Human Rights Council Condemns Syria Crackdown, But What is Next?

The UN Human Rights Council voted 33-4 to condemn the Syrian government’s crackdown on demonstrators.  During the session leading up to the vote, the top UN human rights official Navi Pillay briefed the council with her most up-to-date information about the crackdown.  2,200 people have been killed so far, including several dozen since the most recent Ramadan crackdown.

OHCHR fact-finding mission found a pattern of widespread or systematic human rights violations by Syrian security and military forces, including murder, enforced disappearances, torture, deprivation of liberty, and persecution. Although the report covered the period of 15 March to 15 July 2011, there are indications that the pattern of violations continues to this day. It is our assessment that the scale and nature of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.

It is regrettable that the Government of Syria did not give access to the Mission, despite my repeated requests. Nonetheless, the Mission gathered credible, corroborated, and consistent accounts of violations from victims and witnesses, including military defectors, and Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.

The Mission concluded that while demonstrations have been largely peaceful, the military and security forces have resorted to an apparent “shoot-to-kill” policy. Snipers on rooftops have targeted protestors, bystanders who were trying to help the wounded, and ambulances. The Mission also documented incidents of summary execution outside the context of the demonstrations, and during house-to-house searches and in hospitals. Victims and witnesses reported widespread attempts to cover up killings by the security forces, including through the use of mass graves.

The authorities, using heavy artillery and military vehicles, imposed de-facto blockades on several cities and effectively deprived inhabitants of basic goods and services. Restrictions imposed on freedom of movement prevented injured persons from receiving medical treatment. Public hospitals were sometimes closed ahead of military operations, or the injured were turned away by staff.

The Mission found that Security forces have pursued a policy of arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals suspected of having taken part in demonstrations. Torture and ill-treatment were found to have been widespread. Former detainees cited cases of death in custody, including that of children, as a result of torture.


As of today, over 2200 people have been killed since mass protests began in mid-March, with more than 350 people reportedly killed across Syria since the beginning of Ramadan. The military and security forces continue to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities, particularly in Hama, Homs, Latakia and Deir al-Zour. The heavy shelling of al-Ramel Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia last week resulted in at least 4 people killed and the displacement of the 7,500 inhabitants of the camp. Despite assurances from President Assad to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday that military operations had finished, I regret to note that at least five people were killed around the country on Thursday and 34 more on Friday by Syrian military and security forces. Tanks continue to remain on the outskirts of the cities.

The lopsided vote at the Human Rights Council is significant for the fact that all four Arab members of the Council voted in favor of the resolution, while China and Russia led an opposition (and were joined by Cuba and Ecuador). China and Russia have been trying to put the breaks on international action in Syria since the crackdown began, but in recent weeks they have seen fit to relent on their opposition. They both acceded to a Security Council statement condemning the Ramadan crackdown and the Russian foreign ministry even issued its own terse statement imploring Damascus to relent.

A Human Rights Council condemnation sometimes presages action at the Security Council. But Russia and China’s opposition in Geneva seems to be a step backwards in what has been, in recent weeks, a steady march toward sanctions and, possibly, an ICC referral at the Security Council.