UN officials warn of escalating human rights violations across Middle East

Human Rights Council meets on Syria. UN Photo/Pierre Albouy

13 May 2011 – United Nations human rights officials today voiced deep concern about the situation in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where rights violations have escalated as governments respond to ongoing protests for greater democracy and reform with deadly crackdowns.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it has received reports that the Bab Amr residential district of the Syrian city of Homs was shelled on Wednesday and that many opposition leaders and activists have been across the country.

Figures issued by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) indicate that between 700 and 850 people have been killed since the demonstrations began in mid-March, and that thousands more have been arrested.

“We cannot verify these numbers for sure, but believe they are likely to be close to reality,” OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists in Geneva.

“These are extremely worrying reports and we urge the Government to exercise utmost restraint, cease the use of force and of mass arrests to silence opponents.”

The UN Human Rights Council has ordered a fact-finding mission to Syria to assess the situation on the ground, and Mr. Colville said OHCHR was in contact with the Government to obtain their full cooperation.

The mission – which will travel to Syria and neighbouring countries – will be held by Kyung-wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, and “should be ready to deploy as soon as we are granted access.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has spoken by telephone with President Bashar al-Assad on several occasions during the crisis, this week urged him to cooperate with the human rights mission and with a separate planned humanitarian mission to the southern city of Deraa, where fighting has been particularly intense.

The protests in Syria are part of a broader pro-democracy movement that has erupted across the Middle East and North Africa since the start of the year. Long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have been toppled and open conflict continues in Libya.

Mr. Colville said today that OHCHR continues to receive disturbing reports that hundreds of people detained in connection with Bahrain’s protest movement – including medical professionals, opposition politicians and human rights defenders – are being denied their legal rights to due process.

“We have worrying reports of severe torture and that, so far, four detainees have died while in custody,” he said.

“We reiterate our call for prompt, impartial and transparent investigations into these allegations of grave human rights violations. We are deeply concerned about the reported scale of arbitrary detention and of the trials of civilians before military courts leading to life imprisonment and death sentences, which we have already said is illegal.”

Mr. Colville said reports indicated that peaceful demonstrations may take place today in Bahrain and he urged security forces not to use force against the protesters.

OHCHR also spoke out about reports of rights violations and continued killings in Yemen, the poorest country in the region.

Mr. Colville said the situation was difficult to assess because of a lack of access to the country and to affected areas in particular.

The Yemeni Government has informed the office that its staff can visit at the end of next month, but Mr. Colville stressed that “we stand ready to deploy urgently so that our human rights officers can independently assess the situation.”

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