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Ambassador Donahoe Media Stakeout Before Urgent Debate on Syria

Human Rights Council 23rd Session - Geneva, Switzerland



Ambassador Donahoe: Good morning. I’d like to open with a few general comments about the current session and then we’ll turn to the urgent debate on Syria which is about to begin.

The 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council meets in the context of a disturbing backlash against the idealism, courage and empowerment of activist leaders and citizens. Recent months have seen an alarming trend towards government restrictions on the work of civil society and NGOs. The State Department’s recent human rights reports noted a shrinking space for civil society activism around the world. From Iran to Venezuela, crackdowns on civil society included new laws impeding or preventing freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion; heightened restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad; and the killing, harassment, and arrest of political, human rights, and labor activists. For example, Russia’s new NGO law compels civil society to register as foreign agents if they receive funding from abroad and engage in political activity. Such laws have been used to harass and prosecute thousands of NGOs and religious groups. Draft legislation in Egypt would also severely restrict NGO operations.

Given this context we are very pleased that this session will include much needed focus on two cornerstones of universal human rights — freedom of expression, and the freedom of association and peaceful assembly. These freedoms are fundamental to democracy and the ability of citizen activists and civil society groups to pursue positive change in their societies.

When the Council created a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association two years ago, NGOs hailed it as a landmark decision in support of their efforts to defend human rights and fundamental freedoms around the globe. Special Rapporteur Kiai’s report, which cites the Russian NGO law as the type of restriction that impinges on freedom of association, will be discussed at the Council on Thursday.

Let me also bring to your attention the report of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue, which analyzes the implications of surveillance of communications in the exercise of the human right of freedom of opinion and expression. That report will be discussed on Monday.

During this session we will also receive the first formal report of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus. The United States echoes the concerns of the Special Rapporteur’s report that Belarus continues to restrict the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and movement, and suppresses civil society and democratic political participation. The latest report also expresses concern about continuing imprisonment of political opponents, human rights defenders and activists based on spurious criminal charges and unfair procedures. Concerns about treatment of civil society are aggravated by allegations of torture and ill treatment of those in custody as part of physical and psychological pressure aimed at breaking civil society actors into admissions of guilt. The Special Rapporteur on Belarus will report on Tuesday of next week.

Now let me turn to Syria. We are about to engage in urgent debate on Syria, this time focused on the town of Al Qusayr which is currently under siege by the Syrian regime. We join members of the Human Rights Council once again to call for an immediate end to the Assad regime’s egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Evidence shows that in Al Qusayr, Assad forces and government sponsored militia used ballistic missiles and other heavy weapons to undertake airstrikes and artillery bombardment of the residents and reportedly killed more than 180 civilians. These innocent men, women, and children are the latest victims among the 80,000 or more who have been killed since the regime began their brutal campaign more than two years ago in response to peaceful protests.

The negative consequences of the massacre in Al Qusayr are exacerbated by the involvement of foreign combatants fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime. Regional stability has obviously been threatened by this involvement. We condemn in particular the direct role of Hizballah in the hostilities which not only escalates the violence in Syria, but incites instability in Lebanon and inflames regional tensions. The regime has a responsibility to calm these tensions now by ending its assault.

The United States condemns in the strongest terms the brutal, persistent attacks of the Assad regime against its own people. We are committed to working within the international framework to try to bring about an end to this crisis and bring needed change to Syria. The actions we take together at this Council, including today’s urgent debate and resolution, are part of the international effort to bring an end to this crisis.

The Assad regime and its supporters who commit crimes against the Syrian people should know that the world is watching, and they will be held accountable. There is no place in a future Syria for Assad or members of his regime who have ordered or committed atrocities. There will be no peace without justice for the crimes committed in Al Qusayr and elsewhere. As efforts are undertaken to move toward a political solution and negotiated settlement of this conflict, we must simultaneously lay the groundwork for accountability.

The Commission of Inquiry, charged by this Council with investigating the atrocities and massacres, is amassing a body of evidence that will play a very important part in ensuring justice for the Syrian people. Its work will help ensure that there is accountability for the massacres and atrocities committed over the past two years. On Monday [NOTE: This is now scheduled for Tuesday] we will hear from the COI on its latest findings.

As the international community works to support a political solution as outlined in the Geneva Communique from last June, the Human Rights Council is well positioned to help ensure that there will be accountability for systematic and brutal atrocities against the Syrian people.

The resolution text we expect to adopt today at the Human Rights Council will do four things.

First, condemn the use of heavy weapons, artillery and airstrikes by the Syrian regime against the civilian population under siege in Al Qusayr.

Two, denounce intervention of foreign combatants on behalf of the regime which poses a serious threat to regional stability.

Three, demand that Syrian authorities allow free and unimpeded access to all civilians affected by the violence, especially in Al Qusayr, and by all relevant UN and humanitarian agencies.

And fourth, stress the importance of holding to account all those responsible for the massacres in Al Qusayr, while underlining the relevance of referrals to the appropriate criminal justice mechanism, under appropriate circumstances.

The message taken from today’s urgent debate is that Assad’s regime and its proxies who commit crimes against the Syrian people should know the world is watching, and they will be held accountable.

With that I can take just a few questions before I need to head into the Council.

Media: I’m wondering, Ambassador, when you were drafting this Resolution, whether it was at all considered when you condemned foreign fighters, all of them, there are those fighting on the other side. There is evidence in earlier COI reports of violations that have been committed by all those fighting.

Ambassador Donahoe: Two things. First off, this urgent debate is focused on the particular events that happened in and around Al Qusayr, and the evidence suggests that the massacre was committed by the Assad regime government forces, associated militia, and their affiliated foreign fighters. That’s why the text does explicitly reference them.

In addition, though, I should note there is a paragraph where we once again, as we have in all resolutions on Syria, condemn all violations of human rights, all abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law. We’ve called out all parties and called for a cessation of all violence.

Media: The public opinion out of this building asking clearly what is the value of this kind of session if the regime since the beginning of the crisis doesn’t hear, doesn’t react, doesn’t do anything in favor of his people?

Ambassador Donahoe: I hear in your question a fair amount of frustration which I think is shared by everyone in the international community. What is the purpose of us holding an urgent debate and passing another resolution?

The Human Rights Council is here to lay a record, to establish a record that can be used in the future to assure accountability and prevent impunity. And also just simply provide a historical record of how the international community responded on the human rights front while other actors in the international community play the role that they can play, whether it’s in New York or elsewhere. But I think it’s very important that the Council speak as these episodes occur, that we establish a factual record, we establish the fact that the international community is speaking out and condemning these acts, and then we provide a basis through evidence collection and investigation for future accountability.

Media: Thank you, Ambassador. Do you think that this time the Resolution will be adopted by consensus?

Ambassador Donahoe: I don’t know the outcome, but I don’t expect a consensus outcome given that in March we had a Resolution that, there was a vote called for by Venezuela in that case, and we think that’s probably the most likely occurrence, but we can remain optimistic and you’ll see in the next few hours.

Media: Madame Ambassador, can you share with us a little of what you know about the Hizballah and foreign fighters in Al Qusayr? This city is under siege and living a very hard situation from the beginning of May. Can you share with us some of the information you have about the foreign fighters in Al Qusayr? Thank you.

Ambassador Donahoe: I don’t think it’s fair to say that I could be a source of new information about their role. What I can say is the U.S. is really concerned about the dramatic increase in the role of Hizballah inside Syria. And we want to underscore that not only is this not helpful in terms of destabilizing Syria, but it also has the very serious risk of destabilizing Lebanon and causing further instability in the region as a whole. So it just exacerbates the problems associated with this conflict.

Media: You mentioned international efforts, but there have been some concerns raised in the last days that the resolution like this and sessions like this is the obstacle for the peace conference on Syria that is in discussion right now. What do you think about that? Thank you.

Ambassador Donahoe: As you know, Secretary Kerry, Foreign Ministers Lavrov and Fabius just met this past Monday in Paris to discuss laying the ground work for the Geneva II conversation, but there are obviously players involved in seeing what can be worked out in that regard.

In terms of our work here, we felt as though the work of the Human Rights Council is part and parcel of working toward a future solution for Syria and the need for establishing a record on the human rights dimensions and ensuring accountability is part of the lasting peace for the future. So we don’t see this as inconsistent or undermining in any way. We see this as the responsibility of the Council here, and those other conversations are obviously ongoing.

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