UN rights body slams Syria, calls for aid access

March 1, 2012 - 6:06 PM

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N.'s top human rights body voted Thursday to condemn Syria for its "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians in a violent crackdown on opposition groups, as more western governments closed their embassies in Damascus over worsening security.

Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council approved a resolution proposed by Turkey with 37 votes in favor and three — Russia, China and Cuba — voting against. Three members of the 47-nation body abstained and four didn't vote.

The resolution urged Syria to immediately stop all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups. It also supported gathering evidence on possible crimes against humanity and other serious abuses in the fighting in Syria, so that those who committed them can be held to account at a later date.

Hours later in New York, the U.N. Security Council approved its first statement on Syria in seven months, deploring the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country and calling on the government to grant U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos "immediate and unhindered access."

Britain's U.N. Ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, the council president, said "the power of the statement is that it has all 15 members of the Security Council supporting it." Russia and China vetoed two resolutions condemning the Syrian government's bloody crackdown and calling for President Bashar Assad to step down, but they agreed to this nonbinding press statement focused only on the humanitarian crisis.

At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Syria's seat in the room remained empty during the vote. The country's U.N. envoy stormed out of the council Tuesday having accused the body of supporting terrorism and prolonging the crisis in his country.

The council's vote carries no legal weight but diplomats consider it a strong moral signal that may encourage a similar resolution in the powerful U.N. Security Council. Russia and China have strongly opposed any such resolution in the Security Council, fearing it eventually will lead to Western military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

"Let's hope those who voted against the resolution today can see just how isolated they are in the international community," said Britain's ambassador in Geneva, Peter Gooderham. "We very much hope this will have an impact in Beijing, in Moscow and of course in Damascus."

The U.N.'s human rights office said it welcomed the "very strong endorsement" of the resolution. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had told the council earlier that she supported referring Syria to the International Criminal Court in the The Hague over the allegations of crimes against humanity detailed in a recent U.N. report.

Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the council, said it was crucial that so many countries had accepted that the government crackdown was the cause of Syria's humanitarian crisis.

The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms.

In other diplomatic action in New York, Security Council diplomats said Thursday they are continuing to discuss a possible new resolution despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes.

The U.S. has proposed elements for a new draft resolution, which have been given to Russia for consideration, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity, because discussions have been private. But the diplomat cautioned unless both sides can agree on a text that Moscow and Beijing will not veto, nothing will be circulated.

Meanwhile, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, the new U.N.-Arab League special envoy on the Syrian conflict, met behind closed doors Thursday morning with the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.

Diplomats said Annan reiterated his top priorities — ending the violence, getting access for humanitarian agencies, and starting a dialogue with all parties in Syria to try to end the conflict. One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private, said the five ambassadors showed full support for Annan's mission.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Annan later spoke to Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby. Annan is expected to fly to Cairo Friday to meet Elaraby and discuss the mission and the appointment of a deputy special envoy. Diplomats say hopefully, if the Syrian government approves, Annan will head to Damascus soon after.

Earlier Thursday, Britain's foreign secretary confirmed that the U.K. was closing its embassy in Syria and withdrawing all diplomatic staff amid concern over security.

"We have maintained an embassy in Damascus despite the violence to help us communicate with all parties in Syria and to provide insight into the situation," William Hague told Britain's Parliament. "We now judge that the deterioration of the security situation in Damascus puts our embassy staff and premises at risk, and have taken the decision to withdraw staff accordingly."

Hague said ambassador Simon Collis and other remaining staff had left Syria on Wednesday.

Switzerland announced late Wednesday it was temporarily closing its embassy in Damascus, a step the United States took in early February.

___

Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.