UN Rights Council Condemns Syrian Crackdown on Protesters

The United Nations Human Rights Council “unequivocally” condemned the crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on peaceful demonstrators and called for the UN human rights chief to send a team to investigate “all alleged violations of international human rights law.”

“With today’s vote, the council has stood against attempts to silence dissent with the use of gratuitous violence, which is not the act of a responsible government,” the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in a statement.

The 26-9 council vote endorsed the U.S.-sponsored resolution which denounced the use of lethal violence against protesters and urged the Syrian government to permit free expression and assembly, allow access to the Internet and other communications networks, lift censorship on reporting and release political prisoners.

It also called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to “urgently dispatch a mission” to Syria to investigate and report back to the council “with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring full accountability” for the perpetrators of the violence. Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights says the Syrian government crackdown on protests has left more than 450 dead.

The motion was approved by 26 countries while nine, including Russia, China and Pakistan, voted against it. Saudi Arabia was among seven nations that abstained.

Syria is the latest Middle Eastern country to be hit by the wave of uprisings that deposed long-time rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and sparked an armed conflict in Libya. Assad’s regime is an ally of Iran and a power broker in neighboring Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, an armed Shiite Muslim group.

‘Better Late than Never’

“Earlier action might have prevented the current monthlong massacre, but it’s better late than never for the 47-nation body to begin addressing the long-suffering victims of state-sponsored brutality in Syria,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based rights group UN Watch.

Thousands of Syrians took to the streets around the country today, defying warnings by the Interior Ministry not to hold rallies, as the popular challenge to Assad’s rule escalates.

The UN General Assembly is due to elect four new members of the rights council on May 20. Four seats are available for Asian nations and Syria is one of four candidates, putting it in position to win a three-year term.

‘Brutal Repression’

The resolution and the ongoing “brutal repression” in Syria “further underscore the hypocrisy of Syria’s bid for membership” in the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the human rights body, said in a statement following the vote.

The initial U.S. initiative said Syria’s record in protecting and promoting human rights must be considered when the council votes on its candidacy. That wording was removed from the final resolution.

Syrian Ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui said he was “astonished at the use of artificial motives, including the pretext of humanitarian intervention, to take the world back to the era of colonization.” He criticized the governments that convened the special session of the council, saying they should “respect dialogue to guarantee human rights and not intervene in internal affairs to overthrow a government.”

European Pressure

European nations have stepped up pressure on Syria, summoning ambassadors and pushing for a UN vote to protest the violence. China and Russia led opposition that blocked an April 27 initiative by the U.S. and its European allies for the UN Security Council to condemn the Syrian government’s attacks on peaceful protesters.

European Union officials are meeting in Brussels today to discuss Syria. Germany favors sanctions on the country’s leadership, including travel restrictions and financial freezes, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on April 27.

In Washington, President Barack Obama ordered an asset freeze today on Assad’s brother, Mahir, as well as two other Syrian military leaders, the Syrian intelligence service, and the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force for their roles in the crackdown on protesters. Syria and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are already covered under U.S. terrorism sanctions, and the individuals are unlikely to hold significant assets in the United States.

While Assad has outlined a reform agenda, abolishing emergency laws that for half a century gave the government a free hand to arrest people without cause, the crackdown hasn’t eased and his pledges of future political and economic measures have failed to halt the spread of protests. About 200 mostly low-level members of Syria’s ruling Baath Party have resigned over Assad’s crackdown.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested across Syria since the most recent demonstrations began on April 22, bringing the total number of detentions since the unrest started to at least 2,000, according to Mahmoud Merhi, who heads the Arab Organization for Human Rights.

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