x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

EU nations increase pressure for UN condemnation of Syrian crackdown

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemns Assad government's 'utterly deplorable' use of tanks, artillery and snipers to 'bludgeon its population into submission'.

NEW YORK // International pressure mounted on Damascus yesterday with European nations pushing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria's political crackdown and the UN's human rights chief accusing the regime of "moral and legal bankruptcy".

The Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, warned of a rising death toll in Syria and condemned the government's "utterly deplorable" and widespread use of tanks, artillery and snipers to "bludgeon its population into submission".

Ms Pillay voiced fears about military activity in the town of Jisr al Shughour, and estimated that some 1,100 Syrian civilians have been killed and a further 10,000 detained since protests against Syria's president, Bashar al Assad, began in March.

In New York, France and Britain were leading calls for a vote on a draft Security Council resolution that says Syria's suppression of protesters "may amount to crimes against humanity" but falls short of authorising sanctions or Libya-style military action.

A revised document was circulated among the 15-nation council on Wednesday that condemned "widespread and systematic" attacks on civilians including "killings, arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture of peaceful demonstrators".

France's UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, said the council must act on Syrian bloodshed and warned of collapse into "civil war". Britain's envoy, Mark Lyall Grant, said the "world should not stand silent in the face of the outrages that are happening" there.

The Europeans are struggling to convince council colleagues of the merits of action, particularly the veto-wielding members Russia and China, who both warn that UN-backed censure could destabilise the country.

Non-permanent members Lebanon, South Africa, India and Brazil expressed concerns about the draft, which would need nine affirmative votes and no vetoes to pass. Russia has signalled it may block the document in a vote that could take place as early as today.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, told the state news agency RIA Novosti yesterday that Moscow opposed the document because Syria's political upheaval "does not pose any threat to international peace and security".

Mr Lukashevich echoed Syrian government claims that its forces have been attacked by militant radicals. He said "extremist calls, including from the so-called foreign-based opposition to topple the regime and avoid all-national dialogue are not helping to calm the situation".

Russia, an ally and Syrian arms supplier, warns against council action on Syria, arguing that Nato's intervention in Libya oversteps the mandate of a UN Security Council resolution that was aimed at civilian protection rather than regime change.

Brazil's foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, described "systemic concern" with implementation of the Libya resolution and said the Syria document lacks support from the Arab League, the 22-nation bloc that gave critical backing to the Libyan no-fly zone.

"The last thing we want to see or do is contribute to exacerbating tensions in what can be considered one of the most tense regions in the world," he said at UN headquarters yesterday.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said Washington has "strong support for that text" and dismissed comparisons to Libya. "We heard several council members … use Libya as an excuse, as a ploy to avoid the real issues that we are facing in Syria," she said.

Council members were consulting on the draft resolution last night. Britain's envoy, Mr Lyall Grant, said the text had been changed in response to concerns from some countries in a bid to gain "overwhelming support" within the UN's top political body.

The latest version includes a clause that notes the "stated intention of the government of Syria to take steps for reform" and stresses that the "only solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process".

In a separate development in Vienna, the board of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) referred Syria to the UN Security Council for covert atomic activity and stonewalling an agency probe at its Dair Alzour desert site for three years.

The UN nuclear watchdog adopted the Western-backed resolution with a simple majority of 17 votes in favour and six against in the IAEA's 35-nation governing board. Russia and China voted against the proposal.

US intelligence reports describe a North Korean-designed reactor that was designed to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs before it was bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007. Syria argues that it was a conventional military site.