UN Rights Body's Actions Against Syria Seem Pretty Toothless

The Human Rights Council has launched an investigation into alleged atrocities

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On Tuesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted 33-4 to condemn Syria's deadly crackdown on protesters and launch an investigation into atrocities allegedly committed by Syrian security forces, with Russia and China voting against the resolution and the four Arab voting members of the council--Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia--voting in favor of the measure. Western officials are hailing the vote as a sign of the Syrian regime's international isolation, and the AP notes that the resolution "still had bite" despite Russia and China toning down the final language. But a scan of Human Rights Council coverage over the past several months suggests several reasons to doubt whether the body's actions will have any meaningful impact on the Syrian uprising.

For starters, the Human Rights Council, which was established in 2006 to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission, took almost identical actions back in April, to no avail. In a 26-9 vote, the body passed a U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning Syria's human rights abuses and calling for a U.N mission to investigate the violence. But the Syrian regime simply decided to bar the human rights team from the country. As the BBC notes today, "the big question now is whether Syria will co-operate with the UN investigators."

Secondly, as The Washington Post noted last week, the Human Rights Council's power is limited, "unlike the Security Council which can impose sanctions against countries and individuals as well as authorize military action and referrals to the International Criminal Court." UN Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg explains that "Human Rights Council condemnation sometimes presages action at the Security Council," but that prospect seems unlikely given Russian and Chinese opposition to any Security Council action beyond strongly worded statements.

And even when the Human Rights Council follows through on its investigations, the process is slow and the results often overlooked. The council, for example, condemned the violence in Libya and launched an inquiry into abuses in late February, but the investigation itself didn't begin until late April. The panel ultimately released its report in early June, concluding--after meeting with 350 people in Libya and poring over documents, photos, and videos--that Libyan forces had committed war crimes and the opposition was guilty of some abuses as well. But the findings did not generate a great deal of coverage--a Reuters brief here, an AFP mention there--and the consequences of the report--beyond expressing concern and urging all sides in the conflict to respect human rights--weren't particularly clear (though it appears the International Criminal Court consulted the findings in preparing arrest warrants for Qaddafi and other senior Libyan officials). The report on Syria--if it materializes--is due back by the end of November. What will the Syrian conflict look like then?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.