Arab nations press Syria at UN
In a largely symbolic move, three Arab members of a United Nations human rights committee called on Syria to halt the violence against civilians and cooperate with an international investigation into the months-long conflict.
AP - Arab nations on the U.N.'s top human rights body cautiously joined the call Monday for Syria to cease its bloody crackdown and cooperate with an international probe, illustrating President Bashar al-Assad's growing isolation.
Kuwait, Qatar and Saudia Arabia, as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council, each condemned the violence and issued generic admonitions to respect all nations' sovereignty. But in varying degrees, they and other key nations in the region that are not council members, such as Egypt, voiced deep unease over Syria that seemed to extend to supporting a demand for a U.N. human rights team to enter and assess its actions. A U.N. adviser to the 47-nation council, Jean Ziegler, told The Associated Press that the demand for an in-country investigation in Syria would likely gain approval with Arab nations backing it. It was not immediately clear exactly how much support the proposal would finally get.
Diplomats left the special session Monday evening before taking any action, ensuring its continuation Tuesday. A largely Western-backed proposal would have the council strongly condemn the killing of anti-government protesters, but also investigate on the ground what the U.N. is calling possible crimes against humanity.
A U.N. humanitarian team has entered Syria to visit some of the main protest areas and assess needs for aid, but a high-level U.N. human rights team wasn't able to enter for its report. Last week, it recommended that the U.N. Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of alleged atrocities.
"We call on our brothers in Syria to cooperate," Kuwait's U.N. Ambassador in Geneva, Dharar Abdul-Razzak Razzooqi, told the session. "We remain confident that wisdom will prevail.''
Syria's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi, said at the outset that his nation is "ready to receive'' a U.N. inquiry within its borders sometime "in the near future,'' as soon as Syrian authorities finish their own probe.
He said his nation is the victim of "an attempt to terrorize our country'' and a misleading campaign aimed at overthrowing the regime that includes "the lies and the hatred of mass media.''
The session started hours late due a technical glitch with the microphones. Much of the focus was on the report by U.N. investigators who, despite never being allowed into Syria, had determined that possible crimes against humanity had been committed by Syrian security forces.
Those include summary executions, torture of prisoners and that had been children targeted among the opposition protesters. Crimes against humanity are considered the most serious of all international human rights violations after genocide.
"We fear that the threshold of systematic and widespread violence has clearly been reached,'' U.N. special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez said Monday. The report concluded that at least 1,900 people had been killed in the unrest by mid-July, a figure the Syrian government confirmed, but said included at least 260 members of the security forces.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay demanded immediately halt its crackdown and told the session "the scale and nature of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.''
She said some 2,200 people have died as a result of the government crackdown, with 350 reportedly killed since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Pillay told diplomats the U.N. report on Syria was authoritative, even though investigators couldn't get into the country.
"The gravity of ongoing violations and the brutal attacks against the peaceful protesters in that country demand your continued attention,'' she said. "Accounts from victims and witnesses indicate that, far from being acts of terrorism, the people targeted were exercising their legitimate rights of assembly and speech.''
In Syria on Monday, thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets after a televised appearance by Assad, shouting for him to step down and chanting "Gadhafi is gone, now it's your turn Bashar!''
Libyan rebels took control of most of Tripoli in a lightning advance Sunday, celebrating the victory in Green Square, the symbolic heart of Moammar Gadhafi's regime. Assad on Sunday again promised reforms including parliamentary elections by February and maintained that the unrest was being driven by armed gangs and Islamic militants, not true reform seekers.
The U.S. ambassador to the Geneva-based council, Eileen Donahoe, and a chorus of other diplomats to the U.N. strongly contested Assad's assessment. She said "the time has come for President Assad to step aside.''