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The United Nations Security Council this week was given a briefing about the situation in Syria by the human-rights commissioner, Navi Pillay. She estimates that since the start of the popular uprising in March 2011, the Syrian security forces have killed up to 5,000 people. A new report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 15 December names over seventy commanders and officials implicated in many of these deaths by giving orders to kill, as well as individuals responsible for unlawful arrests, beatings and torture.

HRW's report is based on interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, whose evidence has been checked meticulously against other sources to confirm reliability and accuracy. It highlights violations in seven of Syria’s fourteen governorates: Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Idlib, Tartous, Deir al-Zor and Hama. Taken together, the abuses provide further evidence of a systematic and brutal crackdown by the regime against everyday Syrians demanding democracy, justice and the rule of law.

All of the defectors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that their commanders gave them orders to stop the protests by "all means necessary", a phrase universally understood as authorisation to use lethal force. Here are just two examples. "Abdullah" - a soldier with the 409th battalion, 154th regiment, 4th division - says that two high-level commanders, Brigadier-General Jawdat Ibrahim Safi and Major-General Mohamed Ali Durgham, ordered troops to shoot at protestors when his unit was deployed to areas in and around Damascus; and "Mansour" - who served in air-force intelligence in Daraa - says that his commander, Colonel Qusay Mihoub, gave similar orders in response to public demonstrations there. Many other cases are described in the report; about half of those interviewed say that their commanders gave direct orders to fire on protesters and bystanders.

Those named in the report should be held to account for their crimes. But responsibility for these killings goes right to the top of the Syrian regime. President Bashar al-Assad is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, yet in his extraordinary interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters broadcast on 7 December he suggested that he didn’t control the Syrian army. Whether this is dreadful ignorance or wishful thinking, international law is clear: those in position of command are potentially criminally accountable not just for crimes they directly ordered but also for serious crimes committed by their subordinates in circumstances where they knew or should have known of the abuses but failed to take action to stop them. It defies credibility that President Assad is so ignorant of what is going on in his country or what is being done by his forces.

The violence in Syria is intense and the abuses chilling. Yet the international response so far has been shamefully weak and indecisive. True, the Arab League - in a break with much of its previous practice - has condemned Assad’s crackdown, suspending Syria’s membership of the league and committed itself to introduce tough sanctions. And three countries on the UN Security Council (Britain, France, and the United States) have pushed for tougher action. But Russia and China have repeatedly blocked this - and they have been supported by rising powers such as South Africa, India and Brazil, all currently members of the UNSC.

These three countries' reluctance over or even outright hostility to the idea of exerting greater pressure on Syria to end its repression is all the more worrying, since all have democratically elected governments whose leaders express commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The logic of their position, that such pressure is neo-colonial or a prelude to western military intervention, is mistaken. The real motive is to bring an end to the terrible violence from which so many Syrians are suffering and to show basic solidarity with them. South Africa’s leaders have every reason to make the connection with their own formative experiences in the struggle against the repressive apartheid system.

For them and for others, Navi Pillay’s briefing to the Security Council, and Human Rights Watch’s exposé of abuse and identification of those responsible, should be a wake-up call. The evidence of repression in Syria is beyond dispute. What is needed is plain and urgent: the referral by the UNSC of crimes against humanity committed in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC); the stopping of all arms sales to Syria, including by Russia; and the imposition of targeted sanctions against key figures in the Assad regime, to raise the cost to it of continuing violence.

The crisis in Syria is worsening. There is no good reason to obstruct the concerted international action now needed to help end the brutal repression there.

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