On February 28, Russia and China vetoed their first United Nations Security Council resolution during the Trump administration—torpedoing a British-, French-, and U.S.-led effort to impose targeted sanctions in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The decision to put the resolution to a vote despite Russia’s veto threat illustrated not only the practical obstacles to broadening cooperation with Russia over Syria, but also the challenges to achieving accountability for the Syrian regime’s continuing chemical weapons attacks.
Since the Joint Investigative Mechanism implemented by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons attributed responsibility for three chemical weapons attacks to the Syrian armed forces (and one to the Islamic State) in two reports last year, many have rightly called for those involved to be held accountable. The proposed Security Council resolution (UN document S/2017/172) would have been a big step in the right direction, sanctioning 21 Syrian regime-related individuals and entities associated with chemical weapons—including the commander and deputy commander of Syria’s 63rd Helicopter Brigade, which the Joint Investigative Mechanism linked to the airbases from which chemical strikes were launched. Specifically, the resolution would have required all UN member states to freeze the targets’ assets, prevent future transfers of assets to them, and deny the targets entry into their territory—the same sanctions to which the Islamic State is already subject.
If the resolution had been adopted, it would have sent a message more powerful than the sanctions themselves: that using chemical weapons is so far beyond the pale that it could forge unity among Security Council members otherwise so sharply divided over Syria. But because of the veto, the vote instead risks sending the opposite message: that having an ally among the five permanent members of the Security Council guarantees impunity, even for using chemical weapons.
So did this Security Council vote promote accountability or impunity? At the very least, the targets can no longer live in anonymity. In the words of the former U.S. permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, these individuals are now infamous. But whether they face more tangible consequences depends on what happens next.
If the Security Council vote is the prelude to national sanctions designations on the same targets by a range of countries, the answer will be accountability. The United States has already sanctioned all of the resolution’s targets; most have already been sanctioned by the European Union as well. But will other countries with major stakes in international non-proliferation norms—such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Ukraine, and the Gulf states—step up to impose their own sanctions? How about potential travel destinations and asset havens such as Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand?
Designations by these countries would send a powerful message that responsible members of the international community will not allow a veto to guarantee impunity. The international community’s silence would send an equally powerful, albeit contrary, message.
Of course, such designations require a legal framework to enable them, in addition to the political will to make them. For countries that currently lack such a framework for imposing sanctions in the absence of Security Council action, this episode demonstrates the importance of working in advance to build one. And for those such as the United States, with well-developed sanctions systems, it demonstrates the importance of encouraging and assisting them to do so.
More generally, though, the situation demonstrates the utility but also the limits of targeted sanctions as an accountability tool for chemical weapons attacks. The proposed UN asset freeze and travel ban were sensible interim steps—to shine a spotlight and impose consequences on those involved in order to deter others from conducting similar attacks, and to impede future attacks by obstructing the targets’ ability to operate internationally. That is why it was responsible and right to try to impose these sanctions through a political body such as the Security Council, even though it lacks the judicial protections of a criminal prosecution and the opportunity for judicial review (which accompanies domestic designations in the United States and the European Union).
In the short term, the urgency of impeding further attacks outweighs the benefits of a judicial process. This is why Security Council member Ethiopia was unpersuasive when, defending its abstention on the resolution in the Security Council debate, it argued that the Joint Investigative Mechanism used a low standard of evidence (“sufficient information to reach a conclusion”). This was a valid point with respect to a punitive criminal proceeding (where the U.S. legal tradition demands proof beyond a reasonable doubt), but not for imposing sanctions, where all that was necessary were reasonable grounds for believing that the targets were involved in the attacks.
But in the long term, for war crimes such as these, targeted sanctions are not a substitute for genuine and impartial criminal investigations—because both accountability for the attacks and justice for the victims demand a judicial process that can impose a commensurate punishment. Unfortunately, despite extensive consideration, there are few realistic options for such investigations at this time. In 2014 Russia and China vetoed the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and it would be laughable to trust the current Syrian government to investigate itself. An ad hoc international tribunal remains an option, as does extraterritorial jurisdiction by concerned countries, or, far in the future, a genuine investigation by a different Syrian government. (The UN General Assembly took a useful step to support such efforts in December 2016, when it decided to establish a mechanism to assist in prosecutions of war crimes in Syria by collecting, analyzing, and preserving evidence.)
So if the February 28 vote leads to broad multilateral sanctions pending an eventual criminal investigation, it should be seen as an important step forward for accountability. But if no further action is forthcoming, the vote may come to be seen as a monument to impunity.
The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, who is on leave from the State Department, and do not necessarily represent the position of the United States government or the State Department.