Yesterday at the UN a unanimous resolution was passed by the UN security council condemning violence, including the use of heavy weapons such as tanks, against demonstrators, and referring Colonel Gaddafi and his government to the International Criminal Court for investigation for war crimes under Chapter 7 of the UN charter. The chief prosecutor of the ICC had this to say about charges that may be brought as a result of this resolution:
"If people were on the square and they were attacked by soldiers, tanks or aeroplanes, in a widespread and systematic way, it's a crime against humanity."
That such a measure could be passed by a UN security council of which both China and Russia are permanent members, when both of these countries have seen the use of heavy weapons to suppress uprisings in their own countries within the last quarter century, is somewhat surprising. Whilst neither Medvedev or Putin took part in the shelling of the Russian parliament in 1993, the Chinese government still contains several people who were involved in the incidents in Beijing in 1989, most notably Wen Jiabao.
Even more surprising is that the members of the council should vote unanimously to refer Gaddafi to the ICC when three of the permanent UN security council members (China, the United States, and Russia) do not even recognise the jurisdiction of that court. For all three of these countries, recognition of the ICC's jurisdiction when the treaty establishing it originally came into force (i.e., the 1st of July, 2002) would have meant prominent figures in the military and the government would have been put on trial for war crimes committed during the intervening years. Particularly convenient, of course, was the United States signing of the treaty and then subsequent withdrawal from it before ratification during the Bush administration.
In the specific case of China, there is a long history of abstaining from voting in such resolutions. In the case of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, China abstained both from the original votes sanctioning Libya for involvement in the bombing, and a subsequent vote sanctioning Libya for failure to comply with the first two resolutions. Whilst China did vote to impose sanctions on Milosevic's Yugoslavia in the wake of the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war, and also voted to establish a war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia, it abstained from voting in many of the subsequent resolutions on the Bosnian and Kosovo issues.
On the resolution on establishing a court for war crimes committed during the ethnic strife in Rwanda, the Chinese also abstained, ostensibly because they believed the Rwandan genocide to be strictly an internal matter. A similar approach was taken to the war in Darfur, with China joining the US (which abstained out of opposition to the jurisdiction of the ICC) in abstaining from a vote referring the violence there to the ICC.
Does this, then, signal a switch away from Beijing's previous position that the violent repression of one group by another within the borders of a country is an internal matter for that country? It seems much more likely that this is an example of score-settling by China for the numerous slights that the Gaddafi regime has inflicted on them in recent years, as well as, perhaps, some concern as to what could possibly have happened to the 30,000 Chinese citizens living and working in Libya at the outbreak of the revolt had they been caught in the cross-fire.
Even if this is a mere act of score settling, though, it will act as a definite precedent for any future crisis in which a dictatorship wishes to suppress revolt by unleashing military firepower upon its own people. A precedent which China has explicitly supported.
[Picture: A screen-grab from a BBC report from Tiananmen square on the night of the massacre, showing an APC driving across the square under attack from demonstrators hurling stones. The APC was later destroyed. You can see the entire report here.]