US Ambassador Nikki Haley and Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia traded verbal jabs Tuesday over the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The two ambassadors gave back-to-back speeches at a hastily called meeting of the UN Security Council, a day after reports emerged that chemical weapons were used in the besieged Syrian town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta.
More than 20 civilians, most of them children, were victims of the “apparent chlorine gas attack,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Paris Tuesday.
“Russia is running from the facts,” Haley said, accusing Assad’s regime of being behind the gas attack, and Russia, Assad’s ally, of failing to stop it.
“We know that for years Russia has looked the other way while their Syrian friends use these despicable weapons of war,” she said. “Russia is complicit in the Assad regime’s atrocities. Will the Russian Federation say anything at all today about the suffering caused by Assad’s barbaric tactics? Will they hold Assad to account? Of course not. They never do.”
Nebenzia said the United States and others were falsely linking Russia and Assad’s government to the use of chlorine gas.
The reports of the gas attack were uncorroborated, he said, asserting that it’s a strange coincidence that the attack is said to have occurred just before 29 nations were set to meet in Paris to discuss ways of preserving evidence of chemical weapons attacks and holding those behind them responsible. Haley had her arms folded throughout the Russian ambassador’s remarks.
Haley criticized Russia’s “audacity” in lecturing the Security Council on chemical weapons, after it vetoed, three times, the UN mechanism to determine who committed chemical weapons attacks. That mechanism was already working in the view of the United States and its allies, Haley said.
Russia said it has a proposal for a new mechanism to investigate chemical weapons use, but Haley scoffed at the idea and told the Council that anything less than the UN’s previous chemical weapons investigative system was “unacceptable.”
“We’re not going to accept any Russian proposal that undermines our ability to get to the truth or that politicizes what must be an independent and impartial investigation,” she said.
Russia’s ambassador had smiled at the start of the meeting and apologized for interrupting everyone’s lunch and “siesta.” Haley complained that the meeting, requested by Russia, was called with “no notice.”
At the end of the session, after Haley had left the room, the Russian UN Ambassador asked for the floor to clarify some remarks. He said he was sorry “his friend” Nikki Haley had left the room, but that he is always “pleased to see her.”
Nebenzia then accused the United States and other allies of being both “judge and accuser” on chemical weapons use in Syria.
He accused the United States of making premature accusations without an independent investigation. For months, the United States, United Kingdom and others have said Russia uses this tactic to distract from the real issue of chemical weapons use against civilians to support the Assad regime.
“Why do you need an investigative mechanism when even yesterday and today, prior to any investigation being conducted, you’re alleging without any doubts that this is something which was done by the Syrian government?” he said. “Do you understand that you are betraying yourselves this way?”
Tillerson in Paris said that, whoever conducted the attacks, “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in eastwern Ghota and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria.”
Bolivia’s UN Ambassador said he expected a new Security Council resolution by Friday on investigating chemical weapons.
UK Deputy Ambassador Jonathan Allen told the Council he has seen the text and “it seems from my rapid reading of the latest text that this proposal is another attempt to shift attention onto non-state actors.”
Previous investigations into chemical weapons use primarily blamed the Syrian government, though ISIS was also deemed responsible for one attack.