The General Assembly overwhelmingly supported a resolution condemning the relentless “widespread and systematic” human-rights violations committed by Syrian officials and demanded that the government stop all violence and protect its people. The resolution, though not enforceable, also called on Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to cede office to a vice president and begin negotiations to form a new government.
The vote sent out an “unequivocal message to the world and to Syrian officials that we will not let the Syrian people down,” Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the UN, told the media after the vote this afternoon. “We call on the Syrian government and Assad to stop the violence immediately.”
The resolution, which was adopted by 137 countries (12 no votes, 17 abstentions), supports the Arab League’s efforts in the last months to end the warfare in Syria. UN officials have estimated that more than 5,400 people, including 300 children, have been killed since protests began in March 2011. The resolution is a symbolic gesture meant to rebuke the Syrian government and to also be used to influence future action on resolving the crisis. One recent proposal, from the Arab League, was to send a peacekeeping mission to Syria, a decision that the Security Council can make. The countries that voted against the resolution were: Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The General Assembly resolution also condemned the continued violations of “fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities,” including the use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, killing and persecution of protesters, human-rights defenders and journalists, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence and ill treatment, including against children.
Before the vote, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, called the draft resolution a “biased” document that had nothing to do with his country. He cited recent moves to respond to popular demands, including a Feb. 26 vote on a new constitution.
The UN’s top official, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, both spoke forcefully on Syria this week, as the assembly debated the resolution on Monday, which essentially mirrors the resolution that was vetoed in the Security Council on Feb. 4 by Russia and China. Russia promised to do more negotiating in Syria as the government only escalated its attacks, killing up to 300 people since that time.
Ban reiterated today that the Syrian government needs to comply with international humanitarian law and stop the “mounting loss of life” in the country since last March.
On Monday, Pillay told the assembly that “the longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities committed against them.”
To UN journalists in New York the same day, Pillay said that the Syrian killings represent crimes against humanity and that she hoped the issue would be taken up by the Security Council, which refers investigations to the International Criminal Court.
On Tuesday, Edward Luck, the secretary-general’s special adviser on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which was cited by the UN in Libya to oust the government of Co. Muammar el-Qaddafi, told the UN News Center in an interview that he was deeply concerned that the situation in Syria was becoming “more of a sectarian conflict,” with attacks against certain groups.
“There are signs that the nature of the conflict has changed, and that is very worrisome,” he said, citing reports of fresh attacks in recent days, particularly in the city of Homs.