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Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council 17th Special Session on“Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic” in Geneva

22 August 2011

Madame President, Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I commend the initiative of this Council to hold another special session on the situation of human rights in Syria. The gravity of on-going violations and the brutal attacks against the peaceful protesters in that country demand your continued attention.

Allow me to recall that the Human Rights Council in its sixteenth Special Session on 29 April 2011 requested that I dispatch a fact-finding mission to Syria to investigate all alleged violations of human rights law and report on the situation of human rights in Syria to the Council during its eighteenth regular session in September. This report was released on 18 August, as you may have seen. In a closed session on the same day, I also briefed the members of the Security Council on the findings of our report and urged them to consider referring the current situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. The situation remains under consideration by the Security Council. I wish to begin today by highlighting the Mission’s key findings.

OHCHR fact-finding mission found a pattern of widespread or systematic human rights violations by Syrian security and military forces, including murder, enforced disappearances, torture, deprivation of liberty, and persecution. Although the report covered the period of 15 March to 15 July 2011, there are indications that the pattern of violations continues to this day. It is our assessment that the scale and nature of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.

It is regrettable that the Government of Syria did not give access to the Mission, despite my repeated requests. Nonetheless, the Mission gathered credible, corroborated, and consistent accounts of violations from victims and witnesses, including military defectors, and Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.

The Mission concluded that while demonstrations have been largely peaceful, the military and security forces have resorted to an apparent “shoot-to-kill” policy. Snipers on rooftops have targeted protestors, bystanders who were trying to help the wounded, and ambulances. The Mission also documented incidents of summary execution outside the context of the demonstrations, and during house-to-house searches and in hospitals. Victims and witnesses reported widespread attempts to cover up killings by the security forces, including through the use of mass graves.

The authorities, using heavy artillery and military vehicles, imposed de-facto blockades on several cities and effectively deprived inhabitants of basic goods and services. Restrictions imposed on freedom of movement prevented injured persons from receiving medical treatment. Public hospitals were sometimes closed ahead of military operations, or the injured were turned away by staff.

The Mission found that Security forces have pursued a policy of arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals suspected of having taken part in demonstrations. Torture and ill-treatment were found to have been widespread. Former detainees cited cases of death in custody, including that of children, as a result of torture.

In its communications to OHCHR, the Government of Syria denies allegations of wrongful acts. While it acknowledges that about 1900 have been killed since mid-March, it claims that the majority of the victims have been military and security forces killed by “armed gangs.” It also claims that “terrorists” and “extremists” are behind the protests. Yet accounts from victims and witnesses indicate that, far from being acts of terrorism, the people targeted were exercising their legitimate rights of assembly and speech.

The Government of Syria has also informed my Office of reforms introduced by the Government. These include lifting emergency legislation, abolishing the Supreme State Security Court and granting amnesties for thousands of detainees, legislating to regulate peaceful assembly and establish political parties, and new electoral and information laws. However, these pronouncements have been followed by more excessive use of force, killing of demonstrators, mass arrests and reports of torture and other abuses. The bloodshed in Hama, Latakia and other Syrian cities just in the past three weeks seriously undermines the credibility of the reform initiatives, as further elaborated by President Assad yesterday.

I wish to use this opportunity to once again call on the Syrian Government to immediately and fully halt its crackdown on peaceful protests and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all detained for their participation in peaceful demonstrations. The Government should also allow for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas of origins in Syria. I welcome the first humanitarian assessment mission to Syria on 20 August and call on the Government of Syria to allow open access for international humanitarian workers. At the same time, the Syrian authorities should allow full human rights access to Syria including for impartial and thorough human rights investigation and monitoring.

As of today, over 2200 people have been killed since mass protests began in mid-March, with more than 350 people reportedly killed across Syria since the beginning of Ramadan. The military and security forces continue to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities, particularly in Hama, Homs, Latakia and Deir al-Zour. The heavy shelling of al-Ramel Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia last week resulted in at least 4 people killed and the displacement of the 7,500 inhabitants of the camp. Despite assurances from President Assad to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday that military operations had finished, I regret to note that at least five people were killed around the country on Thursday and 34 more on Friday by Syrian military and security forces. Tanks continue to remain on the outskirts of the cities.

Let me conclude by emphasizing the importance of holding perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable. The Fact Finding Mission has found that such crimes may have been committed in Syria. It was against this backdrop that I urged the Security Council to consider referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. The people of Syria must be supported in their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms and the Human Rights Council can play a vital role in that respect.

I wish you a productive discussion. Thank you.
ENDS

OHCHR Country Page – Syrian Arab Republic: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/SYIndex.aspx

For more information or interviews, please contact spokesperson Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 or rcolville@ohchr.org) or press officers: Ravina Shamdasani (+ 41 22 917 9310 or rshamdasani@ohchr.org) or Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9383 or xcelaya@ohchr.org)