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Human Rights Council opens fourth special session on Syria

Human Rights Council
MORNING 1 June 2012

The Human Rights Council this morning opened a Special Session to examine the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria and the recent killings in El Houleh. 

The session was convened after the Council received a request from Qatar, Turkey, United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Denmark and the European Union, backed by 17 other Member States and supported by 33 observer States.  This is the fourth Special Session the Council has convened on the situation in Syria in the past 14 months.  The Council held the first Special Session on the human rights situation in Syria on 29 April 2011 and the second on 22 August 2011.  The third special session, held on 2 December 2011, resulted in a resolution establishing a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Syria, to begin once the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to Syria (formed as a result of a resolution passed in the second Special Session held on 22 and 23 August 2011) ended. 

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement read out on her behalf, said last week's killing of 108 civilians at El Houleh in Syria, including 49 children and 34 women, may amount to crimes against humanity.  The High Commissioner urged the international community to make all efforts to end impunity and ensure accountability for the perpetrators of the atrocities.  Ms. Pillay regretted that despite the Council’s repeated calls for cooperation the Commission of Inquiry still had not been granted access to Syria.  Those who ordered, assisted, or failed to stop attacks on civilians were individually criminally liable for their actions.  Other States had a duty to do all they could to prevent and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes.  Ms. Pillay urged the Security Council to consider referring the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The Council was also addressed in a videotaped message by Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, delivering a statement on behalf of all Special Procedures mandate-holders of the United Nations Human Rights Council, who deplored the alarmingly deterioration in the situation in Syria and condemned in the strongest possible terms the series of attacks on residential areas, in particular the recent massacres of civilians in the village of El Houleh which reportedly involved Government forces and militias. The mandate holders expressed particular shock at the death of numerous young children.  The mandate holders agreed there were indications that crimes against humanity, and possibly other crimes under international law, had been committed in Syria, and the recent tragic events constituted an additional reason for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. 

Speaking as the concerned country, Syria condemned in the strongest terms the killing of innocent people in a brutal and horrendous massacre, and said groups of armed terrorists had attacked the area and perpetrated the massacre.  The Syrian Government had established an inter-ministerial commission to find out the truth and bring the perpetrators to justice; the Government had also closely collaborated with the team of international monitors in Syria.  It was despicable that some of the States sponsoring the current Special Session could make the request when they had publicly supported the armed terrorist groups in Syria, filling ships with Israeli-made weapons or training terrorists on their soil before dispatching them to Syria to carry out killings.  While Syria was committed to implementing the plan of the Joint Special Envoy, which would spare the region serious consequences, some of the sponsors of the current Special Session had condemned the Joint Special Representative as sterile. 

In the general debate all States condemned the killings in El Houleh, with many describing the murder of more than 100 people, including 49 children, as a “heinous act” and others calling it a “crime against humanity”.  States demanded that the Syrian Government cooperate with the Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan and the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry, and several speakers said the United Nations Security Council must immediately refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. Some States said the events in El Houleh must not be used as a pretext for foreign intervention, which would hold serious consequences for world peace.  One State resolutely opposed any form of international intervention and regime change.  Others emphasized that the international community should fulfil its humanitarian responsibility and put an end to bloodshed, violence, and violations of human rights.
 
Speaking during this morning’s debate were representatives of Denmark speaking on behalf of the European Union and other States, Sweden speaking on behalf of Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, Venezuela speaking on behalf of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Kuwait, United States, Uruguay, Qatar, Chile, China, Spain, Thailand, Hungary, Switzerland, Angola, Indonesia and Peru.

The Council will next meet this afternoon at 2.30 p.m. to continue the Special Session, hear more statements from States and representatives of non-governmental organizations, and to consider and vote on the proposed draft resolution before closing the Special Session. Documentation relating to the Special Session is available on the Human Rights Council webpage.

Opening Statements

LAURA DUPUY LASSERRE (Uruguay), President of the Human Rights Council, said the request for a Special Session on “the deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the recent killings in El Houleh” was received on Wednesday, 30 May at 11 a.m.  The request for the Special Session was supported by the following Member States of the Council: Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Guatemala, Hungary, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Maldives, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, United States, and Uruguay.  The request was also supported by the following observer States: Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. 

MARCIA KRAN, Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivering a statement on behalf of NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern that for the fourth time the Council was compelled to convene a Special Session to discuss the situation in Syria and was appalled by the atrocities committed in El Houleh.  Preliminary investigations indicated that the attacks possibly directed at the civilian population had resulted in the killings of 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women.  According to preliminary reports, the Syrian military allegedly unleashed a barrage of heavy weapons on the El Houleh area, including artillery and tank fire, which continued until 2 a.m. on Saturday, 26 May.  Some reports suggested that pro-government Shabiha paramilitary groups also entered the villages and may bear responsibility for dozens of killings.  These acts may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes, and may be indicative of a pattern of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations that had been perpetrated with impunity.  The Government of Syria had stated that its military was acting only in self-defence, and that it sought to protect the civilian population; that three members of the armed forces were killed and 16 soldiers were injured as a result of the armed clashes in El Houleh.  The Government of Syria had also said that an inter-ministerial committee had been established to investigate these events. Nevertheless, there was a need for prompt, independent and impartial international investigations into all serious human rights violations in Syria, including those that had occurred in El Houleh. 

Ms. Pillay regretted that despite the Council’s repeated calls on Syria to cooperate fully with the Commission of Inquiry, the Commission still had not been granted access to Syria.  Ms. Pillay took note of the Security Council’s call on the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria to continue its investigations into the El Houleh killings; and urged the Government of Syria to cooperate fully with UNSMIS.  The Commission of Inquiry had continued to gather information and investigate human rights violations committed in Syria and, on 24 May, the Commission published a periodic update based on two field missions it conducted in March and April.  It reported that gross violations and abuses continued unabated in an increasingly militarized context despite the ceasefire announced on 12 April in Syria.  In addition, on 30 May, UNSMIS reported the discovery of 13 bodies in the area of Assukar in Dier EL-Zour, with their hands tied behind their backs and some of whom appeared to have been shot at close range.

Ms. Pillay reiterated a call to the Government of Syria to grant the Commission of Inquiry full and unimpeded access to the country so as to carry out investigations into all human rights violations and to assume its responsibility to protect the civilian population in the country.  Those who ordered, assisted, or failed to stop attacks on civilians were individually criminally liable for their actions.  Other States had a duty to do all they could to prevent and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes. Once again, Ms. Pillay urged the Security Council to consider referring the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court.  The Joint Special Envoy’s six-point plan sought to pave the way for a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis, in particular by ending all violence and human rights violations.  It was vital that the Government of Syria immediately and comprehensively implement this plan; and it was equally vital that all parties desisted from all forms of violence.  Ms. Pillay urged the international community to throw its weight behind the Joint Envoy’s six-point plan and called for the conduct of immediate investigations into the El Houleh events, as well as into other human rights violations committed in Syria.

CHRISTOF HEYNS, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, delivering a statement on behalf of all Special Procedures mandate-holders of the United Nations Human Rights Council by video conference, said the Special Procedures deplored the fact that since the last Special Session and after more than one year of widespread violence, the situation in Syria had alarmingly deteriorated. The killings which occurred over the past few days had again alerted them to the imperative for immediate action from the highest level, in particular President Assad.  The mandate holders condemned in the strongest possible terms the series of attacks on residential areas, in particular the recent massacres of civilians in the village of El Houleh which reportedly involved Government forces and militias. The mandate holders expressed particular shock at the death of numerous young children and recalled the State’s obligations to protect every individual’s right to life, including children, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  It was noted that the Government had appointed an inter-ministerial committee to investigate the events in El Houleh: the mandate holders stressed that that investigation should be prompt, independent and thorough so as to shed light on the circumstances of the killings, and to ensure that perpetrators were held to account.

The recent attacks occurred in contradiction to the commitments of the Joint Special Envoy’s six-point plan.  Reprisals had reportedly been carried out against protestors, political and human rights activists, or persons suspected of anti-Government activities.  That had led to arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment including of minors in interrogation and detention facilities, and sexual violence in places of detention against men, women and children.  As reported by humanitarian agencies, livelihoods and access to medical care, food, and water had been affected across the country, and dramatically so in conflict affected areas. Ensuring unhindered access to humanitarian assistance, including to internally displaced persons, must be a priority for all parties and be provided irrespective of other efforts to resolve the crisis.  Reports of interference with and even deliberate destruction preventing access to adequate food, water and in particular medical care and assistance were of great concern and would, if confirmed, represent further egregious human rights violations. 

All available information indicated that crimes against humanity, and possibly other crimes under international law had been committed in Syria, and the Special Procedure mandate holders considered that recent tragic events constituted an additional reason for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.  As a matter of urgency, the Syrian Government and all parties were urged to take immediate measures to ensure that no more human rights violations were committed and to prevent further civilian losses.  All parties must refrain from violence. 

Statement from Syria as the Concerned Country

Syria, speaking as the concerned country, said that Syria had witnessed one of the most horrendous massacres and condemned in strongest terms the killing of innocent people in a brutal massacre.  Groups of armed terrorists numbering from 600 to 800 persons had attacked the area and perpetrated this massacre by employing different kinds of mortar shells and weaponry to kill peaceful civilians.  Hours after these events, the Syrian Government announced the establishment of an interministerial commission to find out the truth and bring the perpetrators to justice; the Government had also closely collaborated with the team of international monitors in Syria.  Yesterday a preliminary report included important conclusions: the main motive for these murders had been to ignite sectarian strife in an area made up of a multi-sectarian social fabric that had lived in peace and neighbourly relations.  The committee concluded that there were no traces of artillery shelling on the bodies of the victims, an allegation made by the representative of the High Commissioner; the committee also affirmed that the killings had occurred at close range and the investigations suggested the participation of several non-Syrian nationals.  The intention of the attacks had been to create an area outside the control of the State close to the Lebanese border. 

It was now something familiar for armed gangs and terrorist groups to carry out these attacks before the meetings of the Security Council with the purpose of bringing Special Sessions against Syria and condemning resolutions such as the current draft resolution today.   The resolution’s paragraphs were full of hatred that showed the despair and lack of orientation of those drafting it.  Syria regretted the fact that honest States had associated themselves with these resolutions which harmed the Council.  It was despicable that some of the States sponsoring the current Special Session could make this request, revealed publicly through their statements where they had voiced their support through the media and millions of dollars from oil revenue to those groups in Syria and filling ships with Israeli made weapons or hosting and training terrorists on their soil and then dispatching them to Syria to carry out killings.

The United States was the first instigator for the convening of the meeting and had not hidden its support for the armed opposition and encouraged them not to surrender.  Those who instigated this meeting had as their objective more bloodshed of Syrian blood and to ignite strife.  Those States sponsoring the holding of this session were hastily making judgements, overlooking the real murders, bypassing the principles of justice, and casting doubt on the role being played by United Nations monitors and the plan of the Joint Special Envoy.  The investigation would show the responsibility of those who had carried out the killings and those instigators behind them and this evidence would be presented to the world.  While Syria was committed to implementing the plan of the Joint Special Envoy, which would spare the region serious consequences, some of the sponsors of the current Special Session had condemned the Joint Special Representative as sterile.  They ignored everything Israel committed, including the settlements, conferring a Jewish character to Jerusalem.  If the Syrian Government thought that those who sponsored this Special Session were interested in defending the innocent in Syria, the Government would have been the first to adopt a resolution condemning the bloodshed, but the real objective was flimsy political trading targeting Syria.  Syria had reaffirmed several times its responsibility to protect its people against violence and terror and would do everything possible according to law and international commitments to protect the Syrian people and to emerge from the crises.  Those who intended to help Syria on these objectives should stop the media war.  Everyone should realise that the solution in Syria would never be through arms, but rather through a positive debate among those who would forgo violence.

Discussion

Denmark, speaking on behalf of the European Union and other States, said the lives of more than 100 people, including 49 children, had been indiscriminately taken in heinous acts perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own population in El Houleh. All violence must be brought to an end immediately. The European Union would continue to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime as long as the repression continued and encouraged partners to do the same. It pledged full support to the Syrian people who were proudly standing up for their rights to freedom and democracy. It was high time that they should be rewarded for their outstanding efforts in the pursuit of peace and dignity.

Sweden, speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, said they condemned in the strongest possible terms the continuous atrocities in Syria, including the killings of civilians and the most appalling recent example of the killings and brutal executions of children in El-Houleh. The Syrian Government must cooperate with the Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan and the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry.

Venezuela, speaking on behalf of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, condemned in the strongest possible terms the murders in El Houleh and called for a far-reaching inquiry into those crimes. However, those events must not be used as a pretext for foreign intervention, which would hold serious consequences for world peace. Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela feared a repetition in Syria of the same scenario seen in Libya. The Government had shown willingness to implement reform and Kofi Annan’s peace plan. The countries rejected the draft resolution as it interfered in the internal affairs of Syria.

Saudi Arabia said that the Council had convened the Special Session to discuss human rights violations following the unfortunate recent events in El Houleh.  The Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had strongly condemned these events and the targeting of women and children, as well as the ongoing violence in Syria.  The statement also emphasized that the international community should fulfil its humanitarian responsibility and put an end to bloodshed, violence, and violations of human rights.  The Syrian people’s aspiration for progress and reform should be listened to.  Saudi Arabia further condemned torture and mutilation that children and women had been subjected to and stressed that the perpetrators should be brought to justice. 

Italy strongly condemned the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian army and security forces in El Houleh and echoed the call by the High Commissioner for a prompt international investigation in order to establish individual accountability.  Impunity was no longer tolerable.  Italy reiterated in the strongest terms the call on the Syrian authorities to immediately stop the bloodshed and to fulfil the duty to protect their people.  Unimpeded access to Syria must be granted to international humanitarian agencies.  In coordination with other European Union partners, targeted sanctions had been adopted against those more directly involved in the most serious human rights violations.

Kuwait said that the Syrian people were exposed to grave violations of their fundamental rights and notably the right to life.  Kuwait stressed the importance of implementing the Council’s resolution which demanded accountability for those responsible for human rights violations.  Kuwait emphasized the importance of maintaining the territorial integrity and independence of Syria and believed that the failure of the plan of the Joint Special Representative could lead to disastrous consequences on Syria and the region.

United States condemned in the strongest possible terms the heinous summary executions committed at close range of families in their own homes, including over 30 children younger than 10, after a vicious assault by tanks and artillery, weapons only the Syrian regime possessed. Syrians bravely risked their lives daily to broadcast to the world the horrendous and brutal campaign of killing that the Assad Government was waging against the Syrian people. Assad’s brutal rule would ultimately come to an end.

Uruguay said the attacks in Syria were not just a violation of international law by the Syrian Government but also a shattering of the efforts undertaken by the United Nations and Arab League Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The Syrian Government must give unhampered access to humanitarian agencies, allow an uninterrupted dialogue with the Syrian people, and follow the Six Point Plan.

Qatar said the hideous massacre of children by the Syrian regime in El Houleh was a flagrant violation of childhood and humanity. The Syrian Government had taken no measures to put an end to the bloodshed. It must immediately end all acts of violence and open safe humanitarian corridors. The souls of the innocent women and children of the El Houleh massacre would be calling upon the Council to pass a resolution.

Chile called on all sides to halt the violence indiscriminately affecting the lives of people and expressed its solidarity with the families of the victims.  Chile condemned the massacre in El Houleh and the violations committed in the previous months, and called for the implementation of the plan of the Joint Special Envoy.  Chile supported the draft resolution mechanism to investigate recent events.  The protection of human dignity was unavoidable and States should continue with their diplomatic efforts to stop the slaughter, ensure humanitarian access, and create the conditions that allowed Syrian people to decide on their own future.

China said that China was deeply shocked by the events in El Houleh and condemned the killing of innocent women and children.  It was necessary to implement a comprehensive ceasefire preventing further violence.  The Syrian Government and all parties should effectively implement the plan of the Joint Special Envoy and Security Council resolutions.  It should also support the work of the United Nations supervision mission in Syria.  China resolutely opposed any form of international intervention and regime change.  A political dialogue process should begin without prejudging the outcome. 

Spain expressed concern about the Syrian Government’s systematic non-compliance with the international obligations arising from Security Council resolutions.  As the independent commission of inquiry confirmed, the Syrian Government had neglected its most basic human rights obligations vis-à-vis its people.   Spain urged Syria to facilitate the access of humanitarian assistance; stressed that the international community should stand united; and urged States which had not done so to join consensus.  The regime should take effective steps to put an end to the spiralling of violence, ensure that massive human rights violations did not go unpunished, and urged all delegations to adopt the resolution without a vote. 

Thailand strongly condemned the violence in El Houleh, especially against children, and supported the current investigation by the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria and the Syrian authorities. The deteriorating situation in Syria was a serious concern and reports of continuing violence by both the Syrian authorities and other parties were worrisome. Humanitarian assistance should be given access without delay.

Hungary said the escalation of violence and the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria, clearly demonstrated by the murder of more than 100 individuals, including children, in El Houlah, was unacceptable. The international community must not remain idle in the face of such atrocities. The Syrian Government must immediately end the violence, support the mission of United Nations observers, and fully implement Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.

Switzerland strongly condemned the appalling massacre in El Houleh and it could constitute a war crime or even a crime against humanity and must be established. The facts already known seemed to suggest that the Syrian authorities carry substantial responsibility. The Security Council must immediately refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. The credibility of the United Nations was at stake, together with its Member States it had a duty to act now.

Angola joined the international community in expressing deep concern for the deterioration of the situation in Syria, as well as the attacks in Damascus, Aleppo and El Houleh.  Angola stressed the importance of complying with the plan of the Joint Special Envoy and called on all parties to put an end to violence and allow access for humanitarian agencies; and the need for an independent inquiry that was impartial and with the support of the United Nations supervision mission, and to ensure that such acts would not happen again.  Angola urged parties to show restraint and engage in dialogue.

Indonesia shared the deepest concern of the international community at the worsening situation in Syria and welcomed the United Nations engagement to seek peaceful and agreed solutions for all parties in Syria.  It called upon the Syrian Government and other parties to cease the use of force and to build trust.  The commitment of all parties to shy away from violence was imperative for an inclusive democratic transition; Indonesia urged Syria to cooperate with the United Nations human rights machinery and to fulfil its commitments to promote and protect the human rights of its people.

Peru said that the Council could not remain silent in the face of the situation in Syria and effective measures should be adopted to protect the lives of people in Syria.  Peru condemned the use of force against civilians and reiterated its call to ensure that human rights were in full effect and that the violence came to an end.  It was essential to ensure effective access of humanitarian assistance in areas affected by conflict.  The plan of the Joint Special Envoy should be complied with and Peru appealed to the Government to protect life and respect for its people and find a peaceful solution to this crisis.

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For use of the information media; not an official record