For weeks, Syria has used live fire against peaceful demonstrators challenging the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. But the bloody crackdown, which has killed at least 400 Syrian civilians, has not been enough to undermine the country's diplomatic standing at the United Nations.
A U.S.-backed European initiative to issue a U.N. Security Council statement condemning Syria's use of force against civilians ran aground today in the face of opposition from China, Lebanon, and Russia. Last week, ambassadors from the Arab League issued a letter supporting Damascus's bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council (HRC). The U.N.'s Asia Group had already announced in January its endorsement of Syria's candidacy for the rights council, and the group plans to push for a vote in the General Assembly next month.
But the bid is already running into fierce criticism.
"Syria's campaign for a seat on the Human Rights Council is a slap in the face to the victims of the current crackdown, and an embarrassment to those who have supported its candidacy," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. "By supporting Syria's candidacy, the Asian Group and the Arab League risk emboldening Syria's bloody crackdown and making a mockery of the Human Rights Council."
A coalition of human rights groups and Western states, including the United States, have mounted a campaign to foil Syria's efforts to join the rights council, and remain hopeful that Damascus will abandon its candidacy before the U.N. General Assembly votes next month on new members for the council. Earlier today, the Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. envoy to the HRC, announced that a special session had been scheduled Friday at the Geneva-based rights agency to "address egregious human right violations currently being perpetrated by the Syrian government."
Though the U.N.'s Asia Group has the prerogative to fill the four open seats on the rights council, the United States is hoping to convince other Asian countries to compete against Syria for the group's endorsement. Currently, the group has put forward a slate of four candidates, comprising India, Indonesia, and the Philipines, in addition to Syria. If a fifth Asian country were nominated, the group would need to hold a vote for the four open seats. The United States and other countries successfully thwarted Iran's candidacy for the Human Rights Council in this fashion in January.
While the reports of government killings of protesters in Syria echoes the bloody crackdown in Libya by forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi, Syria has so far maintained substantial support in the Arab world. One reason is that Lebanon, which has led efforts in the Security Council and Human Rights Council to condemn Libya, has resisted tough action against Syria, which exercises enormous influence over Lebanese politics.
The council's four European governments, Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal, abandoned an effort today to press for a Security Council statement condemning Syria's crackdown after Lebanon, China, India, and Russia raised objections.
Instead, the council held a public debate on the matter, in which China, India, and Russia raised concerns about the violence but underscored the importance of letting Syrians resolve their own problems without outside interference. "It is for states to decide on the best course of action" in restoring law and order inside their borders, said India's U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri.
"The security of Lebanon is part and parcel of Syria's security. What takes place in Lebanon has an impact on Syria and what take place in Syria has and impact on Lebanon," said Lebanon's U.N. ambassador, Nawaf Salam. "Lebanon backs stability in Syria and the wider Arab world."
For its part, Syria has denied that it has ordered live-fire attacks against civilians, saying that armed elements have infiltrated the demonstrations and opened fire on Syrian security forces. "More than six weeks have passed since the onset of acts of violence perpetrated by extremist groups whose fundamental objective is clearly the fall of the Syrian government," Syrian envoy Bashar Ja'afari told the council today. He said Syrian security forces have "exercised the utmost restraint in order to avoid the killing of innocent civilians."
"We too we want the unrest to end. We too regret that there have been some causalities among the civilians," Ja'afari said Tuesday. "Unlike other leaders, President Assad is a reformer himself, and he should be given the chance to fulfill his mission in reforming the political life in the country."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.