Nations try to oust Syria from UNESCO rights panel 

A group of UNESCO member states is trying to remove Syria from a committee with a human rights mandate, a panel it quietly rejoined despite its deadly crackdown on protesters.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, diplomats and others said Wednesday that a growing group of countries — western and Arab — want to unseat Syria from the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations. The committee deals with multiple issues, but has a strong human rights component.

Syria was named to the committee in November by the Arab group at UNESCO. Now, a number of countries, from the United States and Britain to Qatar and Kuwait, are mounting a campaign to remove Syria from the committee by putting the issue on the agenda of the next executive board. The board meets from Feb. 27 until March 10.

The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said he "strongly objects" to the reappointment in November of Syria on the committee.

"We should not allow the Syrian regime to stand as a judge of other countries' human rights record while it systematically violates the human rights of its citizens," according to a statement by Killion.

"The Syrian regime's actions are an affront to the dignity and human rights of the Syrian people, and it is not fit to sit on this body."

About 5,400 Syrians have been killed in an uprising that began in March by protesters seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned Syria for human rights abuses.

"Stop killing your people," Ban said in a keynote address to a Jan. 16 conference in Beirut on democracy in the Arab world.

U.N. Watch, the NGO which is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, made available a December letter to the executive board chairman, signed by 14 nations, advising of the need to act.

The number of signatories has nearly doubled since, according to one diplomat close to negotiations on the issue. The diplomat asked not to be named because of the delicacy of the topic.

An explanatory memo attached to the letter evoked the need for "concerted action to address the egregious human rights situation in Syria."

As a member of the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, "Syria participates in the examination of cases involving alleged human rights violations ...," the memo reads. "In view of the current situation in Syria, the Executive Board must review the participation of Syria in this aspect of its work."

The signers asked that the question be placed on the agenda of the 58-member board — of which Syria itself is a member.

It is not at all clear whether a resolution to oust Syria from the committee will be put to the board, or whether something milder, like a condemnation, or something stronger would come forth. Negotiations among nations are in progress.

The diplomat close to the negotiations denied reports that the executive board was asleep at the switch when Syria was reappointed to the committee with a human rights mandate.

The move came as UNESCO's new executive board reorganized. The upcoming board meeting "is the first opportunity that anybody has to confront this issue legally" according to UNESCO's rules, the diplomat said.

Because each regional group can determine who sits on a subcommittee, the decision was "not challengeable."

UNESCO is already trying to overcome the effects of another contentious issue, the withdrawal of U.S. funding after admitting Palestine as its 195th member. The Oct. 31 vote triggered two U.S. laws into action that automatically cut off U.S. funds — 22 percent of the overall budget.

The law bars U.S. funding of organization that grants membership to territories that are not internationally recognized as states.

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