State TV blames ‘conspiracy’ against Bashar al-Assad’s regime after Navi Pillay says situation in Syria is intolerable
The UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, said more than 5,000 people had been killed in Syria during the uprising. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Syria has reacted with fury to a call by the UN human rights commissioner for it to face investigation by the international criminal court (ICC) over the killing of more than 5,000 people since the uprising began nine months ago.
State TV on Tuesday condemned a "conspiracy" against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad after the UN security council was given a new assessment of the scale of the bloodshed. Syria’s UN ambassador called the 5,000 figure "incredible", while Russia, opposed to a referral to the ICC, condemned the west’s position as "immoral".
Earlier, Navi Pillay, the UN commissioner, told the council the situation inside the country had become "intolerable".
Britain’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said: "It was the most horrifying briefing that we’ve had in the security council over the last two years."
Opposition sources said up to 33 people were killed on Tuesday on the third day of a general strike. It was also claimed that around 1,000 soldiers in Idlib in the north had defected and joined the rebel Free Syrian Army. The government reported a clash with "terrorists" on the border with Turkey, in which two of them were killed. None of these claims could be confirmed.
Reports from Homs described a concentration of Syrian government forces preparing for a large-scale assault.
Human Rights Watch said that it was poised to name more than 70 commanders and officials from Syrian military and intelligence agencies who had given "shoot to kill" orders and authorised or condoned torture and unlawful arrests. "It’s time for the UN security council to refer Syria to the ICC so that those who ordered the killing of protesters – and their military and political bosses – can be brought to justice," urged the HRW spokesman David Mepham.
But Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, attacked as "immoral" the position of "those who refuse to exert pressure on the armed, extremist, part of the [Syrian] opposition and … accuse us of blocking the work of the security council".
Russia is supported at the UN by China, Brazil and India, collectively known as the Bric nations. The US, Britain and other western countries do not think a ICC referral is any closer but hope Pillay’s statement will help focus attention on those opposing punitive action against Assad.
Diplomats also spoke of mounting concern that the Arab League, which suspended Syria and announced economic and political sanctions, is losing momentum in its bid to influence the crisis. Nabil al-Arabi, its secretary general, has refused to take the Syrian file to the UN, saying that he is seeking an "Arab solution".
Assad can be confident that there will be no ICC referral because it can only act at the request of the security council. With Russia and China prepared to wield their vetoes, he is safe – for now.
The diplomatic problem is an echo of February’s referral of Libya to the ICC, which subsequently accused Muammar Gaddafi, his son and intelligence chief of crimes against humanity. That move was backed by Moscow and Beijing, as was a second UN resolution which imposed a "no-fly zone" and authorised "all necessary means" to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s forces. But both objected strenuously when western countries, supported by the Arab League, tasked Nato to intervene. They saw that as a mandate for regime change. Both are determined to halt the "Libyanisation" of the Syrian crisis.
Use of the ICC is controversial. It was argued by critics in the Libyan case that referral to the court was premature and self-defeating because it closed off Gaddafi’s options at a time when the international community might have hoped he would step down and retire in Libya or go into voluntary exile. Under international law countries that have signed the ICC statute are obliged to hand over suspects, and deals cannot be done.
Syria’s UN envoy, Bassam Jaafari, said that the UN’s case was tainted because it relied on the testimony of defectors. It would be naive to suggest that Assad’s opponents do not have a clear interest in accentuating the negative. The obvious answer is for Syria to allow in human rights monitors from the UN or the Arab League to carry out independent assessments. But Damascus has repeatedly refused to do that.