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Syria in turmoil – the UN Human Rights Council acts again

The second special session of the Human Rights Council was called only days after the High Commissioner’s  Fact-Finding Mission found a pattern of human rights violations in Syria, which may amount to crimes against humanity. 

Demonstrations in Latakia, the principal port city of Syria. © EPA/SHAAM NEW NETWORKThe Fact-Finding Mission was established at the conclusion of the first Human Rights Council special session on Syria at the end of April.  The session was convened in response to growing international concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in the country and the increasingly violent crack-down on peaceful  protests by security forces.

The report of the Mission, produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, found evidence of hundreds of summary executions; the use of live ammunition against demonstrators; the widespread deployment of snipers during protests; the detention and torture of people of all ages; the blockading of towns and cities by the security forces and the destruction of water supplies.

Syria has been in turmoil since mid-March with small, localised protests growing into a nation-wide movement that the Syrian authorities have tried to brutally suppress.

In its report, the Fact-Finding Mission suggests that the “generalization of protests and their growing demands  for dignity and reforms and then for the departure of the president  seemed to reflect the failure of a policy combining harsh repression with tardy political concessions.”

Syria, with a population of more than 22 million, is governed by executive authorities with sweeping powers which the Report says cannot be challenged effectively by the legislature and the judiciary.  The report describes a situation which has held true for over four decades – “gross human rights violations under the cloak of emergency legislation.  Syrians (have) suffered arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions, prolonged detention without trial or after unfair trials before exceptional or military courts, torture and ill-treatment resulting in deaths in custody, forced disappearances and summary executions.”  Personnel from the security and intelligence agencies enjoy immunity from prosecution, the report notes.

Immediately it was made public, Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay presented the findings of the report to the UN Security Council in New York. “It is vital that the Security Council conveys to the people of Syria the message that their protection is of the utmost concern for the international community and that the United Nations supports their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms,” Pillay said.  

In Geneva shortly after, the Human Rights Council convened its second special session on Syria.  Addressing the delegates, the High Commissioner detailed the findings of the Fact-Finding mission and said all indications were that the human rights violations were continuing and that military and security operations had escalated in recent weeks.

Pillay said that up to that point - mid August  -  2,200 people had been killed,  350 of those during Ramadan. Excessive force continues to be deployed, she said using as an example the heavy shelling of al-Ramel Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia during which four people were killed and more than 7,000 displaced.

The High Commissioner acknowledged in her address to the Council’s special session, the raft of reforms promised by the Syrian Government including lifting the emergency legislation, abolishing the Supreme State Security Court,  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,” she said.

A statement was also made to the special session on behalf of the UN independent human rights experts who noted that precise information is hard to come by because “journalists, human rights defenders and others have been prevented from monitoring the situation and investigating violations.”

“If we are serious about combatting human rights violations,” the independent experts’ statement said, “we should not turn a blind eye to these egregious acts.”
Many Member States expressed dismay at the developments in Syria and called for further investigation of the situation.  Restraint was urged on all parties with some States pressing for the negotiation of an internal Syrian solution.  Others spoke of assistance for Syria in achieving reform without resort to sanctions, warning that swift action was needed to prevent Syria reaching a point of no return.  Opposing international intervention, some Member States spoke of respect for the rights of sovereign nations, the misuse of country situations and the alleged protection of human lives becoming a pretext for foreign intervention.

Syria’s representative at the special session, Faysal Khabbas Hamoui, spoke of an “unprecedented campaign directed at influencing Syria’s domestic politics, causing sectarian strife and portraying the massacres perpetrated by armed gangs as a movement of peaceful demonstrations…” The resolution before the Council would only lengthen the crisis according to Hamoui.

The final resolution from the second special sessions acknowledges the Syrian Government’s  announced commitments to political reforms and regrets the lack of progress in their implementation.  The resolution calls for “an inclusive, credible and genuine national dialogue conducted…  without fear and intimidation with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian population aimed at the promotion and protection of their human rights.”

The resolution was passed with 33 votes in favour, four against and nine abstentions.

Reflecting continuing international concern at the deterioration of the human rights situation in Syria, the Council acted again, following up on the Fact-Finding Mission with a resolution to urgently dispatch an independent international commission of inquiry to Syria.

The commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, will  investigate  “violations of international human rights law in Syria since July, 2011, to establish the facts and circumstances which may amount to such violations and, where possible, to identify those responsible,  with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations are held accountable.”

5 September 2011