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(New York) - The UN General Assembly should strongly reject Syria's candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said today. Syria's attempt to join the council in the midst of its brutal crackdown on largely peaceful protests is a travesty, Human Rights Watch said.

The council "unequivocally condemned" the use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters by the Syrian authorities, and asked the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights to investigate ongoing human rights violations by Syria on April 29, 2011.

"It's outrageous that Syria can be condemned by the Human Rights Council one month and be an endorsed candidate in elections for that same body the next month," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Every day that passes calls further into question the credibility of those who have supported Syria's candidacy."

The UN General Assembly will elect new members to the Human Rights Council on May 20. Under the council's founding resolution, states elected to join its membership are expected to "uphold the highest standards" of human rights. There are four declared candidates for the four vacant seats reserved for the Asian group of UN member states in the upcoming election: Syria, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The Asian group endorsed this slate of candidates, including Syria, on January 21, before the current crackdown began.

Human rights groups from across the Middle East, Asia, and the world have come together to oppose Syria's candidacy. On April 5, a coalition of 17 civil society groups, largely from Asia and the Middle East, called on the Asian Group to urge Syria to withdraw, and for the group to open the Asian slate to new candidates if Syria was unwilling to do so. On April 21, 19 human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from Syria and other Arab countries wrote to urge all UN members - and Asian group members in particular - to call upon Syria to withdraw its candidacy and to ensure that Syria does not win election to the council on May 20. Also on April 21, 13 Syrian and Arab NGOs criticized the League of Arab States for continuing to support Syria's candidacy for the council. In a letter issued in Banjul on April 28, 43 human rights organizations from all parts of Africa called upon African governments to withhold their votes from Syria's candidacy for a seat on the rights council.

"Human rights defenders in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa unequivocally have urged states to say no to Syria," Hicks said. "Given the almost universal disdain for Syria's candidacy, the question remains why the Asian group continues to back Syria and to shut the door to other candidates."

Human Rights Watch has reported that Syrian security forces have responded to largely peaceful protests with lethal force, including live ammunition fired from military assault weapons. The death toll is at least 500, according to Syrian human rights groups. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, has stressed that "live ammunition is being used in clear violation of international law."

The violence has escalated in the past two weeks, with more than 100 protesters killed on April 22 and 23 alone, according to Human Rights Watch. The Syrian army has imposed a siege on the town of Daraa since April 25, cutting electricity, phone lines, and internet, and preventing any movement to and from the city. The authorities have prevented medical personnel in at least two towns from tending to wounded protesters, and denied injured people access to hospitals. The security services also have arbitrarily detained several thousand protesters, many of whom they have beaten and tortured. They also have arbitrarily arrested and tortured activists, writers, and journalists who have reported on or expressed support for the anti-government protests.

On March 1, the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Libya's membership rights in the UN Human Rights Council, as brutal repression of civil protests had killed at least 500 people.

"It would make a mockery of the UN General Assembly to go from unanimously suspending Libya in March to electing Syria this month, when their records of violent suppression of demonstrators are so similar," Hicks said. "Syria's candidacy is an affront to all those facing its brutal repression, and to human rights supporters everywhere, and should be decisively rejected." 

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