posted on Mon 12 Dec 2011 10:10 AM
Briefing on the Middle East

This afternoon (Monday, 12 December) Council members will be briefed in informal consultations by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on the situation in the Middle East. Her briefing is expected to largely focus on Syria but Council members are also likely to ask questions on Palestine. (Pillay previously briefed the Council in consultations on Syria on 18 August along with OCHA head Valerie Amos.)

It is likely that during her briefing Pillay will reiterate her concern expressed on Friday, 9 December that the crisis in Syria could descend into civil war as defections from the armed forces increase. According to the High Commissioner’s Office, since the crisis began in March the government crackdown in Syria has resulted in a conservative estimate of 4,000 deaths,14,000 detained, 12,400 refugees and tens of thousands of internally displaced.

Earlier in the month, on 2 December, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution supporting the Arab League’s efforts and condemning the continued and systemic gross violations of human rights in Syria which it said may amount to crimes against humanity. Previous to this, on 23 November, the Commission of Inquiry released its report on allegations of international human rights violations in Syria as requested by the Human Rights Council in August. The report documents patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture including sexual violence and violations of children’s rights.

Syria has been facing increasing international isolation with sanctions imposed on it by the Arab League, Turkey, the EU and the US. In addition, the Arab League has taken some decisive action on Syria. On 12 November it decided to suspend Syria after it failed to implement its commitments under the Arab League initiative. On 19 November, it rejected a Syrian proposal to substantially reduce the number of observers to participate in an Arab League mission from 500 to approximately 40. On 27 November, it imposed economic sanctions on Syria and a travel ban on senior Syrian officials to compel the country to comply with the initiative it had agreed to on 2 November. Currently the Arab League is reviewing a Syrian request to lift the 27 November sanctions in exchange for access for the observers and is expected to meet at foreign minister level by week’s end.

It appears that the public briefing by Pillay was requested by France on Thursday, 8 December. Initial informal discussions revealed some resistance to having the briefing by members that were concerned about the Security Council possibly encroaching on issues which could effectively be addressed by the GA’s Third Committee and the Human Rights Council. It appears that there was a suggestion that Pillay could brief the GA instead as it was expected to adopt the Third Committee’s resolution condemning Syria on 19 December. (On 22 November the UN GA’s Third Committee adopted a resolution condemning human rights violations in Syria and drawing attention to the Arab League initiative on Syria.)

However, other members felt strongly that as human rights violations in Syria are at the core of the political unrest it could be seen as a threat to international peace and security. It appears that the French were willing to call for a procedural vote on whether to have the briefing if needed. (Procedural votes are not subject to the veto and require 9 votes to pass.)

On Friday, 9 December, Council members again discussed the French proposal in consultations. While reiterating its concerns about human rights issues being discussed in the Council it appears that China suggested that the Council could take advantage of Pillay’s presence and ask for a broader briefing on the Middle East, including the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in particular Gaza. It also indicated that it was prepared to table a procedural vote on this proposal. It seems that most Council members were not keen on a procedural vote on either the French or Chinese proposals and it was finally agreed that Pillay would brief on Syria in informal consultations (which are closed with no public record) with the understanding that Council members could ask questions about the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Russia, as December’s Council president, announced late Friday (9 December) that Council members had reached agreement on having the briefing in closed consultations under the agenda item “the situation in the Middle East”.

While a number of Council members were keen to have this briefing it doesn’t seem likely that they are to push for more until there is a signal from the region that it supports Security Council action. It remains to be seen if a clear signal from the region could lead more cautious Council members to recalibrate their thinking on the Syrian issue vis-á-vis the Council.