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Address by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 18th session of the Human Rights Council on the Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic

Geneva, 19 September 2011

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

I am pleased to open this interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Syria on behalf of the High Commissioner who is currently on an official visit to New York. 

As you recall, this Council, in its sixteenth special session on 29 April 2011, requested that the High Commissioner 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 session. The advance version of the report of the fact-finding mission was released on 18 August, as you will have seen.  In a closed session the same day, the High Commissioner briefed the members of the Security Council on the key findings of the report and encouraged them to consider referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

On 22 August, the High Commissioner addressed another special session of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in Syria which decided in resolution S-17/1 that an independent international commission of inquiry appointed by the President of the Council would be dispatched to Syria. As you are aware, the members of the commission of inquiry were appointed last week. I wish to begin today by highlighting the key findings of the report of OHCHR fact-finding mission on Syria.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The OHCHR fact-finding mission on Syria 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. 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 our 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. Many of those killed during demonstrations were shot in the chest or head by live ammunition often fired at close range by military and security forces. Some soldiers who deserted the army told the Mission that they had clear orders to use live ammunition against protesters and that they would be shot if they refused; indeed, the mission documented several cases of summary execution of soldiers by their officers.

The authorities, using heavy artillery and military vehicles, including tanks and mortars, imposed de-facto blockades on several cities and effectively deprived inhabitants of basic goods and services. Those who left their homes to find food were sometimes killed or injured by sniper gunfire. Water tanks were also targeted. Restrictions imposed on freedom of movement prevented injured persons from receiving medical treatment.

The Mission found that security forces have pursued a policy of arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals suspected of having taken part in demonstrations. The Mission found acts of torture, including beatings, electrocution, stress positions and psychological abuse to have been widespread. Children were among those tortured.

Excellencies,

The OHCHR fact-finding Mission called on the Syrian Government to immediately put an end to the human rights violations, including the excessive use of force against demonstrators, torture and ill-treatment of detainees and enforced disappearances. It further called on the Syrian authorities to take immediate steps to end impunity, and to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of detainees held on the basis of their participation in peaceful demonstrations and other political prisoners.  The Mission called on the Government to allow for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their areas of origins in Syria, and to take immediate measures to ensure full and unhindered access for humanitarian workers to provide aid and assistance to those in need in Syria.  Notably, the first humanitarian mission to Syria at the end of August led by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs identified pockets of humanitarian needs and growing vulnerabilities in Syria.

I wish to use this opportunity to reiterate these calls.  We also call on the Syrian authorities to cooperate with the Council, particularly by allowing access to its mandated commission of inquiry, with a view toward conducting an impartial and independent investigation into violations in Syria and ensuring accountability for those violations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In its communications to OHCHR, the Government of Syria has denied allegations of wrongful acts. It continues to claim that the majority of the victims have been military and security forces killed by “armed gangs.” The Government continues to blame the unrest on "foreign regional and international forces, acting to destabilize security and stability.” Yet accounts from victims and witnesses indicate that the people targeted were exercising their legitimate rights of assembly and speech. While the Government has on numerous occasions promised political reforms, it has continuously undermined those promises by more excessive use of force, killing of demonstrators, mass arrests, raids on cities, torture and other abuses.

As of today, over 2700 people have been killed by military and security forces since mass protests erupted in mid-March. Armored security forces backed by tanks, helicopters and snipers continue to crush protests in Homs, Latakia, Deir el-Zour, Daraa, Idlib, Damascus and elsewhere. On 10 September, security forces killed at least 16 demonstrators even as the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Mr. Nabil el-Arabi visited Damascus to demand a halt to violence. Syrian security forces are reported to have forcibly removed wounded people from hospitals, including from operating rooms, in Homs and prevented medical personnel from reaching the injured. This occurred during large-scale military operation in the city of Homs which started on 7 September leaving, at least, 23 civilians dead and scores injured.

Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,

Let me conclude by emphasizing the importance of holding perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable. Our Office has found that such crimes may have been committed in Syria. It was against this backdrop that the High Commissioner encouraged the Security Council to consider referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Despite the mounting international pressure in the past six months since the start of protests, including two special sessions of this Council and concerns expressed by the Security Council, the bloody crackdown in Syria has intensified. In the past few weeks large protests across Syria have appealed for international protection and presence of international monitors. That is indicative of the increasingly dire human rights situation in Syria and the urgency of an effective international response to address it. This Council and its members should continue to use all means available in this regard.

Thank you.