(New York) - Syria's withdrawal of its candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 11, 2011, should be followed by an end to its violent crackdown on peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today. Human rights groups from across the region and the world had called on General Assembly members to reject Syria's candidacy for the rights body.
"This election had become a referendum on Syria's violent suppression of protests, and Syria withdrew rather than face a resounding defeat," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Syria needs to do more than keep its head low to avoid further condemnation, though; it needs to change course and stop the violence."
Human Rights Watch has reported the use of live ammunition and other abuses by Syria's security forces against peaceful protesters since demonstrations began on March 16, with some 700 dead, according to Syrian human rights groups. The violence has escalated in recent weeks, with more than 100 protesters killed on April 22 and 23 alone, and at least several thousand detained. The Syrian army has held the southern town of Daraa under siege since April 25, cutting electricity, phone lines, and internet services, and preventing free movement into and out of the city.
With Syria out of the race, Kuwait has announced its bid for a seat on the council. Kuwait joins India, Indonesia, and the Philippines as candidates from the Asian group. That leaves Asia again with a slate of four candidates for the four seats open for the region in this year's election, meaning there will effectively be no choice. The UN General Assembly will hold the elections for the Human Rights Council on May 20. Last year, all regional groups put forward what are called "clean" slates, with the same number of candidates as the available seats. Under the General Assembly resolution that established the Human Rights Council in 2006, council members are expected to "uphold the highest standards" of human rights.
"The pre-cooked nature of elections to the Human Rights Council is a major problem, as Syria's candidacy shows," Hicks said. "States collude to avoid any competition in Human Rights Council elections, which benefits human rights abusers like Syria."
The Human Rights Council "unequivocally condemned" Syria's use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters on April 29. The council also asked the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate ongoing human rights violations by Syria, and urged Syria to cooperate fully with that investigation.
The UN Security Council was briefed on the situation in Syria on April 27, but it took no action. It did not even issue a statement, due in particular to opposition from Russia and China.
"Syria may have avoided facing the music in the UN General Assembly by withdrawing its candidacy, but it shouldn't be so lucky in the Security Council," Hicks said. "The Security Council should take action on Syria, including imposing travel bans and financial sanctions on those responsible for the violence."
Human Rights Watch also called for Kuwait to take steps to address human rights concerns in that country in the context of its candidacy for a Human Rights Council seat. Kuwait has only recently begun to make limited reforms to improve the situation of over 100,000 Bidun, or stateless people, in the country. It has yet to deliver upon promises made in September 2010 to reform the immigration sponsorship system, which leaves over 2 million migrant workers vulnerable to employer abuse, and it has no law to protect the labor rights of the country's more than 660,000 domestic workers.