UN: Syria atrocities ordered from "highest level"

In this Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and accessed on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, Syrian student protesters chant slogans, during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Aleppo University's Square, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria. AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria

In this Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and accessed on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, Syrian student protesters chant slogans, during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Aleppo University's Square, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria.
In this Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012 citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and accessed on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012, Syrian student protesters chant slogans, during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Aleppo University's Square, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria.
AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria

In what may be the basis for decisions by the Obama administration as well as the European Union and Arab nations on how to defend civilians in Syria, the U.N. Human Rights Council reported that Syria's military, under orders from the "highest level" of President Bashar al-Assad's government, has targeted civilians, shelled homes, raped and killed unarmed women and children, and tortured wounded protestors.

"Army snipers and Shabbiha gunmen posted at strategic points terrorized the population, targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians. Fragmentation mortar bombs were also fired into densely populated neighbourhoods," the report says.

The report, assembled by independent U.N. investigators from Brazil, Turkey, and the United States, names names in a confidential list of government officials and commanding military officers who have committed crimes against civilians and calls for perpetrators of crimes to face prosecution.

"The commission received credible and consistent evidence identifying high- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces who ordered their subordinates to shoot at unarmed protesters, kill soldiers who refused to obey such orders, arrest persons without cause, mistreat detained persons and attack civilian neighbourhoods with indiscriminate tanks and machinegun fire," the report says.

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The international commission of inquiry will be the lead-in to Friday's meeting in Tunisia of the so-called "Friends of Syria," at which 70 nations will be present, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.N. Mission for the League of Arab States told CBS News. Although Russia and China were invited to the meeting, both declined to participate, as did Lebanon. But at least 16 of the 22-member Arab League nations will be there, as well as Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe and foreign ministers from the E.U.

The Friday meeting in Tunis will consider proposals from Arab nations on several pressing issues: how to deliver humanitarian aid; whether corridors can be established to bring food and medicine to civilians; how to impose tighter economic sanctions on Syria; whether to send logistical or military equipment to the Syrian Free Army; whether "safe havens" can be established within the country; and, whether a transition government can be established, and possibly recognized - a point that the opposition Syrian National Council, whose representatives will be at the meeting, have called for.

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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met with the Egyptian Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby in London this week, is planning to send his humanitarian chief Valerie Amos to Damascus. Participants in the Arab League meeting will have the 72-page report as evidence of the need for the U.N. and the Arab League to take action to prevent the continued killing of civilians.

The commission of inquiry, directed by Commissioners Paulo Pinheiro (Chairperson), Yakin Erturk and Karen Koning AbuZayd, includes the denials sent to them by the Syrian government, claiming that "armed terrorist groups" have committed the crimes cited in the council's earlier report. The report is based on the interviews with 369 victims and witnesses and satellite imagery because the investigators were not allowed into Syria, and includes information on illegal detention centers.

The Violations Documenting Centre, which gathers the names of detainees and the place and date of their arrest from families and local coordination committees, cited "more than 18,000 detainees, including more than 200 women and girls and more than 400 boys."

"Security agencies continued to systematically arrest wounded patients in State hospitals and to interrogate them, often using torture," were some of the gruesome details that the independent report cited. "The commission documented evidence that sections of Homs Military Hospital and Al Ladhiqiyah State Hospital had been transformed into torture centres. Security agents, in some cases joined by medical staff, chained seriously injured patients to their beds, electrocuted them, beat wounded parts of their body or denied them medical attention and water," it added.

The report also found that opposition forces also committed abuses "although not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the State."

The report, full of explicit crimes by the Syrian government, comes as Assad forces unleashed brutal and cruel attacks on civilians in Homs, including the deaths of U.S. and foreign journalists.

The evidence in the report may be a precursor to prosecutions of Syrian government officials, if and when there is a regime transition. The report cites Syrian government intelligence and security agencies reporting directly to Assad and said they "were at the heart of almost all operations."

The report details how individuals hired armed pro-government militias known as the Shabbiha and it identifies 38 detention centers with documented cases of torture.

What does the opposition want the Arab League to do?

Sawsan Jabri, of the Syrian Expatriates Organization, based in Michigan, told CBS News that "Arabs and West countries, as friends of Syrian people, should ask Assad to step down, protect the unarmed Syrians -- either by implementing the secure corridors or a no-fly zone, and to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of Syria and the Free Syrian army as the protective entity for Syrian under attack."

The Human Rights Council report was given to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and is scheduled to be presented by the commission of inquiry on 12 March.

The Qatari President of the U.N. General Assembly Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser recently urged the Syrian authorities to cooperated fully with the Arab League, but in the interview with CBS, Al-Nasser cut to the chase: "We cannot ignore that people are dying, children and women, and the international community is silent, it is not acceptable and it is not fair."

The conclusions of the report were grim, but also included a caution to the international community: "The present situation risks further radicalizing the population, deepening inter-communal tensions and eroding the fabric of society. Divisions among the international community complicate the prospects for ending the violence."

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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