April 29, 2011 / 10:01 AM / 9 years ago

UN rights body poised to condemn Syria, order probe

* Divided Human Rights Council due to adopt U.S. resolution * U.N. would condemn killings, order fact-finding inquiry

* China, Russia, Egypt among those strongly opposed

* Challenge for Arab countries; Saudi and Qatar may abstain

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, April 29 (Reuters) - The United Nations is poised to condemn Syria on Friday for killings and mass arrests of protesters under a U.S. initiative intended to send a strong signal to Damascus, Western diplomats said.

The Human Rights Council was expected to call for setting up a fact-finding mission to look into violations committed by Syrian forces and also suggest that Syria had no business seeking membership in the forum next month, they said.

But as a special session sought by the United States began, U.S. and European envoys were still trying to persuade swing states in Latin America and Africa to back their joint resolution.

“The Council will be quite divided, but we should get a vote in favour of the text,” a Western diplomat told Reuters. “It will be a tough slog today. But the key thing is getting a result,” said another.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced rare dissent within his Baath Party and signs of discontent in the army this week over violent repression of protesters that a rights group has said killed 500 people over six weeks.

His government dispatched tanks to crush resistance in the southern city of Deraa, where an uprising against his authoritarian ruled erupted in mid-March.

In an opening speech, Kyung-wha Kang, U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Syrian tanks were shelling densely populated areas and entire towns were under siege.

“There have been reports of snipers firing on persons attempting to assist the injured or remove dead bodies from public areas,” she said.

There is “a widespread, persistent and gross disregard for basic human rights by the Syrian military and security forces,” she said, speaking on behalf of the U.N. human rights office.

UNEQUIVOCAL MESSAGE

“...Assad needs to hear an unequivocal message from the Human Rights Council that violent suppression of peaceful protests is unacceptable and will have consequences,” said Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch.

“An international investigation into the Syria crackdown should help deter further violence,” she said in a statement.

Syria is in the middle of a controversial campaign to win a seat on the Human Rights Council. That vote will be held in the General Assembly on May 20.

“Governments should tell Syria in no uncertain terms that its rampant abuses disqualify it from membership,” said de Rivero.

Yet China, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan, as well as many Arab countries led by Egypt, were due to vote against the text because they regard it as interference in Syria’s affairs, according to Western and Arab diplomats.

Many countries were expected to abstain, including possibly Jordan and Qatar. “It is difficult to ask them to do more. Abstaining is already significant,” said one Western diplomat.

An Arab diplomat said that not only Qatar but oil giant Saudi Arabia would abstain, but Jordan’s position was not clear. Arab delegations struggled most of the week to hammer out a joint position on Syria. When Libya came under scrutiny at the forum two months ago, Arab leaders joined an international consensus to condemn abuses by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

“There will be an Arab League statement. But it would be a lie to say there is a consensus of positions,” a Geneva-based Arab diplomat told Reuters. “To avoid speaking in favour of Syria, most (Arab) delegations will not take the floor.”

“The Arab group is a bit embarrassed. During the Libyan affair we were all unified and integrated the international community’s consensus,” he said.

Censuring Syria could set off a chain reaction, he said.

“Do this and a Pandora’s Box will open. Bahrain is also a member and Gulf countries are fully behind Bahrain,” he said.

Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim ruling family has drawn criticism abroad for quelling pro-democracy demonstrations last month with military help from Sunni-led Gulf Arab neighbours.

A Bahraini military court ordered the death penalty for four men on Thursday over the killing of two policemen in the protests, state media said, a move that could increase sectarian strife in a country that is a close U.S. ally.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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