UN council issues tepid rebuke of Syria. Does it want to avoid another Libya?

The UN Human Rights Council barely backed a watered-down condemnation of Syria for its attacks on civilian protesters. The pushback suggests some nations worry that the West overstepped its bounds in pressing for strong action against Libya – and want to avoid a repeat.

Martial Trezzini/AP
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations in Geneva Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui delivers a statement during the Human Rights Council Special Session on the situation of human rights in Syria Friday.

The United Nations’ top human-rights body on Friday split over how to respond to Syria’s state-ordered violence against civilians – even as Syrians defied the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and turned out in protests across the country.

The UN Human Rights Council approved a watered-down statement sponsored by the United States that condemns the military-on-civilian violence that has killed as many as 500 people, according to reports from Syrian rights organizations. The statement also calls on the UN’s top human-rights official to undertake an immediate investigation of the violence for violations of international law.

But the statement had to overcome a barrage of opposition from China, Russia, and some African countries that made it clear they were balking at following the same path the international community has taken against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The statement squeaked by with 26 votes in favor from the 47-member body.

Nine countries – including China and Russia – voted against the measure, while 11 either abstained or were not present.

The council’s split suggests that the long-lived divide over human rights between Western and developed democracies on one side and developing, often autocratic regimes on the other is alive and well.

Declarations at Friday’s council session from Russia, China, and some other members suggest that a number of countries now feel Western countries have overstepped their bounds in using international condemnation of Libya to enter the conflict there, and they don’t want the same to occur in Syria.

The cautious international response took place as Friday protests in Syria reportedly erupted even in the heart of Damascus, where little public dissent had occurred over the past week of bloody demonstrations elsewhere. Reports from inside the country, difficult to confirm because foreign journalists are being kept out, claimed that perhaps “dozens” of people were killed Friday.

The council’s action in Geneva was followed in Washington by the US government’s first new sanctions on Syria since this year’s popular upheaval across the Middle East began pitting governments against their populations.

President Obama on Friday signed an executive order imposing sanctions on three Syrian officials and two organizations – Syria’s intelligence agency and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard CorpsQods Force – in connection with the government’s violent actions.

The Syrian officials, including two relatives of President Assad, are not thought to have many assets in the US, so the action freezing all US-based assets is unlikely to have much real impact. But US officials say the idea is primarily to send a message to Syria, including to Assad himself, that sticking to the course of violent repression will lead to additional – and stronger – action.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said after the vote in Geneva that the council was acting “against attempts to silence dissent with the use of gratuitous violence, which is not the act of a responsible government.” She called the statement “an important precedent,” adding that it marks “a strong step forward for this world body at a critical time.”

She did not mention the compromises the US had to accept to get to a bare majority in favor of the statement. Among other things, the US stripped out a call for an official commission of inquiry to investigate the Syrian violence – the step approved by the council in the case of Libya – in favor of a lower-level mission led by the UN’s high commissioner for human rights.

In addition, a reference in the statement to Syria’s candidacy to the Human Rights Council – and a line calling on UN members to consider Syrian official violence when voting for new council members – was eliminated. Nevertheless, Ambasssador Rice insisted the statement as approved speaks against Syria’s campaign for a council seat.

The statement “underscores the incongruity of Syria’s current candidacy” for the council, she said. “Meeting legitimate calls for reform with tanks and bullets is unacceptable behavior by any government, least of all an aspiring member of the Council.”

The organization Human Rights Watch said after the Geneva vote that electing Syria to the Human Rights Council now, when an investigation of the violence has been approved, would be “like inviting the accused to sit in with the jury."

The New York-based group said it is time for the Arab League and other countries that have endorsed Syria’s candidacy to reverse course and back other candidates.

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