Turtle Bay

U.S. and Europeans clash over Syria strategy at Human Rights Council

On Monday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in New York that a U.N. report detailing atrocities by Syrian security forces underscored the need for the U.N. Security Council to take action to stop a campaign of repression that has left more than 4,000 dead, most of them peaceful protesters. ...

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters in New York that a U.N. report detailing atrocities by Syrian security forces underscored the need for the U.N. Security Council to take action to stop a campaign of repression that has left more than 4,000 dead, most of them peaceful protesters.

But over the following days, U.S. diplomats in Geneva worked behind the scenes to eliminate a European Union proposal to have the U.N. Human Rights Council recommend that the Security Council consider the U.N. report on Syrian abuses and to "take appropriate action" to stop it, according to senior Western diplomats and human rights advocates.

Western diplomats said that U.S. officials had informed them this week that they are reluctant to see the Human Rights Council resolution refer the matter to the Security Council — because it would reinforce a precedent that could be used in the future against Israel.

In Oct. 2009, the rights council called on the U.N. Security Council to consider the Goldstone Report, which sharply criticized Israel’s conduct during the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive, called Operation Cast Lead. The resolution was adopted over the objections of the United States, but the Security Council’s membership showed little interest in taking up the matter.

European diplomats were hoping to use the rights council this week as a political lever to ratchet up pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad with the one threat they believe he fears: a deeper Security Council role in addressing the crisis. "It would be disappointing but not surprising if United States policy on Israel was skewing their policy towards the strongest possible action on Syria," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But U.S. officials challenged that account, saying that while they don’t believe it’s appropriate for the Human Rights Council to tell the Security Council what to do, Washington does favor the toughest possible action against Syria. They also maintain that the United States has lead international efforts at the United Nations to ensure that Syrian officials are ultimately held accountable for their crimes.

They cited U.S. support for a Security Council statement in August demanding that Syrian perpetrators of violence face justice for their crimes, the move to rally support to prevent Syria from getting elected to the Human Rights Council, and the convening of a series of three special sessions there to condemn and investigate Syria’s crimes.

"For months now, the United States has been at the forefront pressing for Security Council action against the Syrian regime, as well as action and condemnation through other U.N. bodies like the Human Rights Council," Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, told Turtle Bay. "However, the Human Rights Council simply cannot refer matters to the Security Council because it’s a subsidiary of the General Assembly … the Security Council decides which issues of international peace and security it will take up."

The debate follows the publication on Monday of a damning account by a U.N. commission of inquiry into Syria’s conduct. It is playing out as the U.N. Human Rights Council prepares to vote on a resolution condemning Syria’s action.

A confidential draft, which was obtained by Turtle Bay,  "strongly condemns the continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities." It accuses the government of committing "arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the killing and persecution of protesters, human rights defenders and journalists."

The draft also calls on Syria to immediately halt its security crackdown, investigate rights abusers in the police and army, allow U.N. human rights monitors into Syria, and urges the Arab League and other U.N. members to support international efforts to "protect the population of the Syrian Arab Republic."

An earlier draft statement included a reference to the International Criminal Court. ( A preambular paragraph reiterated "the importance of accountability and the need to end impunity and hold to account those responsible for human rights, violations, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity [that may warrant the attention of the ICC]."

While the call for accountability remains in the latest draft, the bracketed reference to the ICC  has been dropped at the insistence of the United States, which is not a member of the Hague-based court. The U.S. spokesman, Mark Kornblau, did not confirm the United States had blocked the language, but he said that "we continue to press for accountability — and again this is not the in the purview of the Human Rights Council, it’s the responsibility of the Security Council."

Human Rights advocates criticized the U.S. approach to the negotiations. "The U.S. should be leading the charge to include this kind of language rather than trying to block it," said Peggy Hicks, who is monitoring the negotiations in Geneva for Human Rights Watch.

"We think it’s very important that the current draft resolution recommends that the General Assembly and the Security Council consider the report of the Commission of Inquiry, which found that crimes against humanity have been committed in Syria," said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s U.N. representative. "The members of the [Human Rights Council] that believe in international justice should stick up for this."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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