Syria Set to Retain Seat on U.N. Human Rights Panel

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(  By Patrick Goodenough) – A U.S.-led effort to expel Syria from a United Nations committee dealing with human rights looks set to fail Thursday, when a meeting in Paris considers a resolution that criticizes Syria – but stops short of calling for its removal.


Opposition from Russia and a group of other mostly developing countries – among them some with poor human rights records, including China, Cuba and Zimbabwe – appears to have stymied an initiative by some Western and Arab states to get Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime kicked off the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations (CR), a subsidiary body of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Almost one year after the uprising began in Syria, the death toll continues to rise with the UN’s latest figures suggesting that about 8,000 people have been killed.

UNESCO is the U.N. agency that lost U.S. funding last fall over an unrelated matter – its admission of “Palestine” – but the Obama administration has indicated that it wants a waiver of the relevant U.S. law to enable it to restore the funding, which amounts to 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget.

The Syria resolution is on the agenda of the UNESCO’s executive board, which wraps up a twice-yearly session in the French capital on Friday. Originally due to be discussed on Wednesday, the matter has been moved to Thursday afternoon.

While there was speculation the delay was related to disputes over the text, UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams told, “The issue was held over because the commission was running behind schedule.”

The Conventions and Recommendations committee is tasked to examine often sensitive communications received from individuals or organizations relating to human rights violations within UNESCO’s fields of competence – education, science, culture and communication (including freedom of opinion and expression.)

UNESCO’s 58-member executive board last November reappointed Syria to a two-year term on the committee, despite widespread revulsion at the Assad regime’s violent response to what began as largely peaceful protests but has become a civil war.

Syria got the nod because it was nominated by the Arab group as a “clean slate” candidate – a situation where the number of candidates is the same as the number of seats available for a regional group, precluding any contest. Syria is also a member of the executive board itself.

Among those condemning the decision were lawmakers, human rights and religious groups from a number of countries.

In the U.S., House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a leading critic of the U.N., said the UNESCO “continues to outdo itself with stunning displays of irresponsible and dangerous behavior,” and reiterated that the U.S. should continue to withhold funds “so our tax dollars are not used to support this increasingly irresponsible agency.”

The Obama administration indicated its intention to push for Syria’s removal from the committee.

“We should not allow the Syrian regime to stand as a judge of other countries’ human rights record while it systematically violates the human rights of its citizens, commits acts of sexual violence against women and children, and murders its own people,” U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said in a statement last month. “The regime has also repeatedly acted to silence the voice of the Syrian people and to repress independent media attempting to report on its misdeeds.”

“The Syrian regime’s actions are an affront to the dignity and human rights of the Syrian people, and it is not fit to sit on this body,” he said. “We plan to seek Syria’s removal from the CR.”

Killion said the U.S. would work with Arab and other members states to achieve that end at the executive board session.

‘Where was UNESCO during the crackdown?’

Addressing the executive board meeting last Thursday, Killion again raised the issue of Syria, urging UNESCO to “fulfill its mandate to protect and preserve education, science, culture and freedom of expression.”

“A year from now, how will we answer the question, ‘Where was UNESCO during the Assad regime’s ruthless crackdown?’ ” he asked.

Killion called on the board to take “appropriate action in response to the abhorrent human rights abuses that are currently ongoing in Syria.”

Despite those appeals, a draft of the resolution before the executive board, obtained Wednesday by the non-governmental organization U.N. Watch, is silent on the issue of Syria’s membership of the committee.

It does express concern about the situation in Syria and “strongly condemns the continued widespread and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities, in all UNESCO’s fields of competence.”

Queries sent to Killion’s office were not answered by press time.

U.N. Watch, which has spearheaded a campaign opposing Syria’s seat on the committee, criticized the decision not to press for Syria’s removal from the CR, despite what it called “vigorous efforts led by the US and Britain.”

“Today’s appalling decision calls into question the credibility of UNESCO as an agency dedicated to human rights, and casts a shadow upon the reputation of the UN as a whole,” said Hillel Neuer, the group’s executive director.

“While today’s text rightly condemns Syria, the promised call to oust the regime from UNESCO’s human rights panel has been completely excised,” he said. “We’re left with words, but no teeth.”

Even though the resolution does not call for Syria’s ejection from the committee, Neuer predicts that around 17 executive board members will still likely oppose it, including Syria itself, Russia, China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Last week, 17 member states backed an unsuccessful Russian-led bid to block inclusion of Syria on the agenda during the two-week session.

Russia and China have led opposition to attempts to condemn Syria at the U.N. over the violence, vetoing resolutions in the Security Council last October and again last month.

Also last month, Russia and China joined a group of Syrian allies and supporters in voting against a General Assembly resolution condemning “widespread and systematic” violations by the Assad regime and urging a halt to the violence. Those opposing that measure were Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.


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