Saturday, May 14, 2011

Syria: UN Disquiet Grows Over Syria

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks on phone to Syrian President Assad | Credit: UN

By Richard Johnson Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

GENEVA (IDN) - Though hardly in a position to amend the situation, United Nations is profoundly concerned about grave human rights violations in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, as governments crack down on unrelenting protestors demanding political overhaul and participation in governance.

UN watchdog -- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) -- says it has received reports that that many opposition leaders and activists have been targeted across the country. Between 700 and 850 people have been killed since the demonstrations began in mid-March, and thousands more have been arrested, figures issued by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) indicate, a UN media statement said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported the use of live ammunition and other abuses by Syria's security forces against peaceful protesters since demonstrations began on March 16, 2011 with some 700 dead, according to Syrian human rights groups.

"The violence has escalated in recent weeks, with more than 100 protesters killed on April 22 and 23 alone, and at least several thousand detained. The Syrian army has held the southern town of Daraa under siege since April 25, cutting electricity, phone lines, and internet services, and preventing free movement into and out of the city," HRW stated on May 11.

"We cannot verify these numbers for sure, but believe they are likely to be close to reality," OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists in Geneva. "These are extremely worrying reports and we urge the Government to exercise utmost restraint, cease the use of force and of mass arrests to silence opponents."

HRW expressed appreciation that the Human Rights Council had "unequivocally condemned" Syria's use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters on April 29, but it regretted that the UN Security Council that was briefed on the situation in Syria on April 27, did not take any action. "It did not even issue a statement, due in particular to opposition from Russia and China," HRW said.

HRW is apparently satisfied that on May 11 Syria has withdrawn its candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council. This should be followed by an end to its violent crackdown on peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said.

Human rights groups from across the region and the world had called on UN General Assembly members to reject Syria's candidacy for the rights body.

"Syria may have avoided facing the music in the UN General Assembly by withdrawing its candidacy, but it shouldn't be so lucky in the Security Council," Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said. "The Security Council should take action on Syria, including imposing travel bans and financial sanctions on those responsible for the violence."

Hicks added: "Syria needs to do more than keep its head low to avoid further condemnation, though; it needs to change course and stop the violence."

With Syria out of the race, Kuwait has announced its bid for a seat on the council. HRW also called for Kuwait to take steps to address human rights concerns in that country in the context of its candidacy for a Human Rights Council seat.

"Kuwait has only recently begun to make limited reforms to improve the situation of over 100,000 Bidun, or stateless people, in the country. It has yet to deliver upon promises made in September 2010 to reform the immigration sponsorship system, which leaves over 2 million migrant workers vulnerable to employer abuse, and it has no law to protect the labor rights of the country's more than 660,000 domestic workers," HRW said.

The UN Human Rights Council has meanwhile ordered a fact-finding mission to Syria to assess the situation on the ground, and Colville said OHCHR was in contact with the government in Damascus to obtain their full cooperation.

The mission that will travel to Syria and neighbouring countries will be led by Kyung-wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, and "should be ready to deploy as soon as we are granted access," Colville said.


Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has spoken by telephone with President Bashar al-Assad on several occasions during the crisis, has urged him to cooperate with the human rights mission and with a separate planned humanitarian mission to the southern city of Deraa, where fighting has been particularly intense.

Ban said on May 11 that the United Nations would continue to press Syria to allow an independent humanitarian team to be granted access to the cities and towns where security forces have clashed with protesters, many of whom have been killed.

Expressing disappointment that the UN has not been given the access it was promised by Syrian authorities, he said that an assessment mission was vital so that the international community may provide much-needed humanitarian assistance.

"I again urge President /Bashar) Assad to heed the calls of the people for reform and freedom, and to desist from excessive force and (the) mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators," Ban told a press conference in Geneva. He reiterated that Assad should take "bold and decisive measures before it is too late."

Ban's call May 11 echoed that of Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who voiced concern the previous day about the lack of access for humanitarian actions within Syria.

Media reports say hundreds of people have been either killed or detained in recent weeks as Syrian security forces cracked down on demonstrations to suppress a broad-based 'pro-democracy movement' that has engulfed the Middle East and North Africa since the start of the year. Long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have tumbled down and open conflict continues in Libya.

Colville said on May 13, 2011 that OHCHR continues to receive disturbing reports stating that hundreds of people detained in connection with Bahrain's protest movement -- including medical professionals, opposition politicians and human rights defenders -- are being denied their legal rights to due process.

"We have worrying reports of severe torture and that, so far, four detainees have died while in custody," he said, adding: "We reiterate our call for prompt, impartial and transparent investigations into these allegations of grave human rights violations. We are deeply concerned about the reported scale of arbitrary detention and of the trials of civilians before military courts leading to life imprisonment and death sentences, which we have already said is illegal."

OHCHR also spoke out about reports of rights violations and continued killings in Yemen, the poorest country in the region. Colville said the situation was difficult to assess because of a lack of access to the country and to affected areas in particular.

The Yemeni Government has informed the OHCHR that its staff can visit at the end of June, but Colville stressed that "we stand ready to deploy urgently so that our human rights officers can independently assess the situation."