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Human Rights Council Issues First-Ever UN Condemnation of Syria

Isolda Agazzi

GENEVA, Apr 29 2011 (IPS) - The special session on Syria held by the United Nations Human Rights Council Friday agreed on neither an international mission of enquiry, as originally foreseen, nor a lower level fact-finding mission – only a mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbas Hamoui.  Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbas Hamoui. Credit: Isolda Agazzi/IPS

The attitude taken in the session held at the request of the United States stands in sharp contrast to the strong action taken on Libya just two months ago.

Nevertheless, it was the first condemnation of Syria in U.N. history.

From the start, the adoption of the resolution requesting the dispatch of an international mission of enquiry promised to be a lost battle, since the countries supporting the U.S. request for a special session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on Syria – 15 Council members and 21 non-members – were only Western ones, except for Japan, South Korea, Senegal, Zambia and Mexico.

Therefore, even before noon, the U.S. circulated a revised draft resolution requesting a lower profile and less controversial fact-finding mission that would have presumably reported to the HRC and no further.

But even this proposal did not appear to be acceptable to the majority of the delegations, and the resolution that was finally adopted after long diplomatic struggles – by 26 votes in favour, nine against and seven abstentions – merely calls for the dispatch of a mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law.


The Arab spring does not seem to gather the same support in diplomatic circles as two months ago, when the HRC held a special session on Libya, requesting that the General Assembly suspend Tripoli’s membership and dispatch an international mission of enquiry.

But Syria is not Libya and “the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has undermined regional security and threatened stability,” as stated by the Chinese delegate Xia Jingge, who added that “this session may split the Council, undermine its credibility and sharpen the situation on the ground. We are for impartiality and non-selectivity in the Council’s work, and against naming and shaming.”

A view shared, in more or less similar terms, by the African and the Arab group and several other countries. Many, however, condemned the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, and called on Syria to release political prisoners and human rights defenders and to investigate alleged human rights violations.

“This is an historical resolution,” Adrian-Claude Zoller, director of the Swiss NGO Geneva for Human Rights, told IPS in an interview. “We have to see it in the context of Syria, a country that has never been condemned by the U.N., despite the fact that there are laws of exception since 1963. An absolute majority of the Council voted in favour of it and only nine opposed.”

He added that, “obviously, Bashar Al Assad is not Ghadafi. He does not have such a high international profile and his family has managed to become unavoidable for the stability – or instability – of the whole Middle East.

“Of course, it would have been better to have a commission of enquiry, but there was certainly not a majority, and the mechanism decided upon provides for an investigation by the Office (of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) and two reports to two consecutive sessions of the Council.”

U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe refuted the accusations of politicisation and double standards, saying “the purpose of this special session is to make clear that the international community strongly condemns the killing, arrest and torture of peaceful protestors taking place in Syria, even as we speak.

“To the Syrian government, we are sending a clear and unequivocal message that we will not turn a blind eye as you arbitrarily imprison, torture and kill your own citizens. To the brave people of Syria, who are demanding freedom and dignity, we are here to say that the world stands by you and we will not ignore your plight.”

In her introductory speech, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang warned that “information gathered since mid-March paints a disturbing picture: the widespread use of live fire against protestors; the arrest, detention and disappearances of demonstrators, human rights defenders and journalists; the torture and ill-treatment of detainees; the sharp repression of press freedom and other measures of communication; and attacks against medial personnel, facilities and patients.”

And the situation has been exceeded over the past weeks, with entire towns being besieged, delivery of food impeded, transportation systems shut down. “The gross disregard of basic human rights by the Syrian security forces led to 450 killings and around four times that number of injuries,” she said.

Noting that the catalyst for the peaceful protests that began in March was the desire to peacefully assemble and associate and fully participate in public affairs, she welcomed the initial move by the government “to embrace these requests by lifting the state of emergency and abolishing the State High Security Court.”

“But what followed was more excessive use of force,” she stressed.

Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbas Hamoui expressed “astonishment and grave concern at the holding of this special session, including the pretext of humanitarian intervention, that takes us back to the era of colonialism. Syria is at the crossroads of civilisation, with many religious, confessional and ethnic groups. Any marginalisation and transgression against unity of this fabric by extremist or salafist groups will be rejected. Syria will never become a salafist principality.”

Damascus may even become a member of the HRC next month, despite the U.S. stating bluntly that it was “strongly opposed to its Syrian membership” and French ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattei requesting that it withdraw its candidacy.

But with four candidates for the four seats available to the Asian group, Syria may well be automatically elected.

 
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