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October 18, 2012

UN Rights Chief Says Syria Conflict Widening

by Lisa Schlein

United Nations Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay warns Syria's civil war is threatening to engulf the region in conflict. Pillay is urging the international community to act to stop Syria's conflict from spiraling.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, says the situation in Syria is dire. She says the longer the war goes on the greater the danger that people will become immune to the suffering of the Syrian people.

Human rights groups estimate more than 30,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March, 2011. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) says the number of Syrian refugees could reach 700,000 by the end of the year.

Pillay says there are numerous violations being committed by both government and opposition forces that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. She calls government bombings and attacks on civilian areas "inexcusable" and says the U.N. Security Council must act.

"I urge the Security Council to speak with one voice and to act as one," said Pillay.  "That is essential in order to send a strong message.  The longer this vicious conflict continues, the more lethal it becomes not just for Syria's own long term future, but also for the entire region.  By remaining divided, the international community is enabling continuation of the suffering and helping create the circumstances for a wider regional conflict."  

The Syrian government says it is fighting an insurgency led by "terrorists" and agitators supported by international opposition to its regime.

But Pillay says alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity should be brought before the International Criminal Court.  Pillay says she has met with the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and says she supports his efforts to broker a cease-fire.

On other issues, she says the Middle East and North Africa region is expected to remain a priority throughout her second term.  She says much work needs to be done to ensure that the human rights of people in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are respected.

Pillay says she will try to shine a greater spotlight on some of the world's neglected situations.  For example, she cites the human rights situation in North Korea as of particular concern, noting the use of political prison camps, frequent public executions and severe food shortages.  

Pillay condemned the attack by the Taliban against a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai. She says the work of Malala and human rights defenders must be protected.

She notes attacks on human rights defenders, including killings, arrest, torture, and unfair trial, continue on a regular basis in many parts of the world.

"I am really shocked at the number of journalists who are killed just for their investigative work," added Pillay.  "They may be killed by authorities or by drug dealers in Mexico, for instance.  And, I am calling for their full protection by the government.  It is the responsibility of the government to fully respect the right to freedom of expression and to protect those who exercise this right."  

Pillay is the first High Commissioner to be formally appointed for a second term by the General Assembly.