U.N. Human Rights Council Condemns Violence in Syria Without Support From China and Russia

August 23, 2011 - 4:10 AM
Special session reveals gulf between democracies, other nations

(AP update: The U.N. Human Rights Council voted 33-4 Tuesday to condemn the violence by Syrian authorities and dispatch a human rights team to probe alleged atrocities there.

The countries voting in favor included all four Arab voting members of the council -- Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Russia and China voted against, along with Cuba and Ecuador. The remaining countries on the 47-nation council abstained or were absent.

In the face of sharp opposition from China, Russia and other nations deeply suspicious of international intervention in a country's affairs, the resolution was heavily edited -- and somewhat watered down -- from its original language. The title "Grave human rights violations ..." became, for example, "The human rights situation ... " in Syria.)

– An emergency meeting of the Human Rights Council to discuss the crisis in Syria is underlining once again the deep differences between democracies and others over the purpose of the U.N.’s top human rights body.

For mostly Western democracies the “special session” in Geneva, which runs through Tuesday, provides an opportunity to call out and isolate President Bashar Assad’s regime over its violent crackdown on anti-government protestors.

Some of the council’s most active non-democratic members, however, are hard at work trying to scale back a drive that threatens not only to unsettle their ally in Damascus, but also to draw unwelcome attention to their own handling of dissent at home.

The gulf between the two sides was especially evident in comments made by representatives of the U.S. and China in Geneva.

“The purpose of today’s session is to increase pressure on the Assad regime, to get Assad to step down, and to allow the Syrian people to move forward,” U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters before the session began on Monday.

“The specific outcome we hope for is the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate facts on the ground in Syria and to bring the Syrian authorities who are responsible for the atrocities to account,” she added.

Beijing’s hope, by contrast, was for the HRC to “maintain its impartiality and objectivity,” said Chinese ambassador He Yafei.

“We also hope that the special session will help advance dialogue and cooperation, instead of turning into a forum to level accusations and exert pressures on the country,” He told the council.

Monday’s session followed informal HRC meetings where member states tussled over the wording of a European Union-drafted resolution.

China and Russia, along with Cuba and some Islamic states, tried to water down the text in various ways, pressing for example for the resolution to condemn violence on “all sides” and to stress the importance of Syria’s “territorial integrity.” They also opposed a reference to “crimes against humanity” and were unhappy about calls for an international investigation.

Human rights advocates monitoring the proceedings urged Western governments not to give in to the pressure to dilute the text.

“The world’s top human rights body shouldn’t be appeasing Syrian allies like Moscow and Beijing, and the E.U. and the U.S. should make sure not to sacrifice moral clarity on the altar of consensus,” said Hillel Neuer, director of the Geneva-based non-governmental organization (NGO), U.N. Watch.

The Obama administration, like European governments, typically promotes the need to achieve consensus in U.N. statements and resolutions, in order to demonstrate strong international support for a position rather than have a divisive vote. This result invariably in the adoption of weaker texts as countries like China and Russia withhold their support for “consensus” until language they oppose is altered or removed.

The counter view is that strong language should be retained and put to a vote, so that countries unwilling to support the text are compelled to vote against it – and be seen to be doing so.

At an informal meeting Monday ahead of the special session later in the day, the U.S. delegate took a stand against the more customary approach, saying that while consensus would send a strong message, it should not come at the expense of the essence of the draft resolution.

Noting that a strong majority was already in favor of the draft text, the delegate said it would be impossible to achieve consensus and for all members to be satisfied with the outcome.

‘Not peaceful demonstrators’

Addressing the special session, U.N. high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay said an estimated 2,200 Syrians had been killed since the crackdown by Assad’s armed forces began in mid-March, including 350 since the beginning of Ramadan.

Reporting on the findings of a U.N. investigation into the crackdown from its beginning on March 15 to July 15, she cited killings, enforced disappearances, deprivation of liberty, torture – including the torture of children – and an apparent sniper “shoot-to-kill” policy.

Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui called the allegations “a clear submission to the will of some large states which are completely hostile to Syria.”

Alluding to Assad’s claims that “armed gangs” were behind the violence, Hamoui said there was an attempt underway “to terrorize our country and wage war.”

The U.S. and Russia were at odds over the “armed gangs” claim.

“These are not just peaceful demonstrators,” said Russian delegate Valery Loshchinin. “They are refusing to engage in dialogue and insist on the overthrow of authorities and frequently use weapons.”

Donahoe demurred. “This is not the work of the fictional ‘armed gangs’ invoked by Assad’s propagandists,” she told the HRC. “The regime has made a conscious choice to continue to deploy security forces throughout the country to prevent demonstrations, to attack civilians, and to arrest activists and protesters on a massive scale.”

Islamic world still on the fence

For the HRC to hold a special session, at least one-third of its 47 members – 16 countries – must request it. In this case, 23 countries backed the call, supported by another 32 countries not currently members of the council.

Some media reports highlighted the notion that Arab states were turning against Assad, noting that four Arab countries on the HRC – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar – had supported the request for the meeting. (The other two Arab states on the council are Libya, currently suspended, and Mauritania, which did not back the call.)

Looking at the broader pool of countries that called for the special session – both HRC members and observer states – only four out of 22 Arab states, and six out of 57 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members, backed the initiative. The six were Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Albania and the Maldives.

During a part of the session dedicated to submissions by NGOs, Syrian pro-democracy activist Lama al-Atassi appealed to the council’s members to “stand in support of the Syrian people” and had scathing words for countries that – both at the HRC and in the Security Council earlier this month – opposed a strong condemnation of the regime.

“I ask China, Russia, Egypt, Nigeria, Lebanon, Pakistan, India and Brazil: How do you justify your support for a regime that slaughters its own people?” asked Atassi, who is a member of a Syrian opposition group and spoke on behalf of U.N. Watch.

“How will you justify your actions when, in the near future, the people of Syria achieve their freedom?”