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Security Council Urged to Act as UN Raises Syria Death Toll

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad
The United Nations Security Council faced new calls to intervene in Syria after the UN’s top human-rights official raised the civilian death toll in the country to at least 5,000 and said President Bashar al-Assad’s regime should be investigated for crimes against humanity. Photographer: Ed Kashi/National Geographic/Getty Images

Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations Security Council faced new calls to intervene in Syria after the UN’s top human-rights official raised the civilian death toll in the country to more than 5,000 and said President Bashar al-Assad’s government should be investigated for crimes against humanity.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the 15-member body in New York yesterday that the situation in Syria was “intolerable,” and asked that “gross violations” committed by Assad’s security forces be referred to the International Criminal Court. “Ruthless repression” may soon plunge Syria into “civil war,” she said in prepared remarks.

Pillay said the number of deaths probably exceeds 5,000. Her estimate from the start of the uprising in mid-March until Dec. 9 had been of more than 4,000. At least 23 civilians died today, most of them in the northern province of Idlib, where army defectors then killed seven members of the security forces, Rami Abdel Rahman the head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said by phone today. One of the civilians died as a result of torture, he said.

“It’s a situation of kill or be killed,” Patrick Seale, a biographer of Bashar’s late father, former President Hafez al-Assad, said today by phone from London. “They are desperately trying to crush the uprising because they recognize it is gathering momentum with external support.”

Tensions With Turkey

The uprising has also stoked tension with neighboring Turkey, where thousands of Syrians had fled to escape the violence. Syrian border guards in Idlib, near Turkey, clashed yesterday with an “armed terrorist group” of 15 men trying to infiltrate the country and killed two of them, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported today.

“I am really shocked about what I heard about the atrocities in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in New York after being briefed by Pillay. “It is necessary for those countries in the Security Council that are still hesitating to change their mind.”

Efforts by the U.S. and Europe to respond to Assad’s actions against dissenters have been repeatedly blocked by Russia and China in the UN. They used their vetoes to stop an Oct. 4 resolution that sought to pressure Assad to stop killing protesters.

“The world is starting to match its disapproval of Syria’s crackdown with concrete steps to bring it to an end,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said in a message on Twitter. “Past time for UN Security Council to do the same.”

‘Range Of Options’

Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said western nations will consider a “range of options” on Syria, stressing the need to “move in lockstep” with the Arab League.

The league on Dec. 3 ordered a freeze on the assets of 19 Syrian officials, a ban on their travel and a reduction in flights to Syria if the government refuses to admit international monitors and release political prisoners.

The sanctions against the Assad government add to the economic impact of the unrest. Syria’s $60 billion economy, which grew 5.5 percent in 2010, may shrink 2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said, while the Institute of International Finance said the figure would be at least 5 percent. The government expects growth of 1 percent, Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati said in September.

Civil War

Russia stood by a Soviet-era ally to whom it sells weapons.

“This push for civil war must be reverted,” Russia’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters yesterday in New York, declining to acknowledge Pillay’s new estimate of Syrian casualties. “We saw some key members of the Security Council switch gears and turn into regime-change mode. We think this is very dangerous.”

Russia was one of four countries in the 47-member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to oppose a Dec. 2 call to action by “all UN relevant bodies” to respond to the “gross violations of human rights” by the Syrian government. The trigger for the censure was a Nov. 23 report by a commission of inquiry that detailed “gross violations of human rights,” including the killing of 307 children and accounts of sexual abuse of minors.

Fatou Bensouda, who will take over in June as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said yesterday that while she was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Syria, the court can’t act without a referral from the Security Council because Syria didn’t sign up to the Rome statute that set up the tribunal.

War Crimes Court

The world’s top war crimes court, created in 2002, indicted Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in June on charges of crimes against humanity. He was captured and killed in Libya in October after months of fighting backed by a NATO air campaign.

In Syria, security forces killed at least nine people yesterday in Homs and Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More than 76 people died in the previous three days, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from Syria.

Heavy clashes took place between the army and defectors in the southern province of Daraa, according to the Observatory.

“The opposition is also getting much more armed and more menacing and it is really slipping down to into a hell of a civil war -- that’s the real danger,” Seale said.

Arab League foreign ministers will discuss Syria on Dec. 17 in Cairo, Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency reported, citing an unidentified diplomat.

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at the United Nations at; Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at; Mark Silva at

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