in favour, Russia and Bolivia against, and China, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia abstaining. 

This systematic obstruction at the UN callously ignores the suffering of Syrians and prevents the perpetrators of these horrifying atrocities from being held accountable.- Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland

It was the eighth veto by Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on a Western-backed Syria resolution and reflected the deep division that has left the UN's most powerful body struggling to tackle the use of banned chemical weapons and to help end the six-year Syrian conflict. China has vetoed six of the resolutions. 

Russia's UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council before the vote that a resolution was unnecessary, and the draft put forward by the Western powers prejudged that the Syrian government was responsible for the April 4 attack on Khan Sheikhoun in which nearly 90 people died. 

Safronkov said Russia's foreign minister asked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during talks earlier Wednesday in Moscow to jointly request the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "to immediately put together an independent international mission" to visit Khan Sheikhoun and the airbase that the U.S. attacked in retaliation.

Tillerson is considering the request, he said, "and we expect that Washington will have a constructive reaction."

Russia has criticized previous investigations carried out by the OPCW and the United Nations which blamed the Syrian government for at least three chemical weapons attacks without visiting the sites. Safronkov reiterated Wednesday that an investigation cannot be conducted remotely and experts must be drawn from a wide geographical basis.

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun is expected to be near the top of the agenda when the OPCW's executive committee meets Thursday at the organization's headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. 

Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland issued a statement Wednesday saying Canada "deplored" Russia's veto.

"This systematic obstruction at the UN callously ignores the suffering of Syrians and prevents the perpetrators of these horrifying atrocities from being held accountable."

She thanked all the countries who voted in favour of the resolution, as well as those that abstained.

"Canada urges Russia and Iran, as supporters of the Assad regime, to join with the international community in condemning this heinous and illegal use of chemical weapons," Freeland said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday that Canada 'deplored' Russia's veto of the resolution. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

'New depths of horror'

Following the vote, Britain's UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft looked at Safronkov and asked: "How could anyone look at the faces of lifeless children" and yet veto this resolution? "We will hold the regime to account ... [and] seek justice for all victims," he said.

France's UN Ambassador François Delattre said "with this attack, the Syrian regime has plumbed new depths of horror."

Safronkov called the U.S. strikes on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Khan Sheikhoun attack a "violation of international norms," but Delattre said they were "a legitimate response to a mass crime which could not go unpunished."

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council: "We want to work with Russia to advance a political process in Syria. We want Russia to use its influence over the Assad regime to stop the madness and the cruelty we see every day on the ground.

"Today's vote could have been a turning point," she said. But "with its veto, Russia said no to accountability.… Russia now has a lot to prove."

Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the government is "keen as ever to uncover the real criminal responsible for the use of chemical in Syria," but he told the council the resolution wasn't going to do that because its objective "is to violate Syrian sovereignty."

Ja'afari accused the three Western powers of launching a "terrorist war against my country for six years" and said the Security Council should have condemned the American attacks against Syria rather than consider a draft resolution "to accuse the Syrian government of doing something that it did not do."

China typically sides with Russia in the Security Council, including in opposing U.S.-backed measures to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons. So China's decision to abstain rather than join Russia in vetoing the resolution at this time was a significant shift for Beijing.