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Syria Drops UN Rights Council Bid Under Pressure From West

Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari
Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations. Photographer: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Syria, under pressure to drop its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council because of its repression of protesters, withdrew today from next week’s election for the Geneva-based panel.

Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told Asian nations that had endorsed his government’s candidacy in January that Syria was “reprioritizing its candidacies in the UN organization in light of the number of reform measures that the government has started to implement.”

Kuwait agreed to take Syria’s place when the UN General Assembly votes in New York on May 20 for 15 new members to the Human Rights Council. Kuwait, India, Indonesia and the Philippines will fill out the slate of Asian candidates for four seats from that continent on the 47-member panel.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called it a “very positive step” by Asian nations “who determined that they were unwilling to lend sufficient support to a country whose human rights record is deplorable and is in the process of killing its own people on the streets, arresting thousands and terrorizing a population that is seeking to express itself through largely peaceful means.”

President Bashar al-Assad has appointed a new government, ended emergency rule that was in place since 1963 and pledged other steps to broaden freedoms in Syria that have failed to halt the protests.

Syrian security forces today shelled the western city of Homs, extending a crackdown on unrest that has engulfed the country for almost two months. The assault follows attacks yesterday on demonstrators in the capital, Damascus, and flash-point cities including Daraa in the south.

Dead, Detained

Since the protests began in March, 757 demonstrators have been killed, Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, said yesterday. As many as 10,000 may have been detained, according to his organization.

The Human Rights Council election “had become a referendum on Syria’s violent suppression of protests, and Syria withdrew rather than face a resounding defeat,” Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Syria needs to do more than keep its head low to avoid further condemnation, though. It needs to change course and stop the violence.”

Human Rights Watch said in the statement that Kuwait should address its human rights policies.

‘Limited Reforms’

“Kuwait has only recently begun to make limited reforms to improve the situation of over 100,000 Bidun, or stateless people,” Human Rights Watch said. “It has yet to deliver upon promises made in September 2010 to reform the immigration sponsorship system, which leaves over 2 million migrant workers vulnerable to employer abuse, and it has no law to protect the labor rights of the country’s more than 660,000 domestic workers.”

Syria will be a candidate in 2013 for a three-year term on the council, Ja’afari and Kuwait’s Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi said.

Rice said Syria’s withdrawal, the suspension of Libya from the Human Rights Council in March and other recent decisions show the panel is “beginning to move in a more positive direction” and “has the potential to begin to live up to its purposes.’”

The U.S. joined the Human Rights Council in 2009, reversing former President George W. Bush’s opposition to the body’s formation and his refusal to join it. The Bush administration opposed formation of the council in 2006 out of concern that governments such as current members Cuba and China, which have been accused of rights abuses, could stand for election.

The council replaced a commission discredited by the inclusion of governments including Sudan and Zimbabwe that have been accused of widespread abuses against their citizens.

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