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Has the U.N. Reached a Dead End in Syrian Crisis?

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 17 2012 (IPS) - When the 193-member General Assembly adopted a resolution against Syria by an overwhelming majority Thursday, the U.N.’s highest policy making body was conscious of the fact that its rulings – unlike the dictates of the 15-member Security Council – are politically impotent because they have no enforcement power.

A wide view of the General Assembly as members cast their votes on a draft resolution condemning Syria Thursday. Credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

A wide view of the General Assembly as members cast their votes on a draft resolution condemning Syria Thursday. Credit: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

The vote was 137 in favour to 12 against (including China and Russia, the two big powers who are allies of Syrian President Basher al- Assad), with 17 abstentions.

With Russia and China using their vetoes to block punitive action against Syria in the Security Council last week, the United Nations may have hit a virtual dead end in trying to help resolve the 11- month-old crisis.

The uprising has claimed the lives of more than 5,400 people, mostly civilians and members of the security forces.

But Jose Luis Diaz, head of the Amnesty International office at the United Nations, does not think the United Nations is in a no-win situation.

“The Security Council inaction is no indictment of the United Nations,” he said.

Asked what comes next, he told IPS that even with the Security Council deadlocked, there are a number of other mechanisms at the disposal of the world body.

He singled out the work of the Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council, the Council’s special rapporteur, other U.N. investigators, and the High Commissioner. They can all continue to gather information on the human rights situation and build the case against those responsible for crimes against humanity taking place in Syria, he added.

Eventually, he said, those people should answer for their crimes.

“We are still calling on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC),” he added.

That may seem far-fetched now, said Luis Diaz, “but it won’t necessarily be so in the future”.

Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said the General Assembly vote was an “overwhelming rebuke of Russia’s and China’s attempts to shield the Syrian government from international condemnation.”

“It’s a clear message to Syrian officials that the vast majority of countries around the world want justice for Syria’s victims and an end to the government’s brutality,” he added.

Moscow and Beijing, he said, “should take stock of their own growing isolation and end their obstruction of Security Council efforts to stop the bloody crackdown.”

The resolution adopted by the General Assembly was virtually identical to the one vetoed in the Security Council last week.

Backed by the League of Arab States, the resolution expressed full support for the League’s decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system, including through “a serious political dialogue” between the embattled Syrian government and the opposition parties battling the government.

The resolution also called on the Syrian government to stop all violence and protect its people, release all those detained, withdraw all armed forces from cities and towns, and guarantee peaceful demonstrations and allow unhindered access for Arab League monitors and the international media.

The opponents of the resolution also included Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and North Korea – all of them political adversaries of the United States – along with Belarus, Bolivia, Ecuador and Syria.

Among the 17 abstentions, the key countries remaining neutral included Algeria, Lebanon, Myanmar (Burma), Namibia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Tanzania and Vietnam.

In a statement after the vote, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said, “Bashar al Assad has never been more isolated.”

Luis Diaz told IPS that in view of the vote, one question Russia and China have to ask themselves is how long they can continue to defy international opinion and alienate countries that are important to them.

From that perspective, it’s important that the international community continue to speak out and condemn the repression, he said.

The General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have responded relatively vigorously to the situation, Luis Diaz noted.

“If the Security Council hasn’t stepped up, we know why not. So the Security Council inaction on Syria is not necessarily an indictment of the United Nations as a whole,” he declared.

Meanwhile, addressing the General Assembly, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told delegates credible reports of serious violations, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, arbitrary detention and torture, pointed to possible crimes against humanity and required an immediate international response.

She said that since the Syrian government has manifestly failed its obligation to protect its population, “Each and every member of the international community must act now to protect (this) population”.

She said more than 5,400 people had been killed and tens of thousands, including children, had been arrested, with more that 18,000 reportedly still being arbitrarily detained.

According to the Syrian government, some 2,000 military and security personnel had been killed, she noted.

“All this was made worse by the Security Council’s failure last week to agree on firm collective action to stop the violence, which had seemingly emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all out assault in an effort to crush dissent,” she added.

“I am very distressed that the continued ruthless repression and deliberate stirring of sectarian tensions might soon plunge Syria into civil war,” Pillay declared.

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