Russia has blocked a UN resolution that would have established a 30-day ceasefire and humanitarian deliveries in eastern Ghouta, saying that widespread reporting of heavy civilian casualties in the besieged area on the edge of the Syrian capital, Damascus, was a product of “mass psychosis”.
The Russian envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, told an emergency meeting of the security council on the situation in eastern Ghouta that Russia would not support the ceasefire resolution put forward by Sweden and Kuwait in its present form, calling it unrealistic.
He circulated a list of proposed Russian amendments, thought to involve opening broad loopholes in the ceasefire, allowing a range of rebel groups to be targeted. A western diplomat said that at first glance the Russian amendments were “likely to be unacceptable”. Diplomats said the resolution could go to a vote on Friday.
Moscow has vetoed 10 previous UN resolutions on Syria and has consistently used its permanent seat on the security council to shield the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, from concerted UN action on war crimes. In November, Russia used its veto to block a resumption of UN investigations into the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces.
The ceasefire resolution put forward by Sweden and Kuwait was first circulated in the security council on 9 February but its drafting had been slowed by Russian objections, while in Syria, the Assad regime and its allies pursued its offensive in eastern Ghouta.
On Thursday, Nebenzia made clear that Russian support for Assad would continue, and portrayed the accounts and video footage of heavy civilian casualties in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta as fake news.
“The mass psychosis in global media outlets acting in coordination, disseminating the same rumours in recent days, in no way does anything to help improve understanding of this situation,” Nebenzia told the council session that Russia had called.
What is the UN security council and why is it paralysed over Syria?
The security council is the UN’s most powerful body, the only one with the authority to issue legally binding resolutions that can be backed up by sanctions, blue-helmeted peacekeepers or by force of arms.
There are five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and 10 temporary members at any one time, elected by the general assembly for two-year terms.
For a resolution to be passed, nine of the 15 council members must vote for it, but permanent members have a veto. Russia has repeatedly blocked resolutions targeting its ally, Syria. China has also vetoed resolutions on Syria.
One possible remedy is to expand the security council and its permanent membership, but the existing members have mixed feelings. The UK and France say they are in favour, the US and Russia are more tepid and China is against it.
Another possible remedy involves reining in the use of the veto. France and others argue an immediate fix would be for permanent members to waive their veto rights in cases of mass atrocities, but Russia is adamant in its opposition.
Before the Russian envoy spoke, the council heard a report from the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, who said 50 civilians had been reported as killed and 200 wounded in heavy shelling in the 24 hours before the session.
He said humanitarian deliveries to besieged populations in Syria were sharply down this year. Convoys were reaching 22,000 trapped people a month in the past three months compared with an average in 2017 of 175,000 a month.
In a video link from Geneva, Lowcock read out messages from trapped civilians who were under fire, appealing for help from the international community. “You’re all as member states aware that your obligations under international humanitarian law are just that. They are binding obligations. They are not favours to be traded in a game of death and destruction,” he said.
“Humanitarian access is not a ‘nice-to-have’. It is a legal requirement,” Lowcock said. “Counter-terrorist efforts cannot supersede the obligation to respect and protect civilians. They do not justify the killings of civilians and the destruction of entire cities and neighbourhoods.”
Lowcock said seven civilian hospitals and clinics had been targeted with bombardment on Wednesday alone.
Nebenzia replied that the reports that Syrian forces and their backers were bombing health facilities were “a well-known tactic in information warfare”.
He said it was “fully clear” that fighters based themselves in medical and educational facilities. “However, this is an inconvenient truth that is not being disseminated,” he said. The Russian envoy said there were “several thousand fighters that have not yet been vanquished” in Ghouta.
Other security council envoys rejected the Russian suggestion that the bombing of civilians in eastern Ghouta was necessary for counter-terrorism.
“It is simply preposterous to claim that these attacks on civilians have anything to do with fighting terrorism,” the US envoy, Nikki Haley, said.
Speaking for the UK, senior diplomat Stephen Hickey said: “The people of eastern Ghouta are not terrorists.” Hickey added that the al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, had only a small presence, representing “less than a quarter of 1%” of the district’s population.
“Nothing can justify the barbaric bombardment we’ve seen in recent days, or the blocking of humanitarian aid, or the denial of medical evacuations,” Hickey said.
Before the vote, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, denounced the mass killing of civilians in eastern Ghouta.
“What we currently see, the dreadful events in Syria, a regime fighting not against terrorists, but against its own people, the killing of children, the destruction of hospitals – all this is a massacre which needs to be condemned,” Merkel told Germany’s parliament.
The chancellor said her government would talk to Moscow and would “do everything that is within our power so that this massacre comes to an end”.