UPR of Syria: tensions rise as Syria delegation denies allegations of abuse and touts 'reform'
Thursday, 13 October 2011 10:27


On 8 October 2011, the working group on the UPR examined the human rights situation in Syria. The session had been strongly anticipated, coming on the heels of two special sessions of the Human Rights Council (the Council) dedicated to addressing alleged human rights violations committed by the Government while suppressing civil protests. The delegation of six was led by Mr Faysal Mekdad, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. In his introductory speech, Mr Mekdad averred that Syria was being attacked in a 'media war' by international news agencies and western powers bent on turning the country into the 'next Libya'. He discredited international coverage of Syria's internal conflict, arguing that meaningful progress has been made since the first wave of protests in February 2011. This included the recent lifting of the State of Emergency, the holding of national dialogues on political reform, and the organising of an investigative committee to enquire into civilian deaths. With these reforms being apparently ignored by the international community, the Syrian delegation concluded that a harsh 'double standard' existed within the Council, with weaker States being held to a much higher standard than more powerful ones.


Sixty-three States signed onto the speakers list hoping to make a statement on Syria's situation, but only 51 were able to speak. The concerns raised most consistently included the lack of implementation of promised political reform and of the international treaties that the State has ratified, the need to extend an invitation to the Commission of Inquiry set up by the Council’s 17th special session, the non-fulfillment of the requirement to protect freedom of expression, religion, and the press, the excessive use of force by the Government against protestors, and education for young women. Tempers flared when discussing allegations of human rights abuses against protestors, and reached a tipping point when the United States (US) explicitly called on the Syrian Government to formally step aside and make way for peaceful reform. This statement was met with hostility from both the Cuban and Venezuelan delegations, with Cuba requesting a point of order to reprimand the US for inappropriately calling for the removal of a sovereign government. President Lasserre reminded the Council that points of order are only allowed in reference to procedural questions. Later in the session Canada also called for the removal of President Assad’s Government, however many States, though stern in their criticism of Syria’s current policies, held back from taking a similarly robust stance.

Specific recommendations, questions and comments focused on the following issues:

  • Concern over the Syrian Government's delay in signing and ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
  • Approval of Syria's recent decision to withdraw its reservations on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which included a general reservation on all rights that were deemed incompatible with Sharia law.
  • Demands that security forces cease using live ammunition on unarmed civilian protestors.
  • Urgent calls for Syria to move forward on implementing the political reforms it has promised over the past several months, including in particular the need to hold multi-party elections.
  • Requests for improvements in primary and secondary education, including making primary school free.
  • Calls for Syria to bolster welfare infrastructure, particularly with respect to public health for rural and other vulnerable populations.
  • Concern over the continued wage gap between men and women.
  • Commendation of the Government's willingness to support nearly 1.5 million Iraqi and Afghanistani refugees, coupled with apprehension from several States about whether Syria will be able to support the refugees in the long-term.   

Although thanking countries that offered praise and encouragement, the Syrian delegation was noticeably curt in its responses to nearly all recommendations, particularly those related to civilian protests. This included the complete denial of any arbitrary arrests, use of torture, and infringement of freedom of expression. The delegation did acknowledge that a permit was required for peaceful assembly, however it stated that permits are only denied in rare circumstances. Regarding human rights defenders, the delegation denied all alleged mistreatment, arguing that with over 15,000 lawyers specialised in human rights, it is impossible for the Government to harass defenders with impunity.


Beyond issues relating to protests, the delegation touted improvements in education - now encompassing over six million children - and reiterated a claim made in a previous session of the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR)  that there is no need to revise its general anti-discrimination laws to combat racism: ‘All of our identity cards say Syrian’, Mr Mekdad declared, in support of the position  that there is no need for specific legal protection of minority groups. The delegation concluded by acknowledging the request sent by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Commission of Inquiry to visit the country. Mr Mekdad clarified that the Government would ‘welcome’ such a visit, and that any information pointing to the contrary is merely a scheme hatched by unreliable NGOs.  


At the adoption of the report, the delegation accepted 98 of the 179 recommendations made during the interactive dialogue, of which it considered 26 to be already implemented (including a recommendation to bring new legislation on freedom of assembly into line with international human rights law, and recommendations to fully respect freedom of association and expression) and 15 in the process of implementation (including recommendations to investigate attacks on peaceful protestors).  The UK, Norway, Poland, the US, and Japan took to the floor to state that they considered that recommendations they had made should not be placed in the ‘already implemented’ category, in particular those relating to peaceful assembly. The President took note of these points, and proceeded with the adoption. The delegation also indicated that an additional 26 recommendations will be considered further and a final decision reached by the 19th Session of the Human Rights Council, to be held in March 2012. The remaining recommendations were rejected, including those to end violence against peaceful protesters which, the delegation stated, were based on incorrect assumptions.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 October 2011 10:38
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