Urgent Debate on Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation in the Syrian Arab Republic

On February 28th, 2012 the Human Rights Council held an urgent debate on the human rights and humanitarian situation in the Syrian Arab Republic.
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (President of the UN General Assembly) opened the meeting affirming that the report on Syria published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria painted a dire picture of the situation on the ground.

The Syrian Government has clearly failed in its responsibility to protect its people; on the contrary, its forces have committed serious human rights violations. Then Mr. Al-Nasser highlighted the importance of the work of the Human Rights Council, which held three special sessions and adopted three resolutions on the human rights situation in Syria. In doing so, the Council raised the awareness of the international community on the Syrian crisis. Moreover, Mr. Al-Nasser affirmed that many countries regretted the failure of the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution in support of the Arab League plan to stop violence in Syria.
Both Mr. Al-Nasser and Ms. Navi Pillay (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) invited the Syrian authorities to cooperate with Mr. Kofi Annan, joint Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General and the League of Arab States to Syria. In addition, Ms. Navi Pillay said that the Assad Government must admit international monitors into Syrian detention centres, guarantee access to humanitarian actors and free all political prisoners. The High Commissioner specified that Damascus has cooperated to some extent with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Arab League, but this loses significance in the face of the ongoing massacres and arbitrary arrests of civilians perpetrated in the country.
Ms. Navi Pillay explained that the Syrian human rights and humanitarian crisis is rapidly worsening because of the Assad Government policies. Syrian authorities have launched a massive campaign of arrests against anti-Government activists, blockaded some cities and shelled densely populated neighbourhoods, using mortars, tanks and rockets. Moreover, the real number of Syrian casualties may far exceed the data provided by the Government (2,493 civilians and 1,345 soldiers and police officers killed as of January 2012). For all these reasons, Ms. Pillay also recommended that the Syrian situation should be referred to the International Criminal Court.
In his intervention, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations claimed that the Human Rights Council was not the appropriate forum to hold a discussion on the human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria.
The Syrian representative also affirmed that the human rights situation in his country deteriorated due to the rebel armed groups using inhabited areas as their bases. Moreover, the unilateral sanctions imposed by some countries would explain why Syrian people currently have a limited access to medical care. In conclusion, the ambassador remarked that Syria has not been consulted about the opportunity to hold the debate, which would be part of a pre-established plan to overthrow the Assad Government under the pretext of addressing humanitarian needs. As a consequence, the Syrian delegation announced its retirement from the discussion and its rejection of any resolution on Syria that the Human Rights Council might have adopted.
In the following interventions, the overwhelming majority of Human Rights Council’s Member States affirmed that the government must immediately stop the killings of civilians, open humanitarian corridors in Syria and implement the Arab League’s plan for a peaceful, Syrian-led transition to democracy. Furthermore, almost all the Member States welcomed the appointment of Kofi Annan as joint Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General and the League of Arab States to Syria.
Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Portugal welcomed the resolution on Syria adopted by the UN General Assembly, which condemned the violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime. The European Union also expressed its support for the Group of Friends of the Syrian people, which recently convened in Tunis.
The United States claimed that vetoes of two permanent members of the Security Council allowed the Assad Government to continue its war against the Syrian people. According to the US, the international community must clearly declare its support for the Syrians and their fight for democracy.
Nevertheless, some Member States expressed quite different views about the Syrian situation. The Russian Federation said that it would be an error to introduce democracy in Syria from abroad, while only the Syrians themselves could find a solution to overcome the current crisis. Cuba affirmed that the international community should preserve Syria’s independence and territorial integrity, rejecting any proposal for regime change. Cuba was also concerned by the humanitarian crisis going on in Syria, but claimed that the Assad Government is not the sole responsible for the spreading of violence throughout the Arab country.
China expressed preoccupation for the escalation of the Syrian crisis. For this reason, a political dialogue among all the factions at war would be welcomed, but any external imposition of regime change should be avoided. Venezuela argued that some countries are trying to exploit the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Syria to bring down the Assad Government. However, security should be guaranteed to the Syrian people without any military intervention.
A great number of NGOs took the floor in the last part of the debate. The majority of them condemned the attacks carried out by the Syrian regime on its own people, and called on the Human Rights Council to take measures aimed at ensuring the accountability of human rights violators. Some NGOs proposed that the Human Rights Council encouraged the Security Council to refer the crimes committed in Syria to the International Court of Justice.
The debate ended with the adoption of the draft resolution L.1/Rev.1, which had more than 60 States as co-sponsors. The document expressed concern for the deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria and called on the Assad Government to immediately cease all attacks against civilians and to permit humanitarian access. Moreover, the resolution blamed Syrian authorities because they had chosen to intensify shelling in the city of Homs while the international community expected them to receive the United Nations Envoy, Valerie Amos.