UN human rights chief faults both sides in Syria

Reuters , Monday 10 Sep 2012

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that both sides in the Syrian conflict had committed human rights violations and had targeted civilians

The UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay. (Photo: Reuters)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights blamed on Monday both sides in the Syrian conflict for human rights violations and said that justice would eventually catch up with them.

Addressing the 47-member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Navi Pillay reiterated that the Syrian government's actions might amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. "The use of heavy weapons by the government and the shelling of populated areas have resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties, mass displacement of civilians inside and outside the country and a devastating humanitarian crisis," she said.

"I am equally concerned about violations by anti-government forces, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture, as well as the recently increased use of improvised explosive devices," she added.

Both government forces and militants had also deployed snipers who targeted civilians, she said.

Pillay, a former UN war crimes judge, has repeatedly called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court, but such a referral can only be effected by the UN Security Council, which is split on how to deal with Syria. China and Russia oppose any attempt to lay the blame for the crisis on President Bashar Al-Assad.

"A referral will make it abundantly clear to all actors in Syria that they will not escape justice and will be held accountable for alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law," Pillay said on Monday in a separate speech she made to a discussion on Syria.

"Opposition forces should be under no illusion that they will be immune from prosecution," she added, calling on the rebels to halt what she called a deterioration in their conduct.

The Human Rights Council has repeatedly voted to condemn Syria's government for its handling of what began as a peaceful protest movement against the government and has escalated into civil war. China, Russia and Cuba have consistently voted against its resolutions.

Independent UN human rights investigators, in their latest report issued on August 15, said that Syrian government forces and allied shabbiha militia have committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what appears to be state-directed policy.

The United States called on Monday for the mandate of the inquiry led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, which expires later this month, to be extended so that it continues to collect evidence and testimony.

"The onus is upon this Council to ensure that those who commit such heinous human rights violations are investigated and identified so that perpetrators can be held accountable," US ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the Council.

"There can be no doubt that the architect of this destruction is Bashar Al-Assad and the regime must end," she said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition watchdog based in London, says more than 27,300 people have died in an uprising that has lasted more than 17 months, including about 19,500 civilians and rebel fighters, 1,100 army deserters and 6,700 soldiers and members of the security forces.

Nearly 250,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he regretted that the Human Rights Council's recommendations had not been followed up by other UN bodies, and urged the Geneva forum to keep up its vigilance on Syria, "including on the question of accountability".

"We must ensure that anyone, on any side, who commits war crimes, crimes against humanity or other violations of international human rights or humanitarian law is brought to justice," he told the Council which opened a three-week session attended by Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui.

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