The UN Human Rights Office and the Crisis in Syria

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As the Syrian conflict continues to claim lives and contribute to a further destabilization of the region, the United Nation’s Representative for Human Rights has directly implicated Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The report comes amid ongoing bad economic news about the country, as well as concerns from its neighbors that the chaos in Syria is affecting their peace and stability. Moreover, this recent development will likely be a factor during the proposed negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva.

In an article for the Lebanese Daily Star, Mona Alami reports on recent economic news on the dramatic decline in the performance of the Syrian economy: “The Syrian conflict is destroying the economy and creating a long-term economic crisis for Syria that will make a lasting peace in the future even more difficult. With the ongoing fighting, the economy’s downward trend persists and experts expect gross domestic product to decrease by a further 13.9 percent by year-end (it is already down 14.4 percent in 2012). Furthermore, deindustrialization, debt and geographic division worsen the outlook of Syria’s economy beyond the current conflict. Addressing the country’s economic crisis and presenting viable measures for a recovery should go hand in hand with the political reconciliation process.”

This economic and political instability, according to a recent poll discussed by the Turkish news site Today’s Zaman, is considered by the majority of the Turkish people “as the most formidable challenge to Turkey, which is struggling to weather a myriad of problems stemming from the fighting in its southern neighbor….Only 5.2 percent of people approve of Turkey’s possible military assistance and supply of arms to the Syrian opposition fighters, a figure that sharply contradicts with the official stance of Ankara, which favors more robust international action to ship weapons to the opposition groups. When it comes to Turkey’s stance regarding the Syrian conflict, 41.7 percent of Turkish people endorse a policy of disassociation from the civil war in the neighboring country, stressing that Ankara should stay away from the crisis.”

To complicate matters further, or perhaps reflecting the already complex nature of the conflict, the UN Human Rights Office has put itself in the eye of the storm by indicating that Syria’s president might be held responsible for grave human rights violations against his own people. This news has been greeted by many of the regional dailies, with the Saudi Gazette editorial leading the way: “The wheels of justice they say, grind slow. As the death toll in the Syrian savagery passes 125,000, the United Nations Human Rights Office has directly implicated Bashar Assad in war crimes….This may be an attempt to defuse Moscow’s defense of Assad by spreading the blame for war crimes across both sides.  If the Russians can be persuaded to protest the depravities of the likes of the Al-Nusra Front, then they will also be forced to admit the enormities that are being perpetrated on a daily basis by Assad’s armies and militias, acting directly on the dictator’s orders…. [T]he UN’s evidence, largely of the regime’s unspeakable brutality against its own people, will now be an unavoidable issue in the Geneva talks, if they actually take place. For this, Navi Pillay’s announcement is to be warmly welcomed.”

Similarly, the Khaleej Times editorial believes: “The UN Commission on Human Rights is justified in demanding that the case of Syria be sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. It is, however, a different issue that the move is likely to be opposed by vested interests in the UN Security Council in order to protect the regime in Damascus. The number of cases pending before the ICC, which primarily comprise charges against African leaders, makes it difficult to believe that Syria will be put on a quick trial, if at all. Yet the abusers should not go unpunished and the least that can be done is indict them, accordingly.”

These developments take place against renewed accusations that the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons against its own population. According to Al Arabiya, though, such reports have not been confirmed and should be taken with some skepticism: “Syrian opposition activists on Thursday accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of again using poison gas in rebel-held areas, saying victims had been discovered with swollen limbs and foaming at the mouth. The activists told Reuters that two shells loaded with gas hit a rebel-held area in the town of Nabak, 68 km (40 miles) northeast of Damascus, on a major highway in the Qalamoun region. They reported seven casualties….Meanwhile, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union also accused Assad’s forces of using poison gas and put the number of casualties at nine.”

It remains to be seen whether the pressure of possible indictments for members of the Syrian government, including Mr. Assad, will prove to be beneficial or detrimental to the proposed talks in Geneva scheduled to take place in January of next year.  A recent Gulf News editorial expresses the view that the humanitarian aspect is as important as any other and it ought to be a major consideration for the negotiators in Geneva: “Over the past 33 months, news reports coming out of Syria have just progressively worsened. There are almost hourly and certainly daily reports of bombings, shootings, massacres, battles, death and misery as a loose coalition of rebel forces attempts to overthrow the government of President Bashar Al Assad….When the Geneva talks get underway, its measure of success should not be judged by whether the conflict finds a solution, but rather what humanitarian measures can be quickly implemented to end the misery and suffering of Syrians. Corridors for safe passage are badly needed — along with the silencing of the guns on all sides.”

Finally, Osama Al Sharif, writing for Arab News, believes that, while the UN Human Rights Office might apply some pressure, the ultimate determinant of the negotiations will be the military balance in the country: “The fate of Geneva 2, the proposed peace conference whose objective is to find a political solution to Syria’s three-year civil war, will be decided in the battlefields. The coming few weeks separating us from the Jan. 22 will prove to the bloodiest and costliest both to the regime and the myriad rebel groups fighting for its ouster. Until then the world will have to brace itself for major military upsets and surprises….Still things could change on the ground. The dangers of spillover into neighboring countries, especially Lebanon, remain real. And the possibility of partition has gained ground as Kurdish activists in Syria’s north and northeast announced that they are seeking to create a Kurdish self-rule region in three governorates comprising nearly 15 percent of Syria’s territory.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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