11/30/2011 06:25 pm ET

Syria Crackdown Condemned By Activists, Rights Groups

NEW YORK -- As the death toll in Syria's bloody government crackdown rises to more than 3,500 since mass protests began last March, the international community is ratcheting up pressure to end the violence and hold President Bashar al-Assad's regime accountable.

This week, two groups released reports blasting human rights violations carried out by Syrian security forces.

On Monday, the U.N. released a scathing report detailing "crimes against humanity" committed by Syrian troops since March, when the government crackdown began.

Among the harrowing details, the report includes mention of the killing of at least 256 children -- some of whom were sexually tortured -- and accounts that troops were ordered to "shoot to kill" to quell anti-government demonstrations. The report found torture "rampant" in several detention facilities. From the report:

Testimonies were received from several men who stated they had been anally raped with batons and that they had witnessed the rape of boys. One man stated that he witnessed a 15-year-old boy being raped in front of his father. A 40-year-old man saw the rape of an 11-year-old boy by three security services officers.

On Wednesday, Catherine al-Talli, a Syrian lawyer and human rights activist, spoke to a group of journalists in New York about her detention in Damascus last May.

She recalled witnessing security forces open fire on peaceful crowds of protesters, shooting them to death on several occasions. During protests in Duma, she recounted how snipers targeted a 50-year-old man riding a bicycle with his 10-year-old daughter. She said that although he was not involved with the protests, the snipers shot him from a roof. When another man ran to his assistance, the snipers shot him as well, she said.

On Sunday, the Arab League agreed on unprecedented sanctions on Syria, including tough economic measures such as cutting transactions with the Syrian central bank and freezing government assets. Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim said, "The Syrian people are being killed but we don't want this. Every Syrian official should not accept killing even one person," according to the Associated Press.

How the international community will proceed in addressing Syria's assault on civilians remains unclear. Different groups have offered different approaches, including further sanctions, no-fly and buffer zones, and a U.N. Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court.

Ms. al-Talli, a member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group formed in Istanbul this September, has called for buffer zones and no-fly zones at Syria's borders to end the "river of blood." While she applauded the Arab League's sanctions, she reiterated that sanctions alone were not enough.

Amnesty International stops short of calling for the use of military force in enforcing buffer or no-fly zones, but the human rights organization has called for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Amnesty accuses Syria's security forces of "extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the torture of people suspected of dissent," and has also urged the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo and freeze the assets of al-Assad.

Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, are likely to oppose a referral to the ICC. Indeed, in October, Russia and China rejected a European-sponsored resolution threatening sanctions if Syria continued its crackdown.

Ms. al-Talli is spending three days in New York to meet with representatives from delegations that have not offered their support in sponsoring a U.N. resolution, including South Africa, India, Brazil and Russia's first deputy permanent representative, Alexander Pankin.

Human rights activist Wissam Tarif, from the international organization Avaaz, expressed concern that those committing crimes in Syria "feel they can't be touched."

"When the Security Council moved on Libya, there were nowhere near the number of civilian victims as in Syria now," he said.

For Tarif, further action from the Arab League could prove instrumental. While a U.N. Security Council draft resolution may be snubbed by Russia, Tarif predicts it would be difficult for the country to veto an ICC referral if the Arab League expressed its support.