Syria Tells U.N. Why It Should Sit on Human Rights Council

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A Young Syrian immigrant is seen behind posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a rally in Sofia, Bulgaria, in support of the Syrian leader, on Sunday, April 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Valentina Petrova)

( – As the death toll climbs in Syria’s crackdown on anti-government protests, President Bashar Assad’s government is making a pitch for a seat on the U.N.’s top human rights body. The Assad regime said it assigns the “highest importance” to the promotion and protection of human rights.

“Syria’s candidature to the Human Rights Council signifies its commitment to respect and to support the inalienable and indivisible nature of all human rights,” it says in a pledge lodged with the U.N. ahead of next month’s election.

Syrian membership in the Geneva-based HRC, Damascus adds, “would contribute to accomplish the objectives of the Council, and would support the national and international efforts for promotion and protection of human rights for all, without distinction and selectivity or politicization.”

Syria is one of four countries in the U.N.’s Asia regional group standing for election when the U.N. General Assembly on May 20 votes to fill 15 vacant HRC seats.

As four of the available seats are allocated to Asia, its success looks little more than a formality – unless another candidate from Asia enters late and turns the voting exercise into an actual contest.

The Asia group endorsed Syria, along with India, Indonesia and the Philippines, last January, so any prospective late entrant would risk disfavor by going against that decision.

Earlier, a coalition of human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sent an appeal to the Asia group, asking it to urge Syria to pull out or to reverse its endorsement of Syria’s candidacy.

Since that letter was sent on April 5, the crisis in Syria has deepened significantly. On Sunday at least 20 protestors were reportedly killed in the city of Homs, one day after Assad in a speech to ministers announced some concessions, including plans to lift emergency rule that has been in place for 48 years.

Further clashes took place in Homs overnight Monday, with gunfire reported in the main square where demonstrators had gathered.


A Syrian protester flashes the victory sign during a protest calling for President Bashar Assad to step down in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, Sunday, April 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Nader Daoud)

Rights advocacy groups estimate well over 200 deaths since the government first cracked down on the protests in mid-March. Human Rights Watch issued a report late last week charging that “Syrian security and intelligence services have arbitrarily detained hundreds of protesters across the country, subjecting them to torture and ill-treatment.”

In its U.N. pledge, the government says that Syria has “worked consistently on advancing the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“Syria’s candidature to the Human Rights Council signifies its commitment to respect and to support the inalienable and indivisible nature of all human rights, both on the national and international levels,” it continues.

“Syria believes that its membership of the Human Rights Council would contribute towards enriching the quality of dialogue, cooperation and action aimed at promotion and protection of human rights for all peoples.”

Little change in council makeup expected after May election

Should Syria succeed in obtaining a seat on the HRC, it will join a number of other countries frequently criticized for poor human rights records, including China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, Russia, Mauritania and Kyrgyzstan. (Libya would have been in that group, but its membership was suspended last month.)

Of the current 47 HRC members, only 20 are ranked as “free” by Freedom House, while 14 are “partly free” and 13 are “not free.”

If the candidates now declared in the May 20 election succeed, the number of “not free” countries will remain unchanged (as Syria and Congo will replace outgoing Bahrain and Gabon).

The “free” to “partly free” ratio may differ slightly, depending on what happens in the Eastern Europe group (where “free” Czech Republic and Romania, and “partly free” Georgia are vying for two available seats); and in the Latin American group (where “free” Peru, Chile and Costa Rica, and “partly free” Nicaragua, are in a contest for three available seats).

Meanwhile, the number of Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members in the HRC will remain unchanged at 18. The seats vacated by Bahrain, Pakistan and Gabon will be filled by Syria, Indonesia and Benin.

The Islamic bloc has had a significant influence on the council, where it has never held fewer than 14 of the 47 seats, and this year holds a record 18.

With backing from non-Islamic allies including China, Russia and Cuba, the OIC has used its weight to drive the five year-old HRC’s agenda, outvoting the group of democracies especially in issues relating to Israel and religious “defamation.”

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