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Rights Groups Demand General Assembly Action on Syria

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 20 2011 (IPS) - A coalition of 29 international human rights organisations is appealing to the 193-member General Assembly to act “immediately” to help halt the unbridled violence in Syria which has claimed the lives of over 3,000 people, mostly civilians, since the political protests began last March.

The appeal, directed at the U.N.’s highest policy making body, follows the failure of the 15-member Security Council to take any action against the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“It is incumbent upon the General Assembly to take action where the Security Council has failed to do so,” says the letter addressed to members of the Assembly.

The letter cites Resolution 377A of the General Assembly, which states that “if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security… the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately.”

That historic resolution, also known as ‘Uniting for Peace,” was adopted by more than two-thirds of the member states back in November 1950.

The message in that resolution was explicit: that the five permanent members of the Security Council cannot, and should not, prevent the General Assembly from taking any action necessary to restore international peace and security, in cases when the Security Council has failed to exercise its primary responsibility.

The current five permanent members are the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

Last month, both Russia and China exercised their vetoes against a Western-sponsored draft resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling for economic sanctions against the al-Assad regime.

India, Brazil, and South Africa abstained from the vote, “invoking concerns that the condemnatory resolution might lead to the imposition of sanctions, while claiming to be deeply concerned with the plight of the Syrian people”.

The coalition, which is leading the initiative for General Assembly action, includes Amnesty International, the African Democracy Forum, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation.

The letter says, “We believe the time has come for the General Assembly to play its part by making clear the world body will no longer stay silent, while Syrians are the victims of government- orchestrated violence and grave human rights violations.”

Asked how effective General Assembly action would be, since it does have enforcement powers like the Security Council, Jose Luis Diaz of Amnesty International told IPS, “A decision of the General Assembly, the most representative world body, carries considerable moral authority, even if it cannot be enforced.”

More so in this instance, given the attitude displayed by some in the Security Council who, by blocking action, are in effect shielding the perpetrators of the human rights violations in Syria, he added.

The letter also says the General Assembly should ask U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon to name a special envoy for Syria, as well as refer the upcoming report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (established by the Human Rights Council), back to the Security Council for further consideration.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has referred to “credible allegations of crimes against humanity in Syria” and has encouraged the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

The Syrian government “has consistently used excessive force to crush peaceful protests”, Pillay said, as she denounced the devastatingly remorseless toll of human lives.

Since March, over 3,000 people have been killed, including at least 187 children, while thousands more have been arrested, detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured, according to the United Nations.

The opponents of Security Council action against the al-Assad regime point out that the Syrian government should be given more time and space to resolve its own domestic problem without outside intervention.

They also say that some of those killed in the unrest include Syrian security forces, implying that some of the civilian protestors are armed.

In its letter, the coalition is also demanding unrestricted deployment of human rights monitors inside Syria, and access to humanitarian organisations and independent journalists — all of whom are now banned from entering the country.

Asked if the General Assembly exercise is meant more as an attempt to exert political pressure on the Syrian government than generate concrete action, Diaz told IPS, “We want countries to exert pressure on the Syrian authorities to stop human rights and humanitarian law violations, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity.”

He said there’s also a very concrete thing the General Assembly could do in adopting a resolution, in addition to condemning the violence, and that is to refer the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria to the Security Council.

“Perhaps that kind of evidence of the crimes being committed would be more difficult for some countries to ignore,” he declared.

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