UNESCO condemns Syria, keeps it in rights committee

PARIS Thu Mar 8, 2012 8:11pm GMT

PARIS (Reuters) - U.N. cultural agency UNESCO condemned Syria on Thursday for its crackdown on a year-long uprising but did not expel Damascus from its human rights committee as some Western and Arab countries had demanded, diplomatic sources said.

The executive board of the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) elected Syria to two panels in November, including one that assesses human rights violations.

Angered by Syria's inclusion on the committee, a group of Western and Arab nations had pressed for Syria's expulsion following the violence in the country.

But a resolution, seen by Reuters and submitted by Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Britain, Denmark, and other countries, stopped short of expelling Damascus from the key committee.

Washington and campaigners criticised the omission.

"The United States is profoundly disappointed that this resolution does not call for the outright removal of Syria from the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations - something for which we have repeatedly called for," said Ambassador David Killion, U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, which has been campaigning to get Syria expelled from UNESCO, called the decision scandalous.

"For UNESCO to keep Assad on a human rights committee while his regime mercilessly murders its own people is simply immoral, indefensible and an insult to Syria's victims," he said.

The resolution condemned Damascus for "the continued widespread and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities".

The UNESCO condemnation in itself was a significant step for the agency which rarely rebukes member countries.

Thirty-five countries voted for the condemnation resolution. Eight voted against, including Russia, China and Syria. Fourteen abstained and one delegation was absent, two sources said.

More than 7,500 people have been killed since a revolt erupted in March last year against President Bashar al-Assad's government, according to the United Nations. For its part, Damascus says foreign-backed "terrorists" have killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.

Ambassadors, including those of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar and Kuwait, had asked in December for Syria's situation to be discussed at the 58-member UNESCO executive board. Russia last week attempted to block the move and appears to have succeeded in convincing members to water down the resolution.

The United States is working on a draft U.N resolution in New York to show unity by world powers and warn Assad he risks running out of support. Two previous attempts to condemn Syria at the United Nations were blocked by Russia and China however.

Moscow has made clear it has no intention of shifting its position on Syria - which has drawn strong criticism from the West - and has said it will not consider supporting the U.S. draft without changes.

(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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