The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Friday to condemn the Syrian government’s latest attacks on its rebellious citizens, and criticized big powers on the Security Council for failing to take more decisive action to halt the escalating civil war.
The resolution was mostly symbolic because the General Assembly lacks the authority to enforce its decisions by deploying peacekeepers or ordering sanctions. Those powers reside with the Security Council.
But the 133-12 vote, with 31 abstentions, sent a message to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad that the world body sees his crackdown on opponents as a violation of Syrians’ rights and potentially the basis for war-crimes charges.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told diplomats before the vote that the conflict in Syria “is a test of everything the United Nations stands for.”
“The acts of brutality that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes,” Ban said, referring to the latest outbreak of violence around Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. He said the events there would be investigated, and those responsible “held to account.”
The resolution as originally proposed by a group of Arab states called for Assad to step down and for member nations to impose unilateral sanctions on the Syrian government. Those provisions were removed at the insistence of China and Russia, the two permanent Security Council members that have thwarted punitive action against Assad throughout the more than 16-month uprising.
The General Assembly indirectly chastised Moscow and Beijing for putting their own economic and political interests ahead of the mission to bring about peace. The resolution included a statement “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions.”
The wording was a clear blast at Russia and China for vetoing proposed sanctions on the government in Damascus and obstructing the Security Council’s efforts to press for Assad’s departure. Russia and China were among those who voted against the condemnation.
The resolution cited excesses by Syrian government troops in “killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence and use as human shields.”
The diplomats’ action also demanded that the Syrian government take the first step to end the violence by withdrawing heavy weaponry, ordering troops back to their barracks and locking down the nation’s supplies of chemical and biological weapons.