Syria faces outcry at U.N. rights body as toll rises

GENEVA Mon Aug 22, 2011 2:32pm EDT

Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui reads documents as he awaits the start of the special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the situation in Syria, in Geneva, August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui reads documents as he awaits the start of the special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the situation in Syria, in Geneva, August 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

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GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria faced a chorus of Western and Arab condemnation on Monday for its crackdown on anti-government protesters, in which the United Nations said more than 2,200 people have been killed.

China, Cuba and Russia were among the few delegations to speak in support of Syria at the U.N. Human Rights Council, rejecting what they called any interference with its sovereignty or territorial integrity.

But the United States and the European Union, as well as regional powers Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of waging an unacceptable assault on unarmed civilians.

More than 2,200 people have been killed in the five-month-old crackdown by Syrian forces, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a speech.

"The military and security forces continue to employ excessive force, including heavy artillery, to quell peaceful demonstrations and regain control over the residents of various cities," she told the 47-member forum whose session continues on Tuesday.

Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, called for the government to halt its repression of peaceful protests and release all people detained for participating in them.

U.S. envoy Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said the urgent session, the second on Syria this year, underscored the growing international isolation of Assad.

Syria's ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui rejected U.N. allegations that Syrian forces had committed crimes against humanity and accused "large states" of carrying out a misleading campaign to weaken his government.

Syria was carrying out political reforms including the start of a national dialogue, he said. More than 600 members of the armed forces had been killed in the unrest so far, he said.

Russia backed its ally. "These are not just peaceful demonstrators. They are refusing to engage in dialogue and insist on the overthrow of authorities and frequently use weapons," Russia's envoy Valery Loshchinin told the talks.

Khabbaz Hamoui said Damascus was willing to allow U.N. investigators into the country as soon as a Syrian judicial commission had completed its work.

"It is the first we have heard of this offer," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters.

Russia's Loshchinin welcomed Syria's offer as reflecting a "constructive attitude" and openness to international dialogue.

The United States, the European Union and Arab nations want to set up an international inquiry into atrocities by Syrian government forces.

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

An initial United Nations investigation, whose results were issued last week, said the government's crackdown on opposition demonstrators -- marked by killings, disappearances and torture -- might amount to crimes against humanity.

"The United States deplores Assad's campaign of ever-increasing brutality and terror against unarmed innocents, which may amount to crimes against humanity," U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the Council.

Assad's forces shot dead three people in Homs on Monday as crowds welcomed a U.N. humanitarian team, activists there said.

"Security forces continue to arbitrarily detain peaceful protesters and human rights defenders, holding them incommunicado and subjecting many to torture," said Julie de Rivero of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

A draft resolution presented by some 25 council members, including all four Arab members (Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) as well as non-member Tunisia, would set up an international commission of inquiry.

It would report back by the end of November and its findings would be sent to the U.N. Secretary-General and "relevant bodies."

Activists want prosecutions by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and hope the Human Rights Council will recommend the court's involvement to the U.N. Security Council. The Rights Council cannot itself authorize ICC involvement.

Investigators from the office of Pillay say that they have drawn up a confidential list of 50 alleged perpetrators.

"It is high time that this Council responds decisively to the growing number of crimes against humanity and sends a clear signal to perpetrators that they will be held accountable individually for such crimes," Peter Splinter of Amnesty International said.

China, Cuba and Russia want to remove the reference to crimes against humanity from the resolution, in exchange for joining a consensus, according to Radwan Ziadeh, an exiled Syrian activist who heads the Washington-based Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and is attending the Geneva session.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche and Elizabeth Fullerton)

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