U.N. rights forum agrees Houla investigation

GENEVA Fri Jun 1, 2012 2:08pm EDT

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Syria on Friday for last week's massacre in the Houla region and called for a U.N. investigation to identify the perpetrators and gather evidence for possible criminal prosecution.

The 47-member forum, which held an emergency session in Geneva, adopted a resolution by a vote of 41 states in favor to 3 against - China, Cuba and Russia - with two abstentions and one delegation absent.

The resolution was put forward by Qatar, Turkey and the United States amid international outrage at the killing of 108 people, nearly half of them children, in Houla.

It called for an existing U.N. team of rights investigators, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, to conduct an independent special inquiry into Houla and "identify those who appear responsible for these atrocities and to preserve the evidence of crimes for possible future criminal prosecutions".

"We're very pleased with the significant majority in favor of this resolution, particularly because it was a strong condemnatory text," U.S. ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told Reuters Television.

But Syria's delegation accused "terrorists" of carrying out the killings - its term for anti-government rebels - and rejected the text as politically motivated interference. It said its own investigation was under way.

"The perpetrators will be brought to the courts and will not go unpunished," Syrian diplomat Tamim Madani told the meeting ahead of the vote. "Voting for this resolution is tantamount to killing the victims again."

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Syrian forces and pro-government militiamen accused of committing the slaughter could face prosecution for crimes against humanity.

"I reiterate that those who order, assist or fail to stop attacks on civilians are individually criminally liable for their actions," said Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, said in a speech read out in her behalf.

She called again for the Security Council to refer Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Russia and China, which dismissed the resolution as "unbalanced", said U.N. observers were already investigating the massacre and there was no need for duplication.

"Russia is seriously concerned at attempts by some countries before hearing results of the (U.N. observers') mission to already determine who the guilty are and thereby exercise pressure on the Security Council and use this tragedy only in unilateral interest to undermine the Annan peace plan," Russia's ambassador Alexei Borodavkin told the talks.

It was the fourth time that the top U.N. rights forum condemned Syria in a special session in a year, raising pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's increasingly isolated government.

Earlier, Syria's ambassador, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, accused 600-800 "terrorists" using Israel-made weapons of carrying out the slaughter in Houla so as to "ignite sectarian strife".

Separately, the U.N. Committee against Torture, in findings issued on Friday, said Syrian forces and allied militias had tortured and mutilated civilians including children under "direct order" from Syrian authorities.

Its 10 independent experts had "extensive reports of sexual violence committed by public officers including against male detainees and children". At least 47 children had disappeared since being detained, they said.

"We are alarmed because of numerous, consistent and substantiated reports of torture from reliable sources," Claudio Grossman, committee chairman, told Reuters. "Unfortunately, Syria decided not to cooperate with the committee."

(additional reporting by Cecile Mantovani; Editing by Jon Boyle and Jon Hemming)

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