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Human Rights Chief Calls for More Action in Syria


As violence continues unabated in Syria despite tough economic and travel sanctions from such big players as the Arab League, the European Union, Turkey and the United States, the head of the UN’s high commissioner for human rights has spoken out by calling for international intervention to protect civilians against government attacks. Navi Pillay, the high commissioner, made the request during an emergency session on Dec. 2 at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

The session was instigated by the European Union with support from the US and such Arab countries as Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all of whom are council members.

With deaths reaching 4,000 people since the Syrian conflict began in March, the most important body in the UN, the Security Council, has so far refused to pass a resolution imposing sanctions. In a momentous vote in October, Britain, France and the US supported such a resolution, but China and Russia, the other permanent council members, vetoed it. The latter two countries contended they were protecting Syria’s sovereignty, while Russia, in particular, was said to be shielding its own interests – arms sales to Syria – by avoiding Security Council action.

Voting for a resolution on Syria in a special session at the Human Rights Council on Dec. 2, 2011. JEAN-MARC FERRE/UN PHOTO

The Security Council did issue a presidential statement condemning the “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.”

In Geneva during the Dec. 2 session, the Human Rights Council criticized the Syrian government’s refusal to allow an independent investigation from the UN into the country and condemned Syria’s “ongoing grave human rights violations by the Syrian authorities against their population.”

Pillay said that of the 4,000 dead, 370 were children, some of whom, the council said, had been tortured. The council also called on “all sexual violence” against civilians by Syrian authorities to stop.

In addition, Pillay asserted that “the Syrian authorities’ continual ruthless repression, if not stopped now, can drive the country into a full-fledged civil war.”

As part of the council’s recommendations, it urged independent investigations to end the government’s impunity, allow outside media into the country and lift censorship, including access to the Internet. The return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people was also urged.

A report by the Human Rights Council on conditions in Syria released last week found “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture” and other gross abuses.

Syria agreed last month to allow monitors into the country, as part of a deal negotiated by the Arab League, but then the government reneged. On Dec. 5, Syria said it would once again cooperate with the league’s request – with conditions. The league dropped Syria from its ranks in November, in a push said to be led by its secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby.

Additional resources

In Washington, the Human Rights Council Endures Scrutiny

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

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Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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