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US Skeptical About Syrian Law Changes

Mourners attend the funerals of protesters killed in earlier clashes in the Syrian city of Homs, April 18, 2011
Mourners attend the funerals of protesters killed in earlier clashes in the Syrian city of Homs, April 18, 2011

The United States expressed skepticism Tuesday that a vote by Syria’s cabinet to end 48 years of emergency rule will actually ease human rights conditions there. The State Department confirmed U.S. opposition to Syria’s candidacy for the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Officials here say any gains from the vote lifting the state of emergency in Syria would apparently be negated by companion legislation regulating public protests, and they are renewing their call on authorities in Damascus to end violence against demonstrators.

The action by the Syrian cabinet followed a speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Saturday in which he promised to end the harsh emergency law in effect since 1963.

The cabinet Tuesday ratified draft legislation ending the state of emergency, and abolishing a special security court widely criticized by human rights activists. But it also approved a measure regulating peaceful protests that would require permission from the Syrian Interior Ministry for any demonstration.

At a news briefing, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the Syrian legislation, awaiting the signature of President Assad, may not yield any net gain for human rights in the country.

"In light of some of the comments we’ve seen from the interior minister, this new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced," said Toner. "More fundamentally, there was more violence overnight, soldiers firing on peaceful protestors. Obviously the violence there continues to raise serious concerns. And it remains clear that the Syrian government need to urgently implement broader reforms."

Toner said that while President Assad has cast himself as a reformer, "we have seen a lot of words and not a lot of action" and that it is for the Syrian people to decide whether he has done enough.

Amnesty International says at least 200 people have been killed by security forces since demonstrations for democratic reforms began in Syria a month ago.

The U.S. spokesman confirmed that the United States will oppose Syria’s candidacy for membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Syria is running unopposed for one of four seats reserved for Asian countries on the 47-nation council. It is thus is likely to win a seat unless another Asian country comes forward to contest the vote, set for late May.

Spokesman Toner said the Obama administration believes that given the Damascus government’s actions against its own people, it would be "inappropriate and hypocritical" for Syria to join the Human Rights Council.