Massacring dozens of its own citizens one day – elected to the United Nations’ top human rights group the next?
That’s the trajectory Syria is on, meaning that the once-dependably stable but now-bloodied domain of President Bashar al-Assad could join the United States and 45 other countries on the UN Human Rights Council.
After state-directed violence against civilians has left some 400 Syrians dead, a rising chorus of diplomats and human rights advocates is calling for Syria to be kept off the council when the UN General Assembly votes on new members May 20.
The rising consternation over Syria’s Human Rights Council candidacy is part of mounting international efforts to punish the Assad regime for its increasingly violent response to spreading protests.
The US is considering “targeted” sanctions to punish officials involved in the government’s violence, and it’s working with international partners, particularly in Europe, to bring them on board any new sanctions, according to State Department officials.
But so far, the US is stopping short of declaring Mr. Assad’s government illegitimate or calling for the authoritarian ruler to step down – as it did in the case of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi when he began attacking civilians.
The US is weighing a “range of options,” including the targeted sanctions, “to show the Syrian government that ... the course it is on is wrong,” said Jake Sullivan, State Department director of policy planning, in a briefing with reporters Tuesday.
Despite that, the US has not closed its embassy in Damascus and is “keeping lines of communication open” with senior Syrian government officials, he added.
That response differs from that meted out to Mr. Qaddafi, who was blacklisted, slapped with a UN resolution authorizing the use of force against his regime, and was declared “illegitimate” by President Obama shortly after Qaddafi began a war against the Libyans opposing him.
The US will oppose Syria’s election to the Human Rights Council, State Department officials say. But it remains unclear if the US plans to actively undermine Syria’s candidacy – for example, by lobbying other potential candidates from Syria’s geographical bloc to throw their hats in the ring.
Under the rules of the council, which was created in 2006 – replacing the terminally deficient Human Rights Commission – members are elected from regional groups. Syria, one of four candidates for four seats in the Asia group, faces no opposition and will be elected to the council unless other Asia candidates step forward.
However, Syria could also lose out by failing to receive a majority of votes in the 192-member General Assembly. Given that the General Assembly recently removed Libya from the council in response to the mounting human rights violations of the Qaddafi regime, some rights advocates are holding out hope that the General Assembly could take the unusual step of rejecting a regional candidate.
After the Syrian military apparently issued “shoot to kill” orders Monday to soldiers entering the town of Deraa, Obama administration officials said the US would begin looking for ways either to strengthen sanctions already imposed on Syria or to impose new ones.
Human rights activists in Syria told the Al Jazeera news network Tuesday that the attacks in Deraa continued during the day and that the government had sent reinforcements to continue the attack – in some cases to replace soldiers who have refused to fire on civilians.
The activists also report that aside from civilians killed, many hundreds have been arrested and are unaccounted for.
The US already has a list of sanctions targeting Syria (over state sponsorship of terrorism) and may not have much leeway for turning up the heat on the Assad regime, some officials say. The best option for pressuring Assad may be for other powers with closer ties to Syria, such as the European Union, to impose new sanctions, these officials add.
The group Human Rights Watch is calling on the US and the European Union to “impose sanctions on Syrian officials who bear responsibility for the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and the arbitrary detention and torture of hundreds of protesters.”
Mr. Sullivan of the State Department says new sanctions targeting senior officials in the Assad government could have the effect of peeling them away from the regime. Imposing such sanctions, he says, could “send a clear message to the targets of the sanctions and ... leave them with a clear choice.”