By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights chief ramped up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday, accusing his government of launching an "indiscriminate attack" on civilians and other grave human rights violations in its suppression of pro-democracy protests.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the February 4 veto by Russia and China of a draft Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government and endorsing an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside had only encouraged Damascus to intensify its attacks on civilians.
"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force," Pillay told the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly.
Her speech again raised the possibility that the Syrian government, which for 11 months has used its security forces to attack protesters opposed to Assad, was committing serious human rights violations that amounted to "crimes against humanity."
The Syrian army, she said, was implementing a "shoot-to-kill" policy.
"I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs," Pillay said, noting that Assad's forces have been using tanks, mortars and artillery in the assault on the city.
"According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighborhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas," she said in one of her toughest speeches on Syria to date.
It is difficult to establish how many people have died in the Syrian conflict, though the figure was more than 5,400 and rising every day, Pillay said.
"More than 300 people have reportedly been killed in the city (of Homs) since the start of this assault 10 days ago," she said. "The majority of them were victims of the shelling."
She had other statistics: tens of thousands of people, including children, arrested, with over 18,000 still detained; 25,000 seeking refuge in foreign countries; and more than 70,000 internally displaced.
"Extensive reports of sexual violence, in particular rape, in places of detention, primarily against men and boys, are particularly disturbing," Pillay said.
She reiterated her hope that the Security Council would refer the Syrian repression to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as it did in the case of Libya last year. But council envoys say veto-holders Russia and China oppose that.
"The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities against them," Pillay said.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, backed by delegates from Iran and North Korea, tried unsuccessfully to block Pillay from addressing the assembly by citing procedural arguments.
SYRIA REJECTS ALLEGATIONS
Ja'afari accused the Qatari president of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, of political bias against Syria and rejected Pillay's allegations against Damascus.
"After today how can we trust the high commissioner for human rights on issues related to defending and promoting human rights?" he said, accusing Pillay of adopting an "unprincipled (stance) against the Syrian government."
He said Syria has been trying to establish security and stability "in exercise of its exclusive right to protect its citizens" and charged that some U.N. member states were helping al Qaeda launch attacks in Syria against the government.
"How can the United Nations combat the terrorism of al Qaeda, wearing one hat, while at the same time some of its member states are financing, providing succor, indeed sending combatants from al Qaeda to commit terrorist acts in Syria?"
Pillay told reporters the United Nations was seeking information related to the Syrian allegation about al Qaeda.
Libyan U.N. envoy Ibrahim Dabbashi predicted that "the Syrian despots will meet the same destiny" as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed last year by rebels who overthrew his government.
Dabbashi added that Russia and China's veto of the Security Council's draft resolution had given the Syria government a "license to kill."
A Saudi delegate echoed Dabbashi's remarks, adding that he hoped all U.N. member states would support a draft General Assembly resolution that Egypt is expected to formally circulate to the assembly later on Monday. The draft could be put to a vote later this week, U.N. diplomats told Reuters.
The Saudi-drafted resolution, seen by Reuters, is similar to the vetoed Security Council resolution. It "fully supports" the Arab League plan and introduces a call for the appointment of a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy. There are no vetoes in General Assembly votes and its decisions are not legally binding.
Ja'afari dismissed the assembly draft resolution as a "back-door" attempt by the Saudis and Gulf Arabs to achieve in the General Assembly what they failed to do in the Security Council.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the assembly meeting on Syria should never have taken place. He reiterated Moscow's position that both the opposition and the Syrian government were to blame for the crisis, a view Western and Gulf Arab governments roundly reject.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip; editing by Christopher Wilson)