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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Russian and Chinese "double veto" of a U.N. resolution condemning Syria highlights the power of a small club of emerging-market nations -- and the extent to which Libya still divides the U.N. Security Council.
But for a U.N. body that has been more often divided and incapable of acting during its six-decade history, some diplomats say the Syria vote is business as usual as Russia, China and their allies on the council try to curb U.S. and European enthusiasm for some of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Permanent council members Russia and China, backed by abstentions from Brazil, India and South Africa, used their veto power on Tuesday to block a European-drafted resolution that called for an end to Syria's six-month crackdown on pro-democracy protests, hinting at sanctions if it continued.
Western diplomats who supported the Syria resolution expressed frustration at the five "BRICS" emerging nations, which they say are increasingly obstructive. One envoy said that by abstaining from the Syria vote, Brazil, India and South Africa "have nailed their colors firmly to the fence."
Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch in New York agreed with that view, saying the three powerful developing nations had provided Russia and China the cover they needed to veto the resolution without much fallout.
"The cost of the veto would have been higher if those three hadn't abstained," he said.
BRICS diplomats disagreed. "The Europeans and Americans don't like the fact that we consistently raise legitimate concerns about the possibility that we could be opening the door again to regime change," a BRICS diplomat told Reuters.
France, in cooperation with Britain, Germany and Portugal, worked hard to secure the BRICS' support. They repeatedly revised the draft text on Syria, watering it down so much that the word "sanctions" had vanished. But it was not enough.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin made clear in his speech to the 15-nation Security Council that his veto was not because of the wording but due to "a conflict of political approaches" between Russia and the European council members.
He repeatedly referred to the NATO military intervention in Libya that led to the ouster of leader Muammar Gaddafi, an operation that Russia and the other BRICS nations have harshly criticized as overstepping the Security Council mandate to protect civilians in the North African oil-producing state.
Churkin said Moscow opposed sanctions and worried that passing the European resolution against Syria could have opened the door to a Libya-style military intervention there.
Churkin's views were echoed by the other BRICS, which envoys say has been a powerful bloc on the council this year.
David Bosco, a professor at American University in Washington, said the veto partly "reflects continuing frustration on the part of the BRICS about the way the Libya operation played out."
He said it was also "the product of longstanding differences over human rights and national sovereignty."
Russia and China, whose rights records Western governments have often criticized, traditionally have a higher tolerance for other governments they accuse of rampant human rights abuses.
The two have consistently opposed intervention in North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar and Iran, states that have close ties to Russia or China -- or both -- and are often the target of Western governments and human rights groups.
Opposition to foreign intervention and the idea that countries have a "responsibility to protect" civilians around the world has become a mantra for the BRICS, envoys say.
But 2011 did not begin that way. Early in the year, the council approved several resolutions that granted unusually sweeping authorizations for the use of "all necessary measures" -- diplomatic code for force -- in Libya and Ivory Coast.
In both cases a long-serving leader was ousted.
Although they did not actively oppose intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast, the BRICS criticized the military actions in both countries. They began blocking attempts to ease sanctions on Libya to help the anti-Gaddafi rebels and resisted a Western push to condemn the governments of Syria and Yemen.
Russian and Chinese double vetoes are not common. The last time Russia and China jointly vetoed a council resolution was in 2008, when they teamed up with South Africa and voted down a resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe.
Analysts say Russia, which U.N. diplomats said was the strongest opponent of the Syria resolution, sent a warning that Moscow will not be pushed around when it sees its interests threatened by the United States and Europe.
Russia has strong business and defense ties to Syria, which diplomats said it would be reluctant to abandon. That, they say, is one of the main reasons Moscow opposes the idea of a Gaddafi-style ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Some Western diplomats played down the Syrian vote, suggesting the council divisions were essentially business as usual for a U.N. body that spent most of its 66-year history in deep paralysis because of the Cold War and the difficulties the United States and Soviet Union had cooperating.
Western diplomats predicted that a Western-drafted resolution supporting Gulf Arab initiatives in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has refused to step down despite protesters' demands that he resign, would likely be passed.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham