U.N. official calls for action to prevent civil war in Syria


The United Nations’ top human rights official assailed the Syrian government Friday for a campaign of “ruthless repression and killings,” and called for the international community to take steps to prevent the Middle East nation from plunging into civil war.

A statement issued in Geneva by Navi Pillay, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, essentially backed claims by antigovernment activists who say Syrian authorities have routinely attacked protesters without provocation. In contrast, the administration of Syrian President Bashar Assad has said terrorists armed from abroad who seek to overthrow the government are to blame for the violence.

Pillay’s comments appeared to be the toughest to date from the United Nations, where a resolution condemning Syria’s response to more than six months of protests failed to pass the Security Council this month.


The Assad government faces a hardening of attitudes against it on many fronts. European countries and the United States have imposed economic sanctions. Turkey, Syria’s longtime ally, has harshly criticized Assad’s handling of the unrest and is also planning to impose economic penalties against its neighbor.

“Since the start of the uprising in Syria, the government has consistently used excessive force to crush peaceful protests,” Pillay said. “Sniping from rooftops and indiscriminate use of force against peaceful protesters — including the use of live ammunition and the shelling of residential neighborhoods — have become routine occurrences in Syrian cities.”

The result has been “a devastatingly remorseless toll of human lives,” said Pillay, a South African judge, who also expressed fear that the conflict was becoming increasingly militarized.

“As more members of the military refuse to attack civilians and change sides, the crisis is already showing worrying signs of descending into armed struggle,” she said.

The death toll in Syria since antigovernment protests erupted in March has topped 3,000, including at least 187 children, Pillay said, and more than 100 people have died in the last 10 days.

Thousands more, she said, have been “arrested, detained, forcibly disappeared and tortured,” while family members both inside and outside Syria “have been targeted for harassment, intimidation, threats and beatings.”


Antigovernment activists said that at least 12 people were killed Friday in attacks by security forces at various sites in Syria. There was no immediate response from the government.

The jurist called on the international community to “take protective action in a collective and decisive manner, before the continued ruthless repression and killings drive the country into a full-blown civil war.” But her spokesman said it was up to governments and the Security Council to decide exactly what that meant.

In August, Pillay said she had found “credible evidence” of crimes against humanity in Syria and urged the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution.

It remains unclear whether the Security Council will take any action. On Oct. 4, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution that would have condemned “grave and systematic human rights violations” in Syria. Officials of the two powers said they feared that U.N. action could result in foreign intervention, such as the NATO-led air campaign against Moammar Kadafi’s forces in Libya.

Some activists have called for intervention short of a bombing campaign, such as the introduction of foreign monitors into Syria or the establishment of safe zones for civilians. But the government rejects such steps as foreign interference meant to orchestrate an overthrow. It says it is planning its own reforms.

The Obama administration and other western governments have called on Assad to step down. The Russian and Chinese governments have urged Assad to institute reforms.