UN Security Council rebuke of Syria hailed as potential 'turning point'

The UN Security Council approved a statement Wednesday condemning human-rights violations in Syria. It contains no penalties, but it is significant as 'a clear and unequivocal condemnation,' the US ambassador to the UN said.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talks to the media after UN Security Council adopted a presidential statement on Syria at the UN headquarters in New York, Aug. 3, 2011.

The United Nations Security Council overcame deep divisions Wednesday to unanimously approve a statement condemning “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.”

Expressing its “grave concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria,” the 15-member council stopped short of mandating any specific action by the international community to address the crisis. But it did call on Syrian authorities to grant full and unimpeded access to international humanitarian and human-rights agencies.

The council’s action took the form of a “presidential statement,” which is a step below a resolution. A resolution usually contains specific actions – like sanctions or authorization for outside intervention.

The four European countries currently on the council had resuscitated a draft Syria resolution on Monday after Syrian authorities launched bloody assaults Sunday against protesting civilians. But unabated resistance to a resolution from some council members – Russia and China, in particular – led to Wednesday’s compromise statement.

After the vote, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, insisted that the statement was no compromise and that the importance of the council’s action is that its unanimous vote sends a unified message to Damascus.

“Finally we were able to speak with one voice in clearly condemning the violence perpetrated against civilians by the Syrian government and call for a halt to the violence and insist that what has transpired is utterly unacceptable,” Ambassador Rice told reporters at the UN.

Asked if the US would have preferred a resolution, she said, “We didn't want a split council and we didn't want a weak statement.”

Most important for the US, she added, “was a clear and unequivocal condemnation of the Syrian authorities for the abhorrent and crazy violence they perpetrated against their own people. And we got that, and so we're pleased.”

Noticeably absent from the statement was a demand for an investigation into the killings of some 2,000 Syrians, according to human rights groups’ estimates. Some Western diplomats had insisted earlier that the council include such a demand, but Rice said it would have been meaningless since wording called for an investigation by the Syrian state.

“We thought that it was preposterous, the original formulation that the Syrian government would be asked to conduct a credible and impartial investigation into its own behavior,” she said. The council was unable to agree on calling for an independent investigation with no official Syrian participation, she added.

French Foreign Minister Alan Juppé lauded the statement, calling it a “turning point in the international community’s attitude” toward the Syrian crisis. He noted in particular that the unanimous statement says that those responsible for the violence must be held accountable.

The council intends to stay on top of events in Syria, Mr. Juppé added, noting that the council agreed to “reexamine” events in Syria next week.

Another sticking point that held up council action was insistence from some countries that any statement condemn violence from all sides in the conflict, and not just that perpetrated by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. In the end, the statement calls for “an immediate end to all violence” and specifically calls on “all sides to act with utmost restraint” and to “refrain from reprisals, including attacks on state institutions.”

The Security Council action came as the US was preparing new sanctions against the Assad regime, according to US officials.

The hesitancy of the Security Council to support a more consequential resolution arose from countries including China and Russia, which feared that too much international pressure could weaken the Assad regime and further destabilize an already unstable region.

The White House disagrees with that assessment. “The US has nothing invested in Assad remaining in power,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

“We do not want to see him remain in Syria for stability's sake,” he said. “Rather, we view him as the cause of instability in Syria.”

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