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Arab League Confirms Sanctions on Syria as Unrest Intensifies December 4, 2011

The Arab League on Saturday froze assets of 19 top Syrian officials and banned them from traveling to Arab states.  

After a meeting in Doha, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani who chairs the Arab League’s peace process committee, said the panel also gave Damascus until Sunday to come to Doha and sign an initiative to end its military crackdown on protests.

Also Saturday, activists said at least 23 people had died in anti-government unrest across Syria, including violent clashes between government troops and rebel soldiers in the northern province of Idlib.

Witnesses say the battles have been intensifying in recent days as more soldiers defect from regular army units.

The latest fighting came a day after the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to condemn Syria for “gross and systematic violations of human rights” that could be linked to the government’s crackdown on dissent.  The U.N. body also agreed to appoint a special investigator to probe human rights abuses in Syria.

But Syria’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the U.N. resolution and accused the U.N. Human Rights Council of “blatantly politicizing” it.  Syria’s state-run media quoted a foreign ministry official as saying the council “deliberately ignored” documents provided by the Syrian government that clarified facts.

In Istanbul Saturday, visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised Turkey for taking steps to address repression in Syria. He also joined with other world leaders in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

“Regional issues from the brutal repression in Syria where Turkey, where we stand with Turkey and a growing chorus of nations in calling for President Assad to step aside,” Biden said. “And I welcome the Human Rights Council’s condemnation yesterday of the regime’s violence.”

Earlier, a U.N.-backed study said several hundred children were among those who had been killed in the government crackdown. The world body says the overall death toll from eight months of unrest in Syria has topped 4,000.

Syria has contended its actions are not a crackdown on protests, but a necessary response to attacks by “armed terrorists” on civilians and security personnel.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.

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Syria Denounces UN Resolution as Death Toll Rises December 3, 2011

Syria’s Foreign Ministry says a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that accuses the country of “gross” and “systematic” human rights violations is “blatantly politicized.”

The U.N. body passed the resolution on Friday and also agreed to appoint a special investigator to probe human rights abuses in Syria that could be linked to the government’s crackdown on dissent.

On Saturday, Syria’s state-run media quoted a foreign ministry official as saying the council “deliberately ignored” documents provided by the Syrian government that clarified facts.

Earlier, a U.N.-backed study said several hundred children were among those who had been killed in the government crackdown. The world body says the overall death toll from eight months of unrest in Syria has topped 4,000.

Also on Saturday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised Syria’s neighbor, Turkey, and the U.N. panel for taking steps to address repression in Syria.

“Regional issues from the brutal repression in Syria where Turkey, where we stand with Turkey and a growing chorus of nations in calling for President Assad to step aside. And I welcome the Human Rights Council’s condemnation yesterday of the regime’s violence.”

Biden commented in Istanbul, ahead of a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Meanwhile, activists say at least 23 people have been killed Saturday in anti-government unrest in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says most of the deaths occurred in the Idlib region near the Turkish border. The London-based group says clashes between security forces and military defectors left 15 people dead, including three civilians.

Syria has contended its actions are not a crackdown on protests, but a necessary response to attacks by “armed terrorists” on civilians and security personnel.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.

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UN Human Rights Council Condemns Syria

The U.N. Human Rights Council has strongly condemned “the continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights” in Syria where the government is entering its ninth month of a bloody crackdown on dissenters.

During an emergency session convened Friday in Geneva, the U.N. rights body overwhelmingly adopted a resolution that will establish a special investigator to probe human rights abuses in Syria.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the Human Rights Council’s 47 member states that more than 4,000 people have been killed since the crackdown began in mid-March, including 307 children. She said tens of thousands of people have been arrested and some 14,000 remain in Syrian jails.

Earlier this week, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry delivered its initial report, which concluded that Syria’s security and military forces have committed crimes against humanity. Pillay urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court at The Hague and said the international community needs to urgently act to protect the Syrian people.

“The Syrian authorities’ continual ruthless repression, if not stopped now, can drive the country into a full-fledged civil war,” said Pillay. “In light of the manifest failure of the Syrian authorities to protect their citizens, the international community needs to take urgent and effective measures to protect the Syrian people.”

In a vote of 37 in favor, four against and six abstentions, the Human Rights Council strongly condemned the violence and established a special rapporteur to investigate the situation of human rights in Syria.

Russia, China, Ecuador and Cuba were the four members who voted against the measure, while all four of the Human Rights Council’s Arab members were among the states supporting the resolution.

The resolution stops short of explicitly referring the commission’s report on Syria to the U.N. Security Council — which could then refer the matter to the International Criminal Court — but it does charge the U.N. Secretary-General with taking “appropriate action” and transmitting the report to “all U.N. relevant bodies” which could include the General Assembly or Security Council.

Speaking before the vote, Syria’s envoy in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamwi, dismissed the draft resolution as “one-sided” and “biased.” He urged members not to vote for it, saying it would not help the Syrian people.

“In addition to the false message they are addressing to the situation in my country, we would have hoped to have a more balanced draft resolution that would call on ceasing all forms of armed violence in my country,” said a translator on Hamwi’s behalf. “We would have liked the draft resolution to call on all sections of the Syrian people to start an effective, real national dialogue to put an end to the crisis. Nevertheless, it did not refer to that whatsoever.”

As the death toll continues to climb, international pressure on Syria has been intensifying, with the European Union, the United States and the Arab League all separately sanctioning the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

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Clinton Makes Historic Visit to Burma November 30, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma Wednesday for a historic visit.  Clinton’s trip is the first in half a century for a top U.S. diplomat and is in response to political and economic reforms by the military-dominated government.

The secretary’s visit is the first visit by America’s top diplomat since Burma’s military overthrew a democratically elected government in 1962.

The army has dominated the country ever since and been accused of widespread rights abuses.

An election last year, although criticized in some quarters as a sham, brought a nominally civilian government to power.

Since then, officials have surprised critics by relaxing the state’s grip on the media, releasing more than 200 political prisoners, legalizing protests and labor unions, and holding direct talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Clinton told reporters in South Korea Wednesday that she wants to determine if the government intends further reforms.

“Obviously, we and many other nations are quite hopeful that these ‘flickers of progress’, as President Obama called them in Bali, will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country,” she stated.

On the two-day visit, Clinton will meet with government leaders including President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Nobel Prize laureate was released one year ago from 15 years of house arrest. In Rangoon Wednesday, she was asked by reporters what she thought would come from Clinton’s visit.

Suu Kyi says she still opposes lifting economic sanctions, which the Burmese officials have been pushing for.

Photo Gallery: Key Moments in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Career

The U.S. and European Union have sanctioned Burma for the government’s alleged human rights abuses and anti-democratic practices.

Before her trip, Clinton said the sanctions would remain in place for the time being.

Skeptics of the government are quick to point out there are still hundreds of political prisoners languishing behind bars.  Rights groups say military abuses are common in ethnic rebel areas, including extrajudicial killings and rape.

Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher on Burma David Mathieson says that fighting increased in the past year — at the same time the government was publicly promoting its political and economic reforms. He says he believes these abuses will be addressed during Clinton’s meetings this week.

“What I’m talking about is raising very serious ongoing concerns about political prisoners, about abuses against civilians in ethnic conflict areas and the general climate of abuse that still pervades the Burmese military,” Mathieson said.

Clinton will meet with representatives of ethnic minority groups on Friday to discuss the ongoing conflict.

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Clinton in S. Korea Ahead of Historic Burma Visit

United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has arrived in South Korea on the first leg of a two-nation tour that includes the first visit to Burma by a U.S. secretary of state in 50 years.

Clinton meets Wednesday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and attends the opening of a key international forum on global aid in the port city of Busan, before traveling to Burma later in the day for her landmark three-day visit.

U.S. President Barack Obama said earlier this month he was sending Clinton to Burma in response to what he called “flickers of progress” from the new, nominally civilian Burmese government, which took office earlier this year after more than four decades of military rule.

Obama cited steps by Burma to open a dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of some political prisoners and a general opening of the country’s political environment. He said Clinton will explore what the U.S. can do to support progress on political reform, human rights and national reconciliation in Burma.

It is the most significant U.S. policy move on Burma in years. The U.S. and other western nations imposed sanctions on the military government in response to its widespread human rights abuses and failure to enact democratic reforms.

A Burmese presidential aide said that recent developments in diplomatic ties could lead to the end of U.S. sanctions against Burma. The aide also cited exchanges of visits by officials from both countries.

Obama said Burma can forge a new relationship with Washington if it continues down the road of democratic reform, but warned of continued sanctions if the government fails to do that.

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