Syria's Death Toll Reaches Over 2,200 People

A top U.N. Human Rights official says the death toll in Syria has climbed to over 2,200 people, 350 of whom have been killed since the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. High Commissioner Navi Pillay repeated her call for Syria to end a crackdown on dissents — and told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that Syria's actions could amount to crimes against humanity. Arab states joined other members of the Human Rights Council at a special session in Geneva Monday, calling for a formal inquiry. The Obama administration calls this another sign of how isolated the Syrian regime has become.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. In Syria, more than 2,200 people have been killed in the crackdown on dissent. Three hundred fifty of them have died since the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Those grim statistics today from the United Nations' top human rights official. She called for an investigation into possible war crimes. And in a sign of mounting diplomatic pressure on Syria, Arab members of the U.N. Human Rights Council agreed an investigation is needed. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, says the Syrian military and police are using excessive force to quell peaceful demonstrations.

NAVI PILLAY: It is our assessment that the scale and nature of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity.

KELEMEN: Pillay says the Syrian military has resorted to a shoot-to-kill policy with snipers on rooftops targeting protesters. And the U.N. has documented summary executions and the torture of prisoners including of children. She wants Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

PILLAY: I wish to use this opportunity to once again call on the Syrian government to immediately and fully halt its crackdown on peaceful protests and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of all detained for their participation in peaceful demonstrations.

KELEMEN: At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Syria's ambassador, Fayssal al-Hamwi, fired back. Speaking through an interpreter, he accused Pillay of spreading lies about his country.

FAYSAL AL-HAMWI: (Through translator) This constitutes an attempt to terrorize our country and to wage a war. We believe that these are mere lies and are not truthful.

KELEMEN: But the Syrian government found little support in the Human Rights Council session today. Saudi Arabia's ambassador says what's happening in Syria can't be justified, that the government there needs to halt the bloodshed and implement tangible reforms. All four Arab members of the council agreed to hold today's session. Tomorrow, they will be voting to set up a commission of inquiry, which U.S. Ambassador Eileen Donahoe says should send a powerful signal to Bashar al-Assad.

EILEEN DONAHOE: We think that the international pressure on Assad is now unified. It's growing. There's resolve in the international community to deal with this growing crisis. He's basically completely isolated at this point and has lost legitimacy.

KELEMEN: Assad continues to promise reforms in his country, but Ambassador Donahoe says those pledges are hard to believe. She says the violence continued in Syria today despite the presence of a U.N. humanitarian team in the city of Homs.

DONAHOE: Even today, the news is really horrifying that the - U.N. humanitarian mission arrives, they're - it's greeted by a cheering crowd. As soon as they leave the square, security forces open fire. And it's just - more of the same, notwithstanding the promises that have been made.

KELEMEN: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also expressed frustration today over broken promises from Assad. Just last week, he says, the Syrian president assured him that police and military operations were over.

BAN KI-MOON: It's troubling that he has not kept his words. Many world leaders have been speaking to him to halt immediately military operations killing his own people, and he assured me to do that.

KELEMEN: Since Ban spoke with Assad, though, U.N. officials say dozens of Syrian protesters have been killed. They are among the more than 2,200 victims of the Syrian crackdown to date. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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