Syria: Country heading for civil war, senior UN official warns

THE UN’s top human rights official has warned all-out civil war could engulf Syria unless the international community rallies around calls for an independent investigation into the killing of more than 100 civilians last week.

As countries lined up at an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council yesterday to express their disgust at the Houla massacre, in which 49 children were among the dead, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights appealed for support for international envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan to halt the violence in Syria.

“Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole, could be in grave danger,” Navi Pillay told the 47-nation council in a speech read out on her behalf.

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It was the fifth time that the Geneva-based council called an urgent meeting on Syria.

Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Fayssal al-Hamwi, also condemned the massacre in Houla but blamed it on “groups of armed terrorists” seeking to ignite sectarian strife.

US ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said there was no doubt the regime of president Bashar Assad was responsible for the killing.

“There needs to be justice and accountability for those that committed these atrocities,” she told the council.

A draft resolution, proposed by Qatar, Turkey and the US, condemns the killings in Houla and states that “those responsible for serious violations of human rights must be held accountable”, but does not suggest how.

European diplomats want the resolution to include a call for the UN Security Council in New York to consider referring the massacre to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a move the rights council cannot do on its own.

Maria Ulff Moeller, a Danish diplomat whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said: “Mostly we are pressing for some stronger language on accountability. We can encourage the Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC, and it’s something we are pushing for.”

Other nations including the US have been sceptical about invoking the International Criminal Court.

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But Ms Donahoe indicated that information collected by the rights council’s investigators could be used for an ICC investigation. She told reporters in Geneva: “We believe our role at the Human Rights Council is to provide the basis for a case that would be brought on crimes against humanity.”

The draft resolution also calls on Syria to allow the rights council’s panel of experts to visit the country.

Meanwhile, a separate UN expert panel tasked with investigating allegations of torture said yesterday it was deeply concerned at widespread violations of international law by Syrian authorities, often using militias known as Shabiha.