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Syria withdraws UN rights council bid

May 12, 2011 12:57 A.M. (Updated: May 12, 2011 12:57 A.M.)
UNITED NATIONS (AFP) -- Syria on Wednesday withdrew a bitterly contested bid for a place on the UN Human Rights Council as it fought off growing international criticism of its deadly crackdown on protesters.

Kuwait will take Syria's place in an Asian group of nations nominated for places on the council.

Western nations had launched a major diplomatic push to block Syria's effort to get on the council, which one ambassador called "a provocation." Western powers are making a new attempt to get the UN Security Council to condemn President Bashar al-Assad's campaign against opponents.

Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, portrayed the withdrawal as a straight swap with Kuwait, denying reports by diplomats of intense "political" pressure from Asian and Arab nations to stand down from the May 20 election.

Speaking after an Asia group meeting at the UN headquarters, Jaafari said Syria would take Kuwait's place in the next elections for the Human Rights Council in two years.

"It doesn't mean at all that any of us has withdrawn its candidacy," Jaafari said. "It is a sovereign decision based on the Syrian government's will to reschedule the timing of our candidacy, based on reconsidering our priorities."

Kuwait will join India, Indonesia and Philippines as the new Asian entrants on the council.

Under the UN resolution that established the Human Rights Council in 2006, member nations are expected to "uphold the highest standards" of human rights. "There was clearly some embarrassment about this because of the violence in Syria now," said one Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

France, Britain, the United States and other Western nations had lobbied hard against Syria -- particularly since the crackdown on opposition protests in which hundreds are believed to have been killed.

"This was an insane candidacy, an offense to human rights, a provocation," said France's human rights ambassador Francois Zimeray, who had taken part in international lobbying to block Syria.

US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said Wednesday's withdrawal "is a result of the good sense of the member states of the Asia group who determined that they were unwilling to give sufficient support to a country whose human rights record is deplorable."

"This election had become a referendum on Syria's violent suppression of protests, and Syria withdrew rather than face a resounding defeat," said Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch's global advocacy director.

Western powers have stepped up calls for the UN Security Council to take action over Syria.

Russia blocked one Security Council statement on the Syria crackdown, but Britain is now leading efforts to see whether the 15-nation council could pass a resolution or statement warning the Assad regime.

Germany's ambassador Peter Wittig said Tuesday that those responsible for deaths in Syria should be "held accountable."

"What we think is most important is that there be no ambiguity about the international outrage and condemnation at the behavior of the Syrian government," said Rice.

"And we think today?s action in the Asia group underscored that, and we think that whatever the Council does ought to underscore that," she added.

The Russian government has again insisted however that the Security Council cannot discuss Syria, a key ally in the Middle East. Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, can veto any resolution.

Between 600 and 700 people have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested since the start of the Syria protest movement in mid-March, rights groups say.
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