Reported on: June 02, 2012 09:36 AM
Reported in: International
GENEVA, JUNE 1 (AP/UNB) - The U.N.'s top human rights body harshly condemned Syria on Friday for the massacre last week of more than 100 civilians, apparently at the hands of government troops and pro-regime thugs.
But Syria's most important ally and protector, Russia, voted against the measure by the U.N. Human Rights Council and backed the Syrian government's conclusion that "extremists" and "militants" - words Damascus uses to refer to rebel fighters - were behind the killings.
A majority of countries in the 47-nation rights council supported a U.S. and Arab-led resolution condemning "in the strongest possible terms such an outrageous use of force against the civilian population" in a cluster of villages known as Houla.
According to preliminary U.N. investigations, at least 49 children under the age of 10 were among the dead - with entire families apparently executed in their homes.
U.N. investigators have said there is strong evidence that pro-regime fighters were behind the massacre.
The resolution instructs an expert panel to conduct an "international, transparent, independent and prompt investigation" and echoes calls by U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay for the U.N. Security Council to consider referring Syria to the International Criminal Court.
The vote marks the strongest condemnation yet of Syria by the Geneva-based rights body, highlighting the increasing isolation of Damascus in the international community.
Only Russia, China and Cuba voted against the resolution. Uganda and Ecuador abstained, and the Philippines was absent.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin said earlier Friday that his country wants to help U.N. envoy Kofi Annan achieve "positive results" and prevent an all-out civil war in Syria.
Nearly 300 U.N. observers have been deployed around Syria to monitor the Annan-brokered cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect on April 12, but the peace plan has unraveled amid daily violence and the images from the Houla massacre have caused outrage to spike.
On his first trip abroad since returning to the presidency, Putin told reporters in Germany that Russia would remain in contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his administration.
Putin said he believed a political solution in Syria was possible. "It requires a certain professionalism and patience," he said.
As he spoke in Berlin, Russian diplomats in Geneva dismissed the resolution as "unbalanced" and voted against the text.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement citing the Syrian government's conclusions about the massacre - saying that it was a crime "well planned by militants in order to thwart efforts on political regulation of the Syrian crisis."
"The Houla tragedy showed what can be caused by financial aid and contraband supplies of modern weapons to militants, by enlistment of foreign mercenaries and flirtation with extremists of all kinds," said the statement, attributed to Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
It also said nations pressuring the Syrian government "prefer their own agenda, and its main point is the changeover of the ruling regime in Damascus."
It was the fifth time that the Human Rights Council has called an urgent meeting on Syria.
The country's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi, accused backers of the resolution of trying to divide his country.
His deputy Tamim Madani later warned council members that "voting for this resolution is tantamount to killing the victims (of Houla) again."
U.S. and European diplomats say the expert panel could hand its findings to the Security Council - the only body that can refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
"We believe our role at the Human Rights Council is to provide the basis for a case that would be brought on crimes against humanity," U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters in Geneva. "This would provide a basis for the Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC."
If the Security Council does take up the question of whether to refer Syria or individual members of the regime to the Hague-based tribunal, Russia and China would be in a position to use their veto.
They have done so previously to block U.N. action against Syria.
Rights groups stressed the importance of commissioning an independent investigation into the Houla killings, identifying the perpetrators and holding them to account.
"There is no magic bullet to solve this crisis but Russia bears specific responsibility for making the Syrian government stop the violations now," said Juliette de Rivero, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch.
Peter Splinter, a spokesman for Amnesty International, said growing global condemnation of the Assad regime could force Russia to rethink its position.
"At some point defense of uncivilized behavior by a nation that wants to be seen as civilized can no longer be maintained," he said.