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Council mandates inquiry into massacre in El-Houleh at fourth special session on Syria
Friday, 01 June 2012 17:51


On 1 June 2012, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held its 19th special session on the ‘deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the recent killings in El-Houleh’. Despite three previous special sessions on the situation in Syria, the violence has continued. The request for the special session, submitted by Qatar, Turkey, the European Union (the EU), Denmark, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America (US) was supported by 23 members of the Council and 33 observer States. This special session follows last week’s massacre in the town of El-Houleh that drew international condemnation and prompted the US and at least a dozen other nations to expel Syrian diplomats on Tuesday.


The special session concluded with the adoption of resolution A/HRC/S-19/L.1 entitled ‘The deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the killings in El-Houleh’. The session followed the pattern of previous special sessions, with China, Cuba, and the Russian Federation continuing to block efforts to reach consensus on the situation in Syria. These three States voted against the resolution. Ecuador and Uganda abstained, while the Philippines did not vote. The final vote tally was 41 votes in favour, 3 against, and 2 abstentions. There were notable shifts from India which, having abstained on all resolutions on Syria to date, voted in favour of the resolution, and Angola, which also voted in favour after having previously either abstained or not voted.


The resolution, which condemns the increasingly grave human rights violations in Syria and more specifically the massacre in the town of El-Houleh, includes the decision to request the Commission of Inquiry (COI) to urgently conduct a ‘comprehensive, independent, and unfettered special inquiry’ into the events in El-Houleh, and to attempt to publicly identify those who ‘appear responsible’. Further, the resolution invites Mr Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States, to brief the Council at its 20th session. Again, the resolution makes no reference to referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), despite attempts during negotiations to have this reference included. It states however that the evidence gathered from the above investigation should be preserved for ‘possible future criminal prosecutions or a future justice process’. The COI is requested to provide a full report of its findings to the Council’s 20th session.


As expected, Syria expressed strong opposition during the session to the draft resolution, as it had done at the previous sessions. Its main point of concern was that the resolution was politicised, and that the Council’s continued attention on Syria is selective. It added that several States continued to promote violence in the country by supplying the rebels with arms. It stated that the resolution prejudges the findings of the inquiry that it calls for, and that by giving this mission to the COI it casts doubt on the role of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) and the Joint Special Envoy, Mr Annan. Syria stated that it fully accepted its responsibility to protect its people and to uphold international law, with the aim of emerging from the crisis. It called for a constructive debate to this end.


Condemnation of the massacre and calls for an investigation were unanimous, including from those who were opposed to the resolution. However several States (including China, Cuba, the Russian Federation, and Syria) criticised the assignment of the investigation to the COI, stating that this undermined the missions of UNSMIS and Mr Annan, and risked duplicating their work. China appealed for an immediate cease-fire and a strengthening of support for the existing mechanisms and measures including Mr Annan’s six point plan and UNSMIS. These States, as well as Venezuela speaking on behalf of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas) repeated the calls they had made in the past that the international community should not use the special session or the resolution as a pretext for foreign intervention. Venezuela and China stated that the situation should be resolved by dialogue, rather than the one-sided approach represented by the resolution. Jordan associated intervention with risks for regional and international peace and security, which it feared could lead to an escalation of the situation. Other Arab States, notably Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, wished for more robust action in order to stop violence but highlighted the need to protect Syrian sovereignty and integrity.


Many States echoed Mr Annan’s description of Syria as being ‘at a tipping point’ following these massacres, stating that if action was not taken, irreversible descent into civil war was on the horizon. Indeed India gave this as the reason why it had decided to vote in favour of this resolution. Many other States emphasised the urgency of the matter, referring to the findings from UNSMIS and the COI of acts of violence that may amount to 'crimes against humanity'. Botswana endorsed robust diplomatic measures as well as sanctions. Several States including Denmark (on behalf of the EU), Chile, Switzerland, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Botswana expressed the need to refer or, in the case of the EU, to consider referring these matters to the International Criminal Court (ICC), emphasising accountability as essential if a future peaceful Syria is to be achieved. These calls were reiterated by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay (represented in the meeting by Ms Marcia Kran) and endorsed in a joint statement by special procedure mandate holders, which was delivered through videolink, by Mr Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Cuba and Russia stated however that unwarranted pressure was being placed on the Security Council.


Ms Pillay along with most of the States on the speakers' list, expressed regret that Syria continued to fail to cooperate with the international community, including the with the COI and UNSMIS. This call was echoed by many States including Denmark (on behalf of the EU). A priority for many States was the imperative need for access for humanitarian aid into the country. Qatar called for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor.


During the adoption of the resolution, the Russian Federation, while ‘categorically and most decisively’ condemning the events in El-Houleh, and demanding an investigation, stated that the resolution was one-sided and failed to include a condemnation of terrorism. It reiterated claims made during the session that the resolution anticipates the findings of the inquiry it calls for, and added that such an inquiry should not be carried out by the COI, as this calls into question the competence of UNSMIS under whose mandate such an inquiry falls, and risks duplication. Further, the delegation held that the invitation to Mr Annan to brief the Council was inappropriate. The Russian Federation’s remarks were echoed by Cuba and China. Syria’s response was to condemn what it described as the selectivity of the Council, and to describe the resolution as motivated by a desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Syria. 

Last Updated on Friday, 01 June 2012 17:53

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