I-Conflicting Views on the Human Rights Council September 28 Resolution
On September 28, the UN’s Human Rights Council asked for a consensus vote on a resolution holding the Syrian government responsible for the violence in Syria. The resolution particularly referred to the Houla Massacre that took place in Syria on May 25-26, 2012. The resolution said it (1):
“Condemns in the strongest terms the massacre of the village of AL-Houla near Homs, where the forces of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and members of the Shabbiha were found by the commission of inquiry to be the perpetrators of outrageous and heinous crimes and stresses the need to hold those responsible to account.”
Opposing the call that the resolution be passed by acclamation, Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischv, the Representative of the Russian Federation, explained why her country would vote against the resolution. Among the several reasons she gave was the objection that the resolution was inaccurate and biased in blaming the Syrian government for the massacre. She explained, “In particular we cannot agree with the one sided conclusion put out in the resolution concerning the Commission on the Houla tragedy.” She noted, “We believe that the question for the attribution of guilt is still open. An investigation should be carried out thoroughly. One should not accuse the government if one does not have sufficient evidence therefore.” (2)
The Russian Federation Representative also pointed out the harmful consequences such a resolution would have in deepening the conflict. “Unfortunately,” she said, “some states are in de facto encouraging terrorism in Syria. Therefore we have no doubt that the episode in Houla is definitely being whipped up in the media and being used to carry out force against this country.”
China’s Representative said that his nation would also vote against the resolution. He explained that putting pressure on only one party to the conflict would not help to resolve the conflict.
The Cuban delegate also announced that his country would vote against the resolution. Among the reasons he gave was the objection that the goal of some co-sponsors of the resolution was to impose regime change on the Syrian people through a decision arrived at by those outside the country. Such a goal, the Cuban Representative maintained, threatened to send Syria back to the Stone Age.
When the vote was taken, there were 41 votes in favor of the resolution, three votes against (China, Cuba and the Russian Federation), and three abstentions (Philippines, India and Uganda). The India Representative, explaining why his country had abstained, said that the obligation of the Human Rights Council was to act with impartiality and for its resolutions to be balanced and impartial. The implication of India’s remarks was that the resolution against Syria was not balanced or impartial.
Though Syria is not a member of the Human Rights Council, the Representative of Syria, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, was given permission to speak. Among the objections to the resolution that he raised was that the resolution did not take into account the report of the Syrian government’s Commission of Inquiry into the Houla tragedy. He also pointed to the closed process used by those drawing up the resolution. It was a process, he said, that did not accept any proposals to amend the resolution.
This interaction in the Human Rights Council takes on added significance when it is viewed in the context of the earlier Security Council request that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, with the involvement of UNSMIS (United Nations Supervisory Mission In Syria), do an investigation of the Houla massacre and report its findings to the Security Council.(3) This request was made in a press statement issued by the Security Council on May 27, 2012. By a rather mysterious process, the Security Council’s request that an investigation of the Houla massacre, which was to be carried out with the involvement of UNSMIS, was shifted to a significantly different process that was carried out by the Human Rights Council and the Commission of Inquiry it created, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (hereafter CoI). How this shift happened and the significance of this change, merit serious consideration by those who are concerned about the role the UN is playing in the conflict in Syria.
II-What Happened to the UNSMIS Report on Houla Investigation?
It will be helpful to review the Security Council’s request that there be an investigation of the Houla massacre with the involvement of UNSMIS. On May 27, shortly after the Houla Massacre took place, the UN Security Council issued a press statement. In the statement it said(4):
“The members of the Security Council requested the Secretary General with the involvement of UNSMIS (United Nations Supervision Mission In Syria) to continue to investigate these attacks and report the findings to the Security Council.”
Note that the Secretary General was to present the results of the UNSMIS investigation to the Security Council.
Similarly relevant is an article by Reuters on May 29, two days after the Security Council issued its press statement. In the article, Karen AbuZug, a Commissioner on the CoI created by the Human Rights Council, is quoted saying (5), “We are discussing with UNSMIS over the next few days to see whether we can also have a look and maybe corroborate with information we get from outside the country.” Such a statement can be considered as an acknowledgment that UNSMIS was to conduct an on the ground investigation and the CoI would add what it could from its sources outside the country. The role assigned to UNSMIS by the Security Council to be involved in conducting the investigation was at the time recognized by AbuZug.
At a press conference with journalists in Damascus on June 15, Major-General Robert Mood, head of UNSMIS, explained the progress of UNSMIS in carrying out its investigation of the Houla tragedy.(6) He said that UNSMIS had been to Houla with an investigating team. They did interviews. They interviewed locals who told one story. They interviewed locals who told another story. But the circumstances leading up to Houla, the detailed circumstances, the facts related to the incident still remained unclear to the UNSMIS investigators. This led General Mood to say that if there was a decision to support a more extensive on the ground investigation, UNSMIS could help to facilitate it.
As a result of its work, he said, UNSMIS put together the facts it could establish by what the team saw on the ground, together with the conflicting statements and witness interviews. UNSMIS sent that as a report to UN Headquarters in New York. (7)
Given this set of events one could logically expect that the Secretary General would present the conflicting results of the UNSMIS investigation to the Security Council, and the Security Council would consider whether to ask the Secretary General to establish a more extensive on the ground investigation of the circumstances leading to and occurring during the Houla massacre. This more extensive on the ground investigation would be one with access facilitated by UNSMIS as General Mood indicated was possible. As part of this more extensive investigation, the Human Right’s Council’s CoI might corrorborate, as AbuZug had proposed in her comments in the Reuters article on May 29, by providing information from those outside of Syria if that was relevant.
But this is not what happened.
Instead there was silence at UN Headquarters about what the Secretary General’s intentions were with respect to transmitting the findings of the UNSMIS investigation to the Security Council.
Only when journalists raised the question, did the Spokesperson for the Secretary General give any indication that the Report had been received.
On June 21, responding to a question from a journalist, the UN Spokesperson acknowledged the Secretary General had received the UNSMIS Houla Report. The Spokesperson for the Secretary General explained(8):
“Spokesperson: Well, the Mission has sent its observations on the al-Houla killings to the Secretary-General for his consideration. The Secretary-General is in turn sending these observations to the relevant UN bodies monitoring human rights in Syria. And once these bodies complete their work, the findings on what I think everybody agrees was a terrible incident will be presented by the Secretary General to the Security Council,”
This statement raises the question of why the findings of UNSMIS were to be diverted to what he referred to as “UN bodies monitoring human rights” rather than presented directly to the Security Council as the Security Council had requested in their May 27 press statement.
The Spokesperson’s statement, however, acknowledges the UNSMIS Report on Houla was received by the Secretary General and that the Secretary General had the obligation to present it to the Security Council. Nevertheless, even several months later, members of the Security Council said that the conflicting information gathered from the on the ground investigatory process by UNSMIS still had not been presented to Security Council members.
When a question about the missing UNSMIS Report on Houla was raised again at the Secretary General’s Spokesperson’s briefing on September 14, the Deputy Spokesperson promised she would get a response to the journalist’s question.(9) In an email a few days later, on September 17, the Deputy Spokesperson wrote (10): “(J)ust to follow up on your question from Friday, the report by UNSMIS (i.e. Mood’s report) went to the Human Rights Council and the Security Council. Any further follow-up is in their hands.”
Yet when the President of the Security Council for the month of October, Guatemala’s Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, held a press conference on October 2, he was asked whether the Security Council had received General Mood’s Report. His response was (11):
“To the best of my knowledge, the answer is No.”
“I personally (as) a member of the council have not seen that report,” he said.
Apparently, according to the Guatemalan Ambassador, the Security Council members had not seen the UNSMIS Report on Houla, despite the Deputy Spokesperson’s email stating that the UNSMIS Report had gone to the Security Council.
And an email to the Spokesperson for the Human Rights Council about whether the Human Rights Council had seen the UNSMIS Report on the Houla massacre received no response.
Then on October 16, two members of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (CoI) appointed by the Human Rights Council held a press conference at UN Headquarters.(12) At the press conference, Karen AbuZug, a Commissioner and Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the Commission, were asked if they had seen the UNSMIS Report on Houla submitted by General Mood to UN Headquarters. AbuZug responded that she had been given a briefing on the Report but had not seen the Report itself. There was no means to ask another question about this issue during the press conference. After the press conference ended, AbuZug was asked if she could say what was presented in the briefing on General Mood’s report. She responded that the briefing was confidential.
III – CoI Report as a One Sided Document
The CoI produced both a preliminary report on Houla of 20 pages on June 26, titled “Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” (A/HRC/20/CRP.1) (hereafter Oral Update Report) and a final Report in August titled “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic”. (A/HRC/21/50) (hereafter August Report). The August Report is 107 pages but the part about the Houla massacre is approximately 7 pages (pages 10-12 and 64-67).
These reports by the CoI appear to serve not as a corroboration of the on the ground investigation by the UNSMIS team, as AbuZug originally proposed, but rather as the substitute for the UNSMIS Report. The UNSMIS Report of conflicting statements and interviews from locals in Houla, which General Mood described to journalists on June 15, appears to have vanished. Instead of the UNSMIS Report of the two conflicting versions of the stories by locals in Houla indicating the need for a more substantial on the ground investigation, the CoI, with no actual evidence presented, declared that the Syrian government was to blame for the Houla massacre.
In contrast to General Mood’s statement to journalists that UNSMIS had been on the site of the Houla massacre with an investigating team, the CoI made no visits to the site of the Houla massacre. When asked why the CoI did not include information from the UNSMIS Report in their CoI Report, Pinheiro answered that the report only includes the information the Commission gets from its own investigators. Such a statement is contradicted in its own August Report, which does include references to information from UNSMIS, just not with regard to the Houla massacre.
In his June 15 press briefing, General Mood said the UNSMIS Report on Houla included statements and interviews with locals with one story and statements and interviews with locals with another story. The August Report of the CoI tells only one story and claims that they either do not have other information or that any other information they know of is inconsistent, so that they have accepted that there is only one story. The Reports that the CoI produced had no onsite interviews or statements, but only telephone or Skype interviews with insurgents or those supporting the account of Houla presented by the armed insurgents.
General Mood said the scope of the information needed was, “the circumstances leading up to el Houla and the detailed circumstances, the facts related to the incident itself.” He explained that these still remained unclear to UNSMIS. This information is needed to set a basis for a report on the Houla tragedy that is impartial and balanced, based on an understanding of the facts of not only what happened at Houla, but also what led up to this tragedy.
While the scope of the question raised by General Mood and UNSMIS for the Houla investigation was a question which puts what happened in Houla into a broader context, the CoI Reports, instead, narrow down the question raised so that the broader context is obscured.
The August Report from the CoI poses as its critical question, whether the Syrian government had the ability to have access to the area where the massacre occurred. The August Report speculates that the Syrian government maintained control over one of the checkpoints in the area of a site of a massacre. Based on this speculation, the August Report claims that the Syrian government must be responsible for the massacre.
In general, however, accounts of the events of the tragedy differ about whether or not the Syrian military lost control of the checkpoints around the area where the massacre occurred. Also, there seems general agreement that the area in question was under the control of the armed insurgents and had been for a period of time.
The widely held agreement or claim that the armed insurgents had control of the area where the massacre took place was even referred to in a letter to the Security Council by Ban Ki moon shortly after the massacre occurred. In his letter to the UN Security Council, Ban Ki-moon wrote
“The villages in question have been outside of the Government control, but surrounded by heavy military presence.” (The Secretary General, 27 May, 2012) The CoI Reports dismiss the fact that the area was under the control of the armed insurgents.
Similarly, in the CoI Reports, there is no motive given for why the Syrian government would want to massacre these civilians.
This information is needed to set a basis for a report on the Houla tragedy that is impartial and balanced, based on an understanding of the facts of not only what happened at Houla, but also what led up to this tragedy.
General Mood also explained that there was a need to understand the facts related to the incident itself that were unclear even after the UNSMIS investigation.
The August Report, instead, treats its speculative conclusions as facts, rather than acknowledging that there are significant facts related to the incident itself which remain unclear, but which need to be resolved in order to determine who is responsible.
It is also important to remember that the UNSMIS investigation came up with conflicting stories, and conflicting interviews. There remain conflicting stories and conflicting interviews about what happened at Houla. Yet the August Report shows little recognition that this is true or that there is a need to not only recognize these conflicting accounts, but also to propose the need to have a more extensive investigation that can resolve the unsettled issues.
The CoI Reports complain that their investigators did not have access to people on the ground in Syria, and so had to rely on interviews by phone or Skype. But the failure of the CoI investigators to do a balanced and impartial investigation explains why the Syrian government would not be willing to give them permission to carry out an investigation in Syria.
The question needs to be raised as to why the CoI investigators did not identify or contact people who could present a range of conflicting statements or interviews as UNSMIS had gathered and presented to UN headquarters. In addition, there are a number of potential witnesses that have been identified by alternative media or NGO sources whose accounts of the events differ from the conclusion of the August Report. Some of these alternative media or NGO sources report that when they tried to offer information to the CoI, their offers were refused.(14) It is hard to understand how the CoI could claim it could accomplish an impartial and balanced investigation without accepting such offers and seeking such contacts.
Instead, the CoI Reports, particularly the August Report, are based mainly on the views of the armed insurgents. The August Report even misrepresents what the CoI said in the earlier Oral Update Report. The Oral Update Report allowed for three alternative possibilities as to who was responsible for the massacre of civilians.
The Oral Update Report of the CoI says (See for example, A/HRC/20/CRP.1, para 48-49,54-55 p. 10-11):
“First, that the perpetrators were ‘Shabbiha’ or other local militia from neighbouring villages, possibly operating together with, or with the acquiescence of, the Government security forces; second that the perpetrators were anti-Government forces seeking to escalate the conflict while punishing those that failed to support – or who actively opposed – the rebellion; or third, foreign groups with unknown affiliation.”
“With the available evidence,” the Oral Update Report said, ‘the CoI could not rule out any of these possibilities.”
A few paragraphs later it added:
“The CoI could not rule out the possibility of the involvement of foreign groups with unknown affiliation. The CoI received information that the anti-Government armed groups in Taldou on that day received ‘support from other groups from neighboring areas.’ Testimony was also collected that described the perpetrators as having shaved heads and long beards – descriptions which have been applied both to foreign groups and the Shabbiha in other contexts. This information could not be corrorborated by the Commission.”
Based on this statement, the Oral Update Report stated:
“The CoI is unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators at this time….”
Without providing any substantial new evidence, the August Report, instead, states that there is “no doubt the Syrian government was responsible for the Houla massacre.” (A/HRC/21/50, para 49, p. 10)
The August Report even misrepresents that the earlier Oral Update Report offers three alternative views of who was responsible for the deaths of civilians in Houla. (See A/HRC/21/50, para 41, p. 10)
Somehow between the time of the Oral Update Report of June 26, and the August Report, the CoI found a means to trivialize what criteria would determine who to blame for the massacre. Also the CoI dismissed the broader issues, the questions and the obligation to provide a more substantial consideration of the background to the events that had occurred in Houla.
And with no explanation offered, the UNSMIS Report that Mood said was submitted to UN Headquarters, has effectively disappeared. Subsequently, the UNSMIS mission itself was ended. And the Security Council request to Ban Ki-moon to report to it on the findings of the UNSMIS investigation in Houla has never bee fulfilled.
If the Security Council had heard the details of the conflicting nature of the statements and interviews in the UNSMIS Report and had this Report been available to the media and the public, this could have provided public pressure for the continuation of the UNSMIS mission and for the establishment of an impartial, competent team to conduct an on the ground investigation facilitated by UNSMIS. But this did not happen. With the disappearance of the UNSMIS Report on Houla, the Security Council allowed UNSMIS to be terminated.
Subsequently, the CoI appointed by the Human Rights Council was allowed to substitute a biased report lacking any direct knowledge of the details of what happened in Houla or any face to face interviews with witnesses with direct knowledge of the events to be investigated.
One may ask why such a switch was made from the UNSMIS Report on Houla with information from an on the ground investigation gathering conflicting statements and interviews as requested by the Security Council, to the substitution of the Human Rights Council’s CoI Report presenting no actual evidence, but putting the blame for the Houla massacre on the Syrian government.
This is a question which needs further investigation and analysis. An important clue to an answer, however, is suggested by the June 21 UN Spokesman’s response to the question from the journalist who asked what happened to the UNSMIS Report.
Instead of sending the report directly to the Security Council as could be expected, the Spokesman said that the Secretary General was “sending these observations to the relevant UN bodies monitoring human rights in Syria.”
But the Security Council’s May 27 press statement asked the Secretary General with the involvement of UNSMIS to do an investigation of the Houla massacre, and report the findings to the Security Council. There was no Security Council request that the UNSMIS Report on Houla first be sent to UN bodies monitoring human rights.
Considering the subsequent developments the reason for this diversion becomes more apparent. UNSMIS took as its obligation to maintain a neutrality (See for example General Mood’s July 5 press conference in Damascus, where he describes how he worked to maintain an impartiality in the actions of UNSMIS). (15) The CoI, on the contrary, did not act to maintain an impartiality in its investigation, but instead took a side in gathering the information it considered for its investigation and the people it contacted.
The consequence of such a bias in the CoI investigation resulted in the August Report that has been justly criticized as presenting one sided conclusions and attributing blame for the Houla massacre without sufficient evidence.
Furthermore, if one asks UN related officials about the UNSMIS report on Houla, one is likely instead to be pointed to the August Report of the CoI. (16)
Thus it appears that by the time the UNSMIS Report on Houla was submitted to UN Headquarters, some decision had been made that it would not be presented to the Security Council, but instead the CoI would create a substitute report, despite the fact that this body had no direct access to the facts or to witnesses to the massacre.
And it appears that this substitution of the Human Rights appointed CoI Reports for the UNSMIS Houla Report has received only rare media attention, though the CoI Reports have been critiqued by some of the alternative media. (17)
For example, Marinella Correggia is an activist with the Italian No War network-ROMA which critiqued the CoI Reports. She concludes that given the Commission’s international mandate, the partiality and one-sidedness of the August Report is both flabbergasting and disconcerting. She asks,“Has the UN no internal assessment mechanism to prevent such abuses in the ‘documentation’ of events upon which the UN is then required to act?”(18)
At the present time, the answer to her question appears to be that the UN does not have any internal mechanism to prevent such abuse, except for the few statements by member nations that are willing to speak out and make their criticisms, as did the nations that voted against or abstained in the vote at the Human Rights Council on September 28 Resolution condemning Syria.
Unfortunately, though, the result of the decision to substitute a biased CoI Report based on one sided reasoning and speculative conclusions, for the UNSMIS Report based on an impartial on the ground investigation, has significant consequences for the UN. The obligation of the UN is to be impartial, so as to be able to help resolve conflicts that threaten international peace and security. If instead the UN acts as the political proponent of certain powerful member states intervening in domestic conflicts of other states to bring about regime change, then the very essence of the UN is impaired and put in jeopardy.
1) A/HCR/21/L.32A. This resolution was passed by the Human Rights Council Resolution on September 28 2012 condemning Syria for the Houla Massacre based on the biased and one sided Reports of the COI.
2) The proceedings of the September 28 2012 meeting of the Human Rights Council are online at the UN webside. The url for the video is:
The Russian Federation’s Representation spoke from min. 4:42 -8:10
The Chinese Delegate spoke from min. 13:09-15:50
The Cuban Representative spoke from min. 16:10-18:50
The Syrian Representative can be heard in the video from min. 24:34-35:30
3)Ronda Hauben, ”The UN and General Mood’s Missing Report on Conflicting Accounts of the Houla Massacre”, September 10, 2012, http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2012/09/10/unsmis-report-houla-massacre/
4) See the wording in the UN Security Council Press Statement on Houla May 27, 2012
”Those responsible for acts of violence must be held accountable. The members of the Security Council requested the Secretary-General, with the involvement of UNSMIS [United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria], to continue to investigate these attacks and report the findings to the Security Council.”
The url is: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10658.doc.htm
5) Stephanie Nebehay ,“Most Houla victims killed in summary executions: UN” , Tuesday, May 29, 2012.
6) Press Conference with Major General Robert Mood in Damascus, June 15, 2012, Video Part 2. The section where General Mood describes the Report on Houla starts at min: 3:10 to 4:17 . The url is:
7) Describing the investigation by UNSMIS into the Houla massacre and the report UNSMIS submitted to UN headquarters, General Mood tells journalists, as transcribed from the video:
“The statement we issued after el Houla is still valid.
Which means we have been there with an investigating team.
We have interviews, interviewed locals with one story, and we have interviewed locals that has another story.
The circumstances leading up to el Houla and the detailed circumstances, the facts related to the incident itself, still remains unclear to us.
We have put this together, the facts that we (can) could establish by what we saw on the ground. We have put together the statements, the witness interviews and we have sent that as a report to UN headquarters, New York.
And then the assessment on what’s the way forward. Will there be a different investigation? (This-ed) is a matter for headquarters in this context. But if we are asked, obviously we are on the ground, and could help facilitate that.”
(8) Press Briefing with UN Spokesperson on June 21, 2012.
9) Press Briefing with UN Spokesperson on Sept 14, 2012.
10) Email received from the Deputy Spokesperson on September 17, 2012.
11) Video at the UN website of 2 Oct 2012 – H. E. Mr. Gert Rosenthal, Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the United Nations and President of the Security Council for the month of October 2012 on the programme of work of the Security Council in October. The url for the video is:
12) Press Conference on 16 Oct 2012 – Paulo Pinheiro, Chair and member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria and Karen AbuZayd. The url of the video on the UN website is:
13)S/2012/368. Letter dated 27 May 2012 from the Secretary-General to the President of the Security Council. The url is:
14) See for example: “Anti-war campaigner Marinella Corregia worries the HR commissioner talks only to its sources: the opposition.”
Thursday, May 31 2012, “UN report on Houla massacre? But they only talk to Syrian opposition – by phone, “Uprooted Palestinians”.
15) General Mood Meets the Press, Damascus, July 5, 2012.
See for example from min. 17:25-19:00
General Mood describes how UNSMIS has established an impartial system with “exactly the mechanism that addresses both sides in the same way”.
16) I have had two experiences when I asked either present or former UN officials connected for the UNSMIS Report.. In both cases I was referred to the CoI Reports with no indication about what happened to the UNSMIS Report on Houla.
17) See for example: Marinella Correggia, “THE RECENT REPORT ON SYRIA BY THE “INDIPENDENT INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION OF INQUIRY” (CoI) mandated by the Human Rights Council is one-sided and lacks evidences” The url is http://www.sibialiria.org/wordpress/?p=777
See also, in Italian Marinella Correggia. DOCUMENTO. Le fonti parziali e le prove mancanti nel rappoto della “Commissione internazionale indipendente di inchiesta” (COI) nominata dall’Onu. The url is
Another site that has taken on to examine the issues involved in the conflict in Syria
“A Closer Look On Syria”.
18) Marinella Correggia, “THE RECENT REPORT ON SYRIA BY THE “INDIPENDENT INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION OF INQUIRY” (CoI) mandated by the Human Rights Council is one-sided and lacks evidences” The url is http://www.sibialiria.org/wordpress/?p=777
See also Christof Lehmann, “Italian Peace Movement Criticizes Report of International Commission on Syria, Sept 9 2012, NSNBC.