- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2011

GENEVA (AP) — Arab nations demanded Monday that Syria allow an international probe on whether crimes against humanity have been committed during the country’s bloody crackdown, illustrating the growing world isolation of President Bashar Assad.

Kuwait said it was making the demand on behalf of some of the other Gulf nations participating in Monday’s U.N. Human Rights Council’s special session on the Syrian crackdown. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador was similarly outspoken.

“We call on our brothers in Syria to cooperate,” Dharar Abdul-Razzak Razzooqi, Kuwait’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, told the session in calling for a U.N.-backed investigation into alleged atrocities in Syria. “We remain confident that wisdom will prevail.”

A U.N. adviser to the 47-nation council, Jean Ziegler, told the Associated Press that the demand for an in-country investigation in Syria would likely be approved at the meeting because of political momentum gained from Arab nations backing it. It was not immediately clear exactly how many were supporting the demand.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi, said at the outset of the session that his nation is “ready to receive” a U.N. inquiry within its borders sometime “in the near future,” as soon as Syrian authorities finish their own probe.

He said his nation is the victim of “an attempt to terrorize our country” and a misleading campaign aimed at overthrowing the regime that includes “the lies and the hatred of mass media.”

The session began just days after a high-level U.N. human rights team recommended that the U.N. Security Council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of alleged atrocities.

“We fear that the threshold of systematic and widespread violence has clearly been reached,” Juan Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture, said Monday, explaining the team’s recommendation.

The U.N. investigators said in their report that government forces in Syria may have committed crimes against humanity by conducting summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children in their crackdown against opposition protesters.

Crimes against humanity are considered, after genocide, the most serious of all international human rights violations.

The report concluded that at least 1,900 people had been killed in the unrest by mid-July, a figure the Syrian government confirmed but said included at least 260 members of the security forces.

Navanethem “Navi” Pillay, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, demanded that Syria immediately halt its crackdown and told the session “the scale and nature of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.”

She said some 2,200 people have died as a result of the government crackdown, with 350 reportedly killed since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Ms. Pillay told diplomats the U.N. report on Syria was authoritative, even though investigators couldn’t get into the country.

“The gravity of ongoing violations and the brutal attacks against the peaceful protesters in that country demand your continued attention,” she said. “Accounts from victims and witnesses indicate that, far from being acts of terrorism, the people targeted were exercising their legitimate rights of assembly and speech.”

In Syria on Monday, thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets after a televised appearance by Mr. Assad, shouting for him to step down and chanting, “Gadhafi is gone; now it’s your turn, Bashar!”

Libyan rebels took control of most of Tripoli in a lightning advance Sunday, celebrating the victory in Green Square, the symbolic heart of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

Mr. Assad on Sunday again promised reforms, including parliamentary elections by February, and maintained that the unrest was being driven by armed gangs and Islamic militants, not true reform seekers.

The U.S. ambassador to the Geneva-based council, Eileen Donahoe, and a chorus of other diplomats to the United Nations strongly contested Mr.  Assad’s assessment. She said, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.”



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