UN rights chief likely to act against Syria

AP News
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Posted: Aug 17, 2011 7:56 PM
UN rights chief likely to act against Syria

The U.N. human rights chief is likely to call for the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation of alleged atrocities against protesters during the five-month uprising, a U.N. diplomat and a U.S. official in Washington said Wednesday.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is scheduled to brief the Security Council at a closed-door session Thursday afternoon.

The U.N. diplomat and U.S. official said Pillay is expected to report that a fact-finding team established by the Human Rights Council in April to investigate allegations of abuse has found evidence that Syria violated international human rights law _ and should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because Pillay's intentions and briefing have not been made public.

The Syrian government insists its crackdown is aimed at rooting out terrorists fomenting unrest in the country. Human rights groups and witnesses accuse Syrian troops of firing on largely unarmed protesters and say more than 1,800 civilians have been killed since mid-March.

A call by Pillay for the Security Council to refer Syria to the court, the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, would put the spotlight on a number of council members who have been reluctant to pressure President Bashar Assad's government.

After months of diplomatic inaction, Syria's ongoing military assault, using tanks and artillery, spurred the council to issue a presidential statement on Aug. 3 condemning "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."

The U.N.'s most powerful body was unable to take any action for months because Russia and China threatened to veto a European-initiated resolution condemning the violence, which was backed by the U.S., India, Brazil and South Africa also refused to support the resolution.

The opponents argued that condemnation wouldn't promote negotiations, promised reforms by Assad, and an end to the violence. They also feared that a resolution might be used as a pretext for armed intervention against Syria. They pointed to a council resolution on March 17 allowing the use of military force to protect the civilian population in Libya which, they argue, has been misused by NATO to justify five months of airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

Finally, the Europeans and the U.S. agreed to a weaker presidential statement, which still becomes part of council record, in order to get all 15 council members to sign on.

But if the Security Council decided to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, it would have to adopt a legally binding resolution.

It did so Feb. 26 when it referred the violent crackdown by Gadhafi's regime to the court's prosecutor for investigation of possible crimes against humanity. The Security Council also referred the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region to the court in late March 2005.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council has limited powers, unlike the Security Council which can impose sanctions against countries and individuals as well as authorize military action and referrals to the International Criminal Court.

But the human rights body _ frequently criticized as a toothless watchdog _ has become increasingly assertive in recent months, using its meetings to 'name and shame' countries found to be abusing their citizens.

The U.S. official said the Human Rights Council was to meet in Geneva on Thursday to schedule a meeting to discuss the Syria situation on Monday.

That meeting is expected to hear the report of the fact-finding commission, covering the period up to mid-July. Since then, the crackdown on opposition groups has only intensified despite growing international condemnation.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.