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Human Rights Council holds special session on Syria

in SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, 06/05/2011

The Human Rights Council (the Council) held its 16th special session on April 29th on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic. The provision to call a special session allows the Council to address urgent and chronic human rights situations at any time, outside of its regular thrice-yearly sessions, at the request of at least one-third of member States [1].

The special session, which was initially requested by the United States on behalf of 16 member States and was supported by 21 observer States, concluded with the adoption of a draft resolution [2] entitled ‘the current human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic in the context of recent events'. The resolution was adopted by majority, with 26 votes in favour, 9 against, and 7 abstentions. Of the Arab States, Saudi Arabia abstained, while Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar were absent when the vote was held. The draft resolution, while condemning the continuous grave human rights violations in Syria, proposes the establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Council, to investigate all alleged human rights violations.

Speaking as the concerned country, Syria voiced strong disappointment in the convening of the country-specific special session, arguing that human rights issues are being used as a pretext to allow foreign interference in domestic matters. Syria further called upon all States to respect the mandate of the Council (to guide its work by the principle of constructive dialogue, amongst others) without resorting to selectivity and politicisation. Moreover, Syria argued that the proposed draft resolution is an ‘unbalanced text’ that would encourage the ‘saboteurs’, whom it blames for instigating violence in order to damage Syria’s international reputation, and would send the ‘wrong message’ to such ‘extremist’ individuals.

The Deputy High Commissioner of Human Rights, Ms Kyung-wha Kang, along with numerous States, expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Syria and the continuous disproportionate use of force against peaceful demonstrations as well as the crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders. Violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly were repeatedly mentioned. Many States called for Syria to cooperate with the UN special procedures mandate holders. States also endorsed the establishment of an international, independent and transparent investigation into allegations of human rights violations, with the aim of bringing perpetrators to justice without impunity (Hungary (on behalf of the EU), UK, France, Uruguay, Chile, Slovakia, Japan, Norway, Belgium, Peru, Denmark, New Zealand, Panama, and Portugal). In this regard, Belarus stressed that an investigation should be carried out by the Syrian government itself. A number of States called upon the international community to acknowledge the recent progressive steps and reforms undertaken by the Syrian government i.e. lifting the state of emergency and granting citizenship to Kurdish minorities (Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Palestine (on behalf of the Arab Group), Brazil, Thailand, Chile, China, Pakistan (on behalf of OIC), Bangladesh, India, Peru, Lebanon, Belarus, Iran, Turkey, and South Africa).

Several States, echoing comments made by Syria, maintained that the special session was held against the principle of non-selectivity, as set out in GA Resolution 60/251, and that the attempt to ‘name and shame’ further demonstrated the politicisation and double-standards of the Council (Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Ecuador, Thailand, China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan (on behalf of OIC), Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Bolivia, Indonesia, Venezuela, Belarus, Iran, Paraguay, and Sudan). Referring back to the special session on Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela warned that such sessions risk establishing a precedent at the Council that could be used to further encourage foreign intervention. While supporting the special session held on Syria, and voting in favour of the resolution, Brazil argued that developments in other countries, including Bahrain and Yemen, equally merit the Council’s close attention.

Finally, a large number of States strongly opposed Syria’s candidacy for membership of the  Council (Hungary (on behalf of EU), UK, France, USA, Slovakia, Japan, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Italy, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, and Sweden).

Developments at the Security Council

On April 26, the Security Council received a briefing from Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe on the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria. However the Security Council failed to act, or even speak out against the continuing violence against peaceful protestors. (Security Council members were unable to reach consensus on a draft joint press statement proposed by France, Britain, Germany and Portugal, condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on peaceful protestors. A joint statement requires the agreement of all 15 members).

During the open meeting following the briefing, several States strongly admonished the Syrian government for its violent suppression of pro-democracy protests, and reiterated the Secretary General’s call on 22 April for an independent, transparent and effective investigation into the killings of protestors (Columbia, Germany, France, UK, US). Several States rejected intervention by the Security Council in the crisis. Lebanon (which, ironically, spearheaded the General Assembly resolution to remove Libya from the Human Rights Council) expressed support for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Russia insisted that Syria’s current situation did not present a threat to international peace and security. China also focused on how the Syrian government could internally resolve the crisis (including calling on various parties in Syria to resolve their differences through political dialogue and recalling the Government’s national investigation into killings), but also allowed that the international community could provide ‘constructive help under the purpose and principles of the UN Charter.’ Several States recognised that regional bodies, in particular the Arab League of States, should play a key role in helping manage and resolve the situation (Portugal, Gabon, India, Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria). However, given the League of Arab States recent endorsement of Syria’s candidacy to the Human Rights Council, it is questionable whether this body can take leadership on the protection of human rights of Syrian civilians.

Meanwhile several human rights NGOs called for the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and to consider imposing arms embargoes, targeted economic sanctions and travel bans on individuals involved in ordering or perpetrating serious human rights abuses and atrocities against civilians.

Footnotes:

[1] See paragraph 10 in Resolution 60/251, and paragraph 119 in Resolution 5/1

[2] A/HRC/S-16/L.1/Rev.1
 

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