February 23, 2012


[The 72-page report, which was delivered to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, said that the insurgent Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, had also committed abuses, but those were “not comparable in scale and organization to those carried out by the state.” ]
By Alan Cowell and  Steven Lee Myers
Local Coordination Committees, via European Pressphoto Agency
In a photo released by a Syrian opposition group on Thursday, flames
and smoke rose from a building in the besieged city of Homs.
LONDON — A United Nations panel concluded on Thursday that “gross human rights violations” had been ordered by the Syrian authorities as state policy at “the highest levels of the armed forces and the government,” amounting to crimes against humanity.
The panel of three investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil, did not release the names of the officials it had identified as bearing responsibility. Instead, they delivered the names in a sealed envelope to the United Nations’ top human rights official.
Syrian security forces continued to bombard areas of Homs, a city in central Syria, for a 20th successive day, despite a growing outcry and international calls for the creation of humanitarian corridors to reach the sick, the wounded and the frail.
The 72-page report, which was delivered to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, said that the insurgent Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, had also committed abuses, but those were “not comparable in scale and organization to those carried out by the state.”
The investigators said the report was based on 369 interviews with victims, witnesses, defectors and other people with “inside knowledge” of the situation in Syria. They also examined photographs, video recordings and satellite imagery to corroborate some witness accounts. The investigators said they were not allowed to enter Syria to conduct inquiries themselves.
The newest shelling, reported by activists, came on the eve of a major international gathering in Tunisia to seek a way out of the crisis. Some reports from Homs said that tanks had pressed into contested areas of the city where opponents of the government say hundreds of trapped civilians have died. The Homs campaign has become one of the deadliest in nearly a year of violent repression by the government of Mr. Assad.
The foreign ministers of several European and Arab countries met in London on Thursday ahead of the international “friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis on Friday to discuss ways to bolster Syria’s opposition forces. They discussed efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, especially urgently needed medical supplies in battered cities like Homs.
A senior State Department official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that countries were ready to provide considerable assistance “within days” through United Nations relief agencies, but that “the real challenge is the access issue.”
The countries gathering in Tunis are expected to call on Syria’s government to allow relief supplies into areas now under assault. “The challenge is on the Syrian regime to respond to this,” the State Department official said.
The United Nations report argued that Syria was now “on the brink” of civil war and “the continuation of the crisis carries the risk of radicalizing the population, deepening inter-communal tensions and eroding the fabric of society.”
The document spoke of torture and killing of civilians.
“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 neighborhoods with indiscriminate tanks and machine gun fire,” the investigators said.
“A reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations,” the report said.
Investigators said that “gross human rights violations were conducted pursuant to a policy of the state” and the “orders to commit such violations originated from policies and directives issued at the highest levels of the armed forces and the government.”
The panel said that it had “deposited with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights a sealed envelope containing the names of these people, which might assist future credible investigations by competent authorities.” It said the envelope’s contents identified insurgent groups “for which the commission documented human rights abuses.”
The report did not suggest which “competent authorities” might investigate the abuses.
There was no immediate response by the Syrian authorities. Earlier allegations of human rights abuses, made last November, were rejected as false by the Syrian diplomatic mission in Geneva in a statement on Jan. 23 that said “armed terrorist groups,” not government forces, were responsible.
Among the scores of people that activist groups reported killed by rockets and bombs through the day on Wednesday, two were Western journalists, the veteran American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who had been working for The Sunday Times of London, and a young French photographer, Rémi Ochlik. The two had been working in a makeshift media center that was destroyed in the assault, raising suspicions that Syrian security forces might have identified its location by tracing satellite signals. Experts say that such tracking is possible with sophisticated equipment.
The killings provoked an outcry, with powerful media figures and European politicians calling on Syrian forces to permit the retrieval of the bodies and to allow the Red Cross to enter areas where civilians say they are under relentless siege, running short of food and medical supplies. At least two other journalists were wounded on Wednesday and their newspapers in London and Paris said they were trying to find ways to rescue them.
The French prime minister, François Fillon, indentified one of the wounded journalists as Edith Bouvier, a 31-year-old freelancer for the daily newspaper Le Figaro. Video on YouTube showed her and Paul Conroy, an Irish freelance photographer who had been working with Ms. Colvin, lying in what appeared to be a makeshift clinic with bandages on their legs. French news media reports on Thursday said that Ms. Bouvier had appealed for a speedy rescue because she needs urgent medical treatment.
Late Wednesday, British officials summoned the Syrian ambassador, Sami Khiyami, to protest the continued attacks on Homs, the Foreign Office said in a statement. The officials also demanded that the authorities in the Syrian capital, Damascus, make immediate arrangements for the repatriation of Ms. Colvin’s body and the evacuation of Mr. Conroy.
Western diplomats quoted by Reuters said, however, that it had not yet been possible to evacuate the wounded or retrieve the journalists’ bodies.
According to Syria’s official SANA news agency, the Foreign Ministry in Damascus on Thursday rejected “all statements that hold Syria accountable for the death of journalists who infiltrated Syria at their own risk without the Syrian authorities’ knowledge of their entry and whereabouts.” Speaking on the BBC on Thursday, Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain said that “people have been dying in their thousands, that continues. The Assad regime has continued to act seemingly with impunity.”
“It is a deeply frustrating situation,” Mr. Hague said, forecasting that the international conference on Syria in Tunisia on Friday would seek to establish a “wide set of measures across a large group of nations” to place a “diplomatic and economic stranglehold” on Syria. There would also be further steps at the United Nations to put pressure on Mr. Assad, even though Russia and China have combined to block Western and Arab League efforts to force him from power.
Russia has said it will not attend the Tunisia meeting and news reports on Thursday said China had not committed itself to attending, blunting the gathering’s chances of securing strong action against Mr. Assad’s government.
Activists, civilian journalists and foreign correspondents who have snuck into Syria have infuriated the authorities and foiled the government’s efforts to control the coverage of clashes, which have claimed thousands of Syrian lives in the last year and which Mr. Assad portrays as caused by an armed insurgency.
Last week, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died of an apparent asthma attack in Syria on Thursday after spending nearly a week reporting covertly in the northern area of Idlib, near the Turkish border.
The United Nations stopped tallying the deaths in the 11-month uprising after the toll passed 5,400 in January, because it could no longer verify the numbers. Efforts by the Arab League and United Nations to stem the violence have so far had little traction, with Syria’s remaining allies — China, Iran and Russia — continuing to stand by it.
But the latest deaths of journalists, on top of the agonizing civilian toll, focused a new wave of international revulsion and anger on Mr. Assad and the Syria government. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said the killings showed that “enough is enough, this regime must go. There is no reason why Syrians should not have the right to live their lives, to freely choose their destiny.”
Reporting was contributed by Rod Nordland from Cairo; Hwaida Saad and Neil MacFarquhar from Beirut, Lebanon; John F. Burns from London; Steven Erlanger, Maïa de la Baume and Scott Sayare from Paris; and Ellen Barry from Moscow.