Briefing to the General Assembly

Navi Pillay

High Commissioner for Human Rights


13 February 2012

New York


Mr. President, 

Distinguished Members of the General Assembly,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank you for the invitation to address you on the human rights situation in Syria under the agenda item “Human Rights Council.” The worsening human rights situation in Syria has prompted the Human Rights Council to hold three special sessions, to dispatch one fact-finding mission and one independent Commission of Inquiry. The President of the Human Rights Council shared the report of the Commission of Inquiry with this Assembly on 29 November last year. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

          Allow me to now update you on the current human rights situation in Syria.

The violent Government crackdown on peaceful protests demanding freedom, dignity and social justice in Syria has continued unabated for eleven months now. While no exact figures can be provided due to our lack of access to the country, credible reports indicate that Syrian security forces killed well above 5,400 people last year, including civilians as well as military personnel who refused to shoot civilians. Due to extreme difficulties in substantiating the events on the ground, it has become almost impossible for my Office to update the death toll in the past two months. However, we are certain that the number of dead and injured continues to rise every day. Tens of thousands, including children, have been arrested, with more than 18,000 reportedly still arbitrarily held in detention. Thousands more are reported missing. 25,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge in neighbouring and other countries. And more than 70,000 are estimated to have been internally displaced.

While the protests have remained largely peaceful, reports of armed attacks by anti-government fighters against Syrian forces have increased, also with consequences on civilians. According to the Government, some 2000 military and security personnel have been killed.

I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs. Since 3 February, in further escalation of its assault, the Government has used tanks, mortars, rockets and artillery to pummel the city of Homs. According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighborhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed in the city since the start of this assault ten days ago. The majority of them were victims of the shelling.

Reports indicate that hospitals, which were already struggling to cope with all those injured in recent weeks, are now overwhelmed. People have set up makeshift clinics throughout the beleaguered city. Medical supplies have been depleted. Shells have struck at least three makeshift clinics resulting in casualties.

Due to heavy shelling, residents have been effectively trapped in areas under attack. Electricity and communication have been cut off in some neighborhoods. And food remains scarce.

The humanitarian situation in Homs is simply deplorable. Similar accounts of intensifying assault and worsening of humanitarian situation have been received from Zabadani, Dar’a, and al-Rastan. The risk of a humanitarian crisis throughout Syria is rising.

The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian Government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force. Yet, as the Secretary-General has said, “the lack of agreement in the Security Council gives no license to the Syrian authorities to step up the attacks on the Syrian population. No government can commit such acts against its people without its legitimacy being eroded.” “The appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs…is a grim harbinger of worse to come.”


The nature and scale of abuses committed by Syrian forces indicate that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed since March 2011. Independent, credible and corroborated accounts indicate that these abuses have taken place as part of a widespread and systematic attack on civilians. Furthermore, the breadth and patterns of attacks by military and security forces on civilians and the widespread destruction of homes, hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure indicate approval or complicity of the authorities at the highest levels.

Since anti-government protests started, security forces and Government-supported Shabbiha militias have been responsible for killing thousands of people through attacks on peaceful protests and in large-scale military operations in several cities. They have used a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy to crush peaceful protests. Several defectors from military and security forces have said that they received orders from their commanders to shoot unarmed protesters without warning. Snipers on rooftops are reported to have targeted protestors, ambulances, and bystanders who were trying to rescue the wounded and collect the bodies of those killed.

Civilians have borne the brunt of the violence, as cities such as Homs, Hama, Dera’a and Idlib have been blockaded and curfews imposed. During the blockades, residents have not been able to obtain water, food and medical supplies. Military and security forces have targeted residential water tanks and water pipes. The blockades had often made it impossible to get the injured to hospitals.

Hospitals have been used as detention and torture facilities. Ambulances have come under fire, and many of the injured and sick have been turned away from public hospitals in several cities. Wounded detainees have been subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment in military hospitals. Evidence gathered indicates that doctors and medical workers have been pursued, arrested, and tortured by the security forces. Increasingly, most of the wounded avoid going to public hospitals for fear of being arrested or tortured. The injured are largely treated in underground hospitals established in apartments, on farms, and at private homes. Hygiene and sterilization conditions are rudimentary and the mere possession of medical supplies is being punished.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Reliable information indicates that Syrian military and security forces have launched massive campaigns of arrest, arbitrarily detaining thousands of protestors, activists and other suspected of anti-Government sentiments or activities. Some have been involuntarily and forcibly disappeared.

Credible information show patterns of systematic and widespread use of torture in interrogation and detention facilities by Security forces. According to information provided by army defectors, they received orders from their commanding officers to torture.

Extensive reports of sexual violence, in particular rape, in places of detention, primarily against men and boys, are particularly disturbing.

Children have not been spared. Children have been killed by beating, sniper fire and shelling from Government security forces in several places throughout Syria. As of the end of January, security forces have killed more than 400 children. Children, as young as 10, have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. Children have been kept in solitary confinement. They have also been kept in overcrowded cells with adults, often deprived of food and water. Schools have been used as detention facilities, sniper post and military bases.

Distinguished Members of the General Assembly,

I am outraged by these serious violations. I am very distressed that the continued ruthless repression and deliberate stirring of sectarian tensions might soon plunge Syria into civil war. The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities committed against them.

This Assembly, in its resolution of 19 December 2011, condemned human rights violations and use of force against civilians by Syrian authorities. It called on Syria to comply with its obligations under human rights law. However, the gross, widespread and systematic human rights violations have not only continued but also sharply escalated.


The Government of Syria has manifestly failed to fulfil its obligation to protect its population. Each and every member of the international community must act now to urgently protect the Syrian population.

The League of Arab States has responded resolutely to the events in Syria and its efforts should be supported. Unfortunately Syria failed to fully comply with the League’s Observer Mission and persisted in its violent crackdown. The League should continue its effort to compel Syria to end the violence. My Office remains ready to provide appropriate assistance to the League of Arab States if the League so requests.

International and independent monitoring bodies, including my Office and the independent Commission of Inquiry must also be allowed into Syria. And humanitarian actors must be guaranteed immediate, unhindered access.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Fact-Finding Mission, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and I myself have all concluded that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed in Syria. I have encouraged the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. All Member States must ensure that these crimes do not go unpunished.

Yet, these crimes continue to be committed as I speak.

The Universal Declaration for Human Rights, adopted by this Assembly more than 60 years ago, makes clear that it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law. The people of Syria are asking for the rights that every human being is entitled to. And they are looking to this Assembly to speak with one voice to support them in this endeavour.


Thank you.

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