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Syria, Human Rights and the United Nations

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As the world's leaders head to New York for their annual gathering at the United Nations General Assembly, much of the world's attention will be focused on the bloodletting in Syria and the ongoing stalemate that has prevented the world body from taking collective action. While Lakhdar Brahimi's mission on behalf of the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League to facilitate peace is admirable, he inherits a mandate that utterly failed, and conditions for peace have only gotten worse.

Despite the Assad regime's efforts to block and manipulate information about the conflict, we have reliable information that tells us he will go to the mat to outlast his opponents, both armed and unarmed. From the stream of refugees crossing borders into Turkey and Jordan, brave journalists who are risking their lives on the frontlines, everyday citizens armed with nothing more than a cellphone and a Skype connection, and U.N. monitors deployed to the field, the evidence is clear that civil war has been declared, and civilians are caught on the crossfire. The outcome of that war, it appears, will depend on which side is able to force a settlement that results in either the departure of Assad, or his retention of power for years to come. Hopes are dim, however, that the U.N. Security Council will do much given the continued intransigence of Russia and China and ambivalence of rising democracies like Brazil and India.

One U.N. body that appears to be doing the job it's supposed to do on Syria is the Human Rights Council. From the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011, the Council's members have decided to shine a spotlight on the human rights violations underway in Syria. It has convened multiple special sessions examining the situation and appointed a special commission of inquiry, led by Brazilian human rights expert Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, to scrutinize the available information and assign responsibility.

The commission's latest report (PDF), which will be debated at the next Human Rights Council session on Sept. 17, concluded that the Syrian government, as a matter of state policy, has perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, gross violations of human rights and sexual violence. The report also found that more brutal tactics and new military capabilities have been employed in recent months by both government forces and armed opposition groups. While rebel forces have also allegedly committed war crimes, including murder and torture, the commission observed that these violations are not of the same gravity, frequency and scale as those committed by government forces and its militia, the Shabbiha. A confidential list of individuals and units believed to be responsible for these crimes will be submitted to High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay later this month. This in turn will create pressure on the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

The Human Rights Council has taken up not only Syria, but other urgent cases as well. Its emergency session on Libya after Muammar Gaddafi signaled all-out war against civilians led immediately to its dismissal from the Council. It also helped establish the case for the Security Council's invocation of the responsibility to protect doctrine, an important breakthrough in operationalizing a concept that has protection of civilians at its core. It has created special rapporteurs to investigate human rights abuses committed by the governments of Eritrea, Belarus and Iran. It is putting pressure on states to improve their records across a whole range of human rights issues including freedom of association, attacks against human rights defenders and rights for lesbians and gays. And its new mechanism to examine the human rights record of every U.N. member state is winning plaudits from activists from countries like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, India and Brazil, as I heard during meetings of the CIVICUS World Assembly in Montreal last week.

The Council is moving forward on addressing these matters even though difficult states like China and Russia are members of the Council. While some politicians like to seize on every opportunity to dismiss the Council in toto because of its mixed membership, the facts tell another story: that with determined leadership from the United States and other democracies, along with an organized global human rights community, greater dissemination of the Council's work through the Internet, and the valuable contribution of the Council's independent experts, human rights is rising on the agenda of the international community and leading to surprising, albeit slow, progress. That's why I voted, on the recent Foreign Policy magazine survey of U.N. experts, for the Human Rights Council as the leading example of the Obama Administration's success with its relations with the U.N.

We will know how the rest of the world feels about Washington's role at the Human Rights Council on Nov. 17, when the U.N. elects members to the Council, a list that will not include, at least this year, states like Cuba, China and Sudan.

Come January, regardless of the state of affairs in Syria, we will also know if the United States will continue down the path of engaged, pro-active and effective relations with the United Nations, or set out on a different track of hostility, parsimony and withdrawal from the world body, as advocated by the likes of John Bolton and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, close advisers and friends of Mitt Romney. The global movement for human rights hangs in the balance.

Ted Piccone is the author of Catalysts for Change: How the UN's Independent Experts Promote Human Rights (Brookings Press, July 2012).