By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia and China vetoed on Thursday a resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the country's three-year civil war.
This was the fourth time Russia - a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government - and China have blocked U.N. Security Council action on Syria during the three-year civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said the victims of the conflict "deserve to have history record those who stood with them and those who were willing to raise their hands to deny them a chance at justice."
"Our grandchildren will ask us years from now how we could have failed to bring justice to people living in hell on earth," Power told the council after the vote.
There were more than 60 co-sponsors of the French-drafted resolution, diplomats said. The resolution was put to a vote with the knowledge that it would be vetoed. The remaining 13 members of the council voted in favor of the resolution.
"If members of the council continue to be unable to agree on a measure that could provide some accountability for the ongoing crimes, the credibility of this body and of the entire organization will continue to suffer," U.N. Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told the council on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The ICC prosecutor cannot investigate the situation in Syria without a referral from the 15-member Security Council because Damascus is not a member of the Rome Statute that established The Hague-based court a decade ago. The Security Council has previously referred Libya and Darfur, Sudan to the ICC.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin questioned why the resolution was put to a vote when it would again expose disunity in the council, which had previously been able to agree on resolutions on the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and demanding greater humanitarian aid access in the country.
"The draft resolution rejected today reveals an attempt to use the ICC to further inflame political passions and lay the groundwork in the end for eventual outside military intervention," Churkin told the council.
"We're convinced that justice in Syria will eventually prevail. Those guilty of perpetrating grave crimes will be punished but in order for this to happen peace is first needed," Churkin said.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud dismissed Churkin's explanation. "It's a very sad day," he said. "Russia has not explained really well why it was opposing this referral."
Chinese Deputy Ambassador Wang Min defended China's veto, saying Beijing has long had reservations about the council referring conflicts to the International Criminal Court. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei echoed that statement.
"The Security Council submitting the Syria issue to the International Criminal Court will only make the situation even more complex and the problem even more difficult to solve," Hong said in a briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
"Ultimately, those suffering are the people of Syria and other countries in the region."
Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite called the double veto "an endorsement of impunity." Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan warned of the cost of the deadlock: "When we fail, as we have again on Syria today, the consequences can be devastating."
Rwanda, which has been one of the fiercest critics of the ICC and international war crimes tribunals, voted in favor, saying the Security Council cannot be inured to mass atrocities of the kind the Rwandans faced in the 1994 genocide.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the council the resolution was a bid to undermine a June 3 presidential poll.
EVIDENCE OF CRIMES
U.N. investigators said in March they had expanded their list of suspected war criminals from both sides in the civil war and that the evidence was solid enough to prepare any court indictment.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay told the Security Council last month that human rights violations by Syrian government forces "far outweigh" those by armed opposition groups.
British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told the council: "The perpetrators of appalling crimes in Syria may be able to hide behind Russian and Chinese vetoes for now, but they will not be able to evade justice forever."
Ja'afari said the Syrian government had established a national committee at the beginning of the crisis to investigate all crimes perpetrated.
"This confirms the desire and the ability of the Syrian Government to achieve justice and denies any pretext to involve any international judicial body that conflicts with the national judiciary's powers," Ja'afari told the council.
Although the United States is not a party to the ICC, it agreed to support the draft resolution after ensuring that Israel would be protected from any possible prosecution at the International Criminal Court related to its occupation of the Golan Heights in Syria, U.N. diplomats said.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed the strategic plateau in a move the world has not recognized. Syrian troops are not allowed in an area of separation - monitored by U.N. peacekeepers - under a 1973 ceasefire formalized in 1974.
Eleven countries on the Security Council are members of the International Criminal Court. Like the United States, Russia, China and Rwanda are not.
(Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid and Paul Tait)