U.N. Rights Chief Urges Faster Action to End Fighting in Syria

By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE – NYTimes.com – 11.5.2013 – GENEVA — Navi Pillay, the top United Nations human rights official, called Friday for “much greater urgency” in efforts to end the conflict in Syria, saying massacres carried out in recent days should spur international action.

 “The increasingly brutal nature of the conflict makes international efforts to halt the bloodshed imperative,” Ms. Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement in Geneva. Efforts by the United States and Russia to convene an international conference on ending the two-year civil war announced this week are welcome, Ms. Pillay said, “but we need a much greater sense of urgency.”

Ms. Pillay drew attention to images of piles of bodies, including infants and small children, that purport to show the killing of dozens of civilians by pro-government militiamen in the village of Bayda and elsewhere in the Baniyas area this month. She said she believed that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed.

She also warned that a buildup of government forces and militia troops in the western Qusayr area near the border with Lebanon appeared to presage a government offensive and that residents were fleeing. “We’re worried, too,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Ms. Pillay. “These kind of killings have not been a one-off; they’ve been repeated very savagely.”

Ms. Pillay’s statement reflected concern that the tepid international response to reports of the Bayda massacre showed that outrage outside Syria was fading. “There needs to be a careful investigation of each and every incident like this,” Ms. Pillay said. “We should not reach the point in this conflict where people become numb to the atrocious killing of civilians.” United Nations investigators are receiving consistent testimony that government forces are targeting hospitals, bakeries, schools and other sources of life-sustaining support, and that they are shelling and rocketing civilian areas regardless of whether they have a minimal or heavy rebel presence, she said. “But the disgraceful disregard for the protection of civilians is not restricted to the government side,” she added. “The scope of violations by antigovernment armed groups has also increased alarmingly.” Opposition attacks in Damascus, the Syrian capital, have killed and wounded dozens of civilians, she said, and abductions by the radical Nusra Front appear to be increasing. The British prime minister, David Cameron, echoed some of Ms. Pillay’s sense of urgency after meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Friday. “We urgently have to do more for the sake of people in Syria to break the vicious cycle that threatens to destroy Syria and that threatens to export violence and extremism around the world,” Mr. Cameron said after the talks in Sochi, Russia, the site of next year’s Winter Olympics.   He suggested that there had been progress toward a reconciliation with Russia on how to secure an end to the bloodshed.

“It’s no secret that we have had differing views on how best to handle the situation, but we share fundamental aims: to end the conflict, to stop Syria fragmenting, to let the Syrian people choose who governs them and to prevent the growth of violent extremism,” he said. He added, “The president and I have agreed that as permanent members of the U.N., we must help to drive this process, working with partners in the region and beyond, not just bringing the regime and opposition together at one negotiating table, but Britain, Russia, America and other countries helping shape a transitional government that all Syrians can trust to protect them.” But Mr. Putin said only that there was agreement on wanting “a swift end to the violence and the start of a peace process, and we both want to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Russia’s emphasis on preserving Syria’s sovereignty has been a refrain in its opposition to military intervention in the Syrian conflict and its opposition to any Western-led effort to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power; Russia has instead insisted that the two sides negotiate a settlement.

Mr. Putin allowed that at Mr. Cameron’s initiative, they had “discussed the possible scenarios that could bring about positive development of this process, and examined the possible joint steps we could take.”

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Moscow.