United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, South African Navanethem… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Beirut — The top U.N. human rights panel ordered its investigators Tuesday to begin looking into possible crimes against humanity during Syria's 5-month-old crackdown on antigovernment protesters, while Syrian activists accused security forces of blocking a U.N. fact-finding team from visiting areas of unrest.
The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva — voting as Syrian activists said government forces killed five civilians Tuesday in an opposition stronghold, Hama — also condemned what it called "grave and systematic" violations of human rights by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
The council's 33-4 vote increased the overt threat of prosecution regarding a government campaign that the United Nations says has killed at least 2,200 people since protests against the regime began in March. All four Arab members on the rights council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar — voted for the condemnation, underscoring the anger of Syria's neighbors after Assad escalated his crackdown during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
China and Russia joined Cuba and Ecuador in voting against the directive. The opposition of Moscow and Beijing — members of the U.N. Security Council — signaled the difficulty that would face any push to win Security Council approval for prosecuting Syrian officials.
European nations and the U.S. were also circulating a draft Security Council resolution Tuesday seeking sanctions, including a travel ban, an arms embargo and an assets freeze against Assad, 22 other Syrians and the country's General Intelligence Directorate. Russia immediately signaled its opposition, according to news services.
A separate U.N. human rights team recommended last week that the Security Council refer allegations of atrocities in Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution.
Syria has blocked entry to U.N. human rights investigators, although it is allowing a U.N. team this week to investigate overall humanitarian conditions in opposition areas.
On Monday, security forces in the central city of Homs opened fire on residents who had turned out to welcome the U.N. humanitarian team. Rights workers and opposition activists said Tuesday that three people were killed when security forces fired into the crowd. An additional seven died overnight in the city as security forces pressed attacks, the activists said.
A video posted online Tuesday showed the demonstrators in Homs waving scrawled notes — such as one stating, "Turn left" — to try to direct the U.N. team to areas of earlier alleged killings by security forces.
The U.N. team left as the shooting started, without injury, Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. office of humanitarian affairs, said from Geneva.
Byrs said Syrians in general were allowing the team to tour and to speak to ordinary people with "no constraints."
Two legal officials in Syria and neighboring Lebanon, however, said Tuesday that Assad's isolated regime was blocking all but regime supporters from talking to the U.N. representatives.
"You have some cases where protesters and opponents of the Assad regime are practically suicidal, and will find and run up to the humanitarian team, but these are isolated incidents," said Nabil Halabi, a human rights lawyer in Beirut involved in the preliminary international investigations.
Syrian officials were taking the U.N. team to loyalist neighborhoods of Assad's Alawite religious minority, while telling team members that the districts had been the scene of protests, the two jurists said.
Also Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Ford made an unannounced visit to a southern town, Jassem, where Syrian forces allegedly killed 15 opposition members last week.
In Istanbul, a Syrian opposition bloc announced the creation of a transitional national council but declined to give many immediate details. The Syrian bloc was following the lead of Libyan rebels, who won international recognition for a transitional council formed as a rival to Moammar Kadafi's government.
Knickmeyer and Hajjar are special correspondents.