6524th Meeting (PM)
Despite the promise of reform contained in a spate of recently announced legislative and legal changes, in fact the crackdown against anti-Government protesters by Syrian authorities had dramatically intensified, a top United Nations political official told the Security Council today.
“Repression is not the solution,” Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe said, adding that inclusive dialogue and genuine reforms were required to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and restore confidence, social peace and order.
Outlining recent events in that country, he said the anti-Government demonstrations began in mid-March following the detention of schoolchildren in Deraa, and gradually increased in geographic scope and participation. What started with demands for greater freedom and political and economic reforms, eventually included calls for the regime’s downfall, echoing slogans heard elsewhere in the region.
According to a review of credible sources, including United Nations agencies, he said the Syrian authorities had reacted with a mix of reform measures and increasingly violent repression. A reputable review of available reports put the total number of anti-Government protestors killed by security forces and their supporters at more than 300. More than 100 persons were killed across the country from Friday 22 April to Sunday 24 April.
While he said it was difficult to verify events unfolding in Deraa as a result of a major military operation there, reliable sources reported the use of artillery fire against civilians, the shooting of medical personnel attempting to aid the wounded, raids against hospitals and mosques and the destruction of medical supplies. The United Nations could also confirm that water, communications systems and electricity had been cut in the city since at least Monday, he said, underscoring the potential for a major humanitarian emergency to unfold.
Following Mr. Pascoe’s briefing, delegates took the floor, presenting mixed views on the situation and its potential to destabilize the region or create wide-reaching ripple effects. While virtually all speakers called for an immediate end to the violence, voicing deep regret over the loss of life and urging respect for human rights, several were divided over the origins of the clashes. Some said Syria’s pledges of reform had been undermined by continued violence and called for an independent investigation into the killings. Others, including Lebanon’s delegate, expressed support for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Condemning in the strongest possible terms the violence inflicted by the Syrian Government, the United States’ representative called on President Bashar al-Assad to “change course now” and on the international community to stand united in that goal. The Government’s response — casting blame on outsiders as it continued its repression — was no way to respond to legitimate calls for reform from its people; neither was accepting assistance from Iran and using the same brutal tactics as that regime. The United States was considering a range of options, including sanctions.
The Russian Federation’s delegate continued that, despite increased tension, the current situation did not present a threat to international peace and security. Nor did all of the violence result from one side. It was increasingly clear that some demonstrators hoped that a destabilization of the security situation would invite international interference, which would only result in a dangerous cycle.
China’s delegate said the events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa had dealt a “big blow” to the region’s stability and addressing that issue was a common challenge. If such issues were not addressed appropriately they would affect peace and stability in other regions and negatively impact world economic recovery.
Stressing that his Government had, in fact, taken many concrete steps in response to the legitimate demands of its people — including abolishing the state of emergency and issuing, for the first time in its history, a legislative decree on peaceful demonstrations — Syria’s ambassador said the current violence was perpetrated by extremist groups, whose fundamental objective was clearly the fall of the Syrian Government.
He said that while law enforcement authorities had exercised the utmost restraint to avoid the killing of innocent civilians, extremist groups, which included armed criminal elements, continued to kill innocent citizens, as well as many members of the security forces. Instead of backing down in light of the reform measures taken by Syria’s leadership, the parties behind the demonstrations had regrettably responded with further attacks.
The internal campaign went hand-in-hand, he said, with an unprecedented media campaign in the region against Syria’s domestic and international policies. Rejecting the massive political pressure to change Syria’s national policies being brought to bear from outside the country, he said the statements heard today from Council members could only be considered as an incitement to violence and terrorism.
Also speaking today were the representatives of the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Germany, India, Gabon, Brazil, Lebanon, Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Portugal and Colombia.
The meeting began at 4:00 p.m. and adjourned at 5:20 p.m.
B. LYNN PASCOE, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said his office was following the unfolding events in Syria, using reports from a number of United Nations entities, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), as well as published and confidential information from major international human rights and humanitarian organizations and a review of reputable media resources. The official websites of the Syrian Government had been reviewed, as had social media sites of Syrian opposition groups, he added.
He noted that the anti-Government demonstrations had started in mid-March, following the detention of 15 schoolchildren in Deraa for anti-Government graffiti and gradually increased in geographic scope and participation. They began with demands for greater freedom and political and economic reforms and eventually included calls for the regime’s downfall, echoing slogans heard elsewhere in the region. The Syrian authorities had reacted with a mix of reform measures, and increasingly violent repression, which the Secretary-General had strongly condemned.
He said President Bashar Assad had recently announced a number of reforms, including an investigation into the killings during protests. Among other things, he had issued a decree granting citizenship to stateless Kurds living in the north-east and pledged to release all those who had been detained during the protests, except for those accused of committing crimes “against the nation and the citizens”. Further, the state of emergency, in place since 1963, was lifted on 21 April. The next day witnessed the largest demonstration to date with protesters claiming that the measures were “too little and too late”.
But, despite the promise of reform, the Government crackdown had dramatically intensified, he said. As a result, more than 100 persons were killed across the country from Friday 22 April to Sunday 24 April, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Among other actions, a major military operation had been instigated in Deraa and surrounding villages. Given the siege-like nature of the operation, it was difficult to verify events there, but reliable sources reported that, among other things, artillery fire was used against civilians, medical personnel attempting to aid the wounded were shot and medical supplies were purposefully destroyed.
He said the United Nations could confirm that water, communications systems and electricity had been cut in the city since at least Monday. As a result, schools and health facilities run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had been closed for the past week. Pointing to reports of shortages of medicine, water and food, he underscored the potential for a major humanitarian emergency to unfold.
He went to say that the land border between Syria and Jordan had been closed for much of the ongoing military operation. Other towns near Damascus were surrounded by tanks and armed forces. There had been other reports of security forces opening fire on demonstrators, including in Jableh and Homs. Since mid-March a reputable review of available reports put the total number of anti-Government protestors killed by security forces and their supporters at more than 300, and most likely between 350 and 400. The High Commissioner’s Office had received reports of the wide-scale detention of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, among others, as well as serious allegations of beatings and torture of people detained in connection with protests, including of children.
He said that, while a review of credible reports from the media, human rights groups and United Nations agencies and diplomatic missions confirmed that the overwhelming majority of protests had been peaceful, there were also credible reports of a very few instances where protestors had used force, resulting in the deaths of security forces. Human Rights Watch had documented, on the basis of eye-witness testimony, only one such instance in Deraa on 8 April. There were no reports suggesting that was recurring phenomena. Some of the overall confusion on the issue might, he suggested, stem from the presence of armed security forces and regime supporters in civilian clothes.
He said the denial of access to members of the international and independent media violated the freedom of the press. One cumulative effect of that policy was the prevention of the collection and dissemination of accurate and impartial information, leaving observers unable to confirm or deny many allegations. Syria’s official news agency reported the death of at least 21 military and security personnel in recent days. The Government had stated that most killings of civilians had been committed by anti-Government protesters, but had provided no evidence to support those claims. The State media had also accused Lebanon’s Future Movement of supplying arms to the protesters, which they have denied. The United Nations had no further information on those allegations. Stressing that all of the reported deaths should be investigated, he noted that the Human Rights Council would hold a special session on the situation in Syria on Friday in Geneva.
Continuing, he said the regional implications of the unfolding situation were of concern, particularly for Syria’s neighbours. In that regard, he noted that the Secretariat General of the League of Arab States had issued a press statement on 25 April urging an immediate halt to violence and announcing that the forthcoming meeting of Foreign Ministers of the League would discuss the current dangerous situation between the people and their Governments in the Arab world. The Government of Turkey had also moved to engage with Syrian interlocutors. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had issued three statements and spoken with President al-Assad. He had also called for independent and transparent investigations into the killings, while also calling for the Syrian Government to fulfil its obligation to protect civilians and respect human rights, the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of the press.
“Repression is not the solution,” he stressed. “An inclusive dialogue and genuine reforms should address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, restore confidence and ensure social peace and order.”
SUSAN RICE (United States) condemned in the strongest possible terms the violence inflicted by the Syrian Government and called on President Assad to change course now, calling on the international community to stand united in that goal. The United States, she said, was considering a range of options, including sanctions. She was particularly concerned about violence against unarmed demonstrators, and welcomed the holding of a special session of the Human Rights Council on the situation. The Government’s response — casting blame on outsiders, as it continued its repression — was no way to respond to legitimate calls for reform from its people; neither was accepting assistance from Iran and using the same brutal tactics as that regime. She called for access for independent observers to verify the facts on the ground, and stressed that, concerning Government promises of reform, words must be backed by action.
MARK LYALL GRANT (United Kingdom) said that the situation was of grave concern to his Government. Surveying events across North Africa and the Middle East, he said that while some Governments had responded positively to calls for reform, in Syria there had be an attempt to use violence and oppression to stifle the legitimate aspirations of the people. He condemned without reservation the violence against peaceful demonstrators and called for the repression to end, with the forces ordered to use maximum restraint. President Assad’s Government should lift emergency laws and move towards real reform, and those responsible for the violence must be held to account through an independent investigation. The international community needed to speak with one voice in condemning the violence, and the United Kingdom was speaking to partners on a range of options, including targeted sanctions. Syria was at a fork in the road, it could follow that of reform or that of continued repression, which could only seriously hurt the country’s future.
GÉRARD ARAUD (France) unreservedly condemned the brutality against peaceful demonstrators and repression of journalists and human rights activists. The massacre of the civilian population that took place in the early 1990s was still too painful and the world could not look the other way now. Syria must respect human rights, including the right to protest peacefully and the right to a free press and freedom of expression. He seconded the call for an independent investigation of the killings. Only reforms would make maintenance of Syria’s stability possible. If the protesters were not heard by Syrian authorities they should be heard by the Council, and a range of options should be considered and strong measures should be put in place, if calls from the international community go unheeded.
BASO SANGQU (South Africa) called for restraint from all parties and the lifting of emergency laws. He urged the Government to move towards democratization in compliance with the wishes of the Syrian people, who must be allowed to express their views and exercise their other political rights and freedoms.
PETER WITTIG (Germany) said that the situation was deeply worrying. The scale of the violence and brutality used was particularly disturbing and the situation had serious regional implications. Syrian authorities were using violence against peaceful demonstrators and he was shocked at people being killed for exercising their rights. The violence had to stop immediately, he said, stressing that pledges of reform were undermined by the continuing violence. He demanded access for independent observers and seconded the call for an independent investigation into the killings. The Syrian authorities must respect human rights, and must safeguard the safety, dignity and rights of all detainees. He strongly supported the holding of a special session of the Human Rights Council and said his country was discussing options within the European Union and other venues, including sanctions.
ALEXANDER A. PANKIN (Russian Federation), noting that there were victims among both the protesters and the security forces, said his delegation expected a thorough and transparent investigation into these deaths and that those found guilty would be brought to justice. Stressing that the recently announced democratic reforms were worthy of support, he pointed to the lifting of the state of emergency, as well as efforts to resolve the legal status of certain groups, among other measures. He further highlighted measures to step up the fight against corruption and to promote rural development. Those “fair solutions” must be carried out jointly by all sides, he said, while violence must be avoided.
He stressed that constructive dialogue was the only route to ensure democratic stability. Despite increased tension, the current situation did not present a threat to international peace and security. Nor did all of the violence result from one side. An army column had been fired on, while police forces were killed and security installations attacked. It was increasingly clear that some demonstrators hoped that a destabilization of the security situation would invite international interference, which would only result in a dangerous cycle. It had the potential to destabilize a significant link in the security architecture of the Middle East, leading to complications throughout the region.
LI BAODONG ( China), saying his country was closely following the unfolding tension in Syria, a critical country in the Middle East region, stressed that the tensions could only be resolved through political dialogue. He welcomed Syria’s lifting of the state of emergency, as well as its announcement of political reforms. The Syrian Government had also decided to investigate all recent events, he noted, expressing hope that those steps would bring about the aforementioned objectives.
He said that, more generally, the events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa had dealt a “big blow” to the region’s stability and addressing that issue was a common challenge. Indeed, if those issues were not addressed appropriately they would affect peace and stability in other regions and also negatively impact the recovery of the world economy. China hoped the international community would provide constructive help according to the intents and purposes of the United Nations Charter.
Pointing out that Syria had historically and in contemporary times been an important country in the Middle East, HARDEEP SINGH PURI (India) said prolonged instability in that country could have ramifications for the region and beyond. Reports of violence during demonstrations resulting in the deaths of both protestors and security personnel were a particular concern. The Syrian Government had announced its intention to investigate these acts and to undertake reforms, as well as procedures for holding peaceful demonstrations. India hoped those efforts would initiate the process of meeting the aspirations of the Syrian people.
He said the Council needed to make clear that it was the responsibility of sovereign States to respond to the aspirations of their people through administrative, economic and political measures. At the same time, it was the State’s responsibility to maintain the security of its people and their rights. The Council’s responsibility was to urge all sides to seek the resolution of grievances through peaceful means. In this, regional organizations had a role to play, he said. Above all, it was essential to make all efforts to de-escalate tension.
NELSON MESSONE (Gabon) urged the Syrian authorities to immediately end the repression of peaceful demonstrations and to shed light on the reports of human rights violations. Given the deterioration of the humanitarian situation as described in the Under-Secretary-General’s briefing, he stressed the need to respect international humanitarian law and called for concrete measures for deep reform to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people. He urged the authorities to ensure the protection of civilians, and to put in place recognized measures to guarantee lasting peace and stability. He welcomed the upcoming meeting of foreign ministers organized by the League of Arab States. Regional actors should foster dialogue aimed at ending the recent cycle of unrest, he added.
MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI (Brazil) said that basic freedoms must be respected in all contexts and her country stood in solidarity with those demonstrating peacefully, condemning the use of force against unarmed demonstrators. The legitimate aspirations in the Arab world must be met through inclusive processes; dialogue and reform were the most effective ways to deescalate the situation. She recognized the pledges made by the Government for reform and called on those pledges to be fulfilled quickly. She underscored the vital role of the League of Arab States in encouraging steps in the right direction, as the situation in Syria had regional implications. The situation should be resolved through national dialogue, however, with as little outside pressure as possible.
NAWAF SALAM (Lebanon) said that there were special links between his country and Syria due to history and common fraternal interests, as well as mutual security concerns. He said that his President, in his recent statement, backed stability in Syria, as well as Syrian efforts to lift the state of emergency and engage in reform. The Lebanese people completely supported the sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Syria, as well as the safety of its children. He expressed regret over the loss of life, extended condolences to victims’ families and hoped that Syria could soon experience peace and progress.
KIO SOLOMON AMIEYEOFORI (Nigeria) called for an end to the violence, urging all parties to exercise restraint, stressing the need to respect the right of peaceful assembly and other human rights. He called on the Government to swiftly implement reform measures that it had pledged, calling also for an inclusive dialogue, stressing that the Arab League had a crucial role to play and underlining the need for humanitarian access to the country.
IVAN BARBALIĆ (Bosnia and Herzegovina) expressed deep concern over the situation in Syria, as well as regret over the loss of life, expressing condolences to victims’ families. The violence must end immediately; all those responsible for the killings must be brought to justice. He shared the Secretary-General’s view that the effective implementation of reforms was necessary and that the concerns of the Syrian people should be addressed through inclusive dialogue, while the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country must be respected.
JOSE FILIPE MORAES CABRAL (Portugal) said that the only way to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people was inclusive dialogue. Extending condolences to victims’ families, he condemned the violence and called for those accountable to be brought to justice. The pledges for reform must translate into real improvements and reform, as well as respect for human freedoms and rights. He was mindful of Syria’s importance in the region and respected its sovereignty and territorial integrity, while also valuing the involvement of the Arab League in helping to move the situation in the right direction.
Council President NÉSTOR OSORIO (Colombia), speaking in his national capacity, deplored the violent repression of demonstrators and the deaths of civilians, calling for an immediate cessation of all acts of violence and respect for all human rights, including the right to gather peacefully. He hoped for an effective application of the promised reforms and called on all parties to build channels of inclusive dialogue that could respond to the aspirations of the Syrian people. He expected an independent and transparent investigation into the killings and looked for a political solution to end the violence.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said more than 6 weeks had passed since the onset of violence perpetrated by extremist groups, whose fundamental objective was clearly the fall of the Syrian Government. While law enforcement authorities had exercised the utmost restraint in order to avoid the killing of innocent civilians, those groups that included armed criminal elements continued to kill innocent citizens, as well as many members of the security forces. They had also attacked Government installations and army and law enforcement facilities.
His Government had taken many steps in response to the legitimate demands of its people, including abolishing the state of emergency and issuing, for the first time in Syria’s history, a legislative decree on peaceful demonstrations. In addition to these measures, which sought to respond to popular demands related to the lives of Syrian citizens, the Government would undertake further measures aimed at bolstering reform in response to calls by several Council members.
He said that, instead of backing down in light of the reform measures taken by Syria’s leadership, the parties behind the demonstrations had regrettably responded with further attacks against Army positions, the destruction of security establishments and the killing of many security personnel. They had also mutilated corpses, spread slogans of incitement and burned public establishments. He had in his hand the names of 51 members of the armed forces killed by those armed gangs, he stressed.
In responding to the demonstrations, Syrian authorities met with leaders of all districts and the President had issued instructions to respond to all legitimate demands, he said. That included, he stressed, investigating the deaths of both security personnel and protesters.
Those determined to undermine Syria had attempted to exploit the current environment, he said, stressing that their acts ran counter to the interests of Syrian citizens. Their internal campaign went hand-in-hand with an unprecedented media campaign in the region against Syria’s domestic and international policies. Indeed, facts had been turned on their heads. Demonstrators had been incited to burn State property, while doubt was sown about the State in an attempt to render reform measures null and void. That had also included the issuance of fatwas, he added.
He stressed that the financing and incitement by external parties had been confirmed, referring in particular to an article in the Washington Post from 18 April stating that the United States State Department had provided up to $6 million to a number of Syrian opposition figures to run a satellite television station. Further financial support had been provided to Syrian opposition figures since 2005, all as part of a long-term campaign aimed at President Assad’s Government, he said, pointing also to the statement by a Syrian opposition figure living in France that he had received offers from three different parties to bring arms into Syria.
In its efforts to maintain the security and safety of its borders, the Syrian Government had also intercepted arms shipments being sent to extremists from their supporters outside Syria, he said. Given that situation, it had become necessary for Syria to respond to the calls of those citizens who had been enjoying security and peace. Syria’s leadership was convinced that the extremists did not want reform, but aimed to overthrow the Government and it had acted to return order to the country. Among other things, large numbers of sophisticated arms had been found and criminal elements who had been detained had confirmed their aims.
Saying there was no justification for debate on this issue in the Security Council, he reported that Syria looked with grave suspicion on allegations that it did not protect its own citizens. Syria was defending its people, saving them from the seditious plots being laid by its enemies. It rejected the massive political pressure being brought to bear by some from outside the country to change national policies.
Reiterating that a judicial commission had been set up to investigate all deaths from the latest clash, he said the death of even one victim from his Government was a massive price to pay and was regretted. Syria could not accept that some claimed to value the lives of its sons more than it did. Moreover, the policy of interfering in the affairs of other States had always been proven to be a mistake. In that regard, the statements heard today could only be considered as an incitement to violence and terrorism. He further cautioned that there would be a cost to regional security
Continuing, he said that, with the end of the age of colonialism, the world’s peoples now recognized that some States were trying to interfere in the affairs of others under the rubric of the “responsibility to protect” and humanitarian intervention. In fact, both concepts had been soundly rejected by the developing countries, he noted, saying that what was happening on the ground could in no way be construed as peaceful, in light of the deaths of the security forces. For its part, the Government would continue to satisfy the legitimate demands of its people
He wondered about the logic of bringing the issue before the Council under the agenda of the “situation in the Middle East”, since that topic was intended to address the issue of Palestine. Doing that today only proved the hegemony of the rule of force over the rule of law, he said, pointing to the use by one Council member of the right to veto 48 times to protect Israel. Moreover, it was strange to hear unfounded claims from the United States — particularly suggestions of Syria’s acceptance of assistance from Iran. That “Hollywoodian” attempt to link the two did not respect the Council’s status and clearly showed the true negative intent of the United States towards Syria.
For information media • not an official record