The death toll in Syria has reportedly topped 7,500 after 11 months of the government’s crackdown on anti-government protesters and armed rebels. Activists say more than 250 people have died in the past two days alone, mostly from government shelling in Homs and Hama province. We speak with the secretary general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, who is due to discuss Syria with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "The Syrian government has to stop the bombardment," Shetty says, noting Amnesty International has not called for the use of force. "The immediate issue really is about allowing unfettered access to independent human rights monitors. It’s [also] to stop the arms flow, because the arms embargo, which we’ve been calling for for a long time, has not happened." Shetty also discusses the crackdown on freedom of expression in Iran during the run-up to this week’s parliamentary elections, human rights in Egypt, and Amnesty International’s campaign for an effective global arms trade treaty. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations now says the death toll in the 11-month uprising in Syria has topped 7,500, as the Syrian government’s crackdown continues on anti-government protesters and armed rebels. Activists say more than 250 people have died in the past two days alone, mostly from government shelling in Homs and Hama province. There are reports Syrian troops have begun a ground offensive on the opposition stronghold Homs, especially in the Baba Amr area. A Syrian official who spoke with the Associated Press vowed Baba Amr would be, quote, "cleaned" within hours.
We’re joined now by the secretary general of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, who is here in New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Amnesty has been calling for Syria to give humanitarian aid agencies immediate and unhindered access to Homs and other affected areas.
Amnesty is also closely monitoring events in Iran and Afghanistan. In Iran, Amnesty has exposed a crackdown on freedom of expression in the run-up to this week’s parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Amnesty reports half-a-million Afghans displaced by fighting are struggling to survive in makeshift shelters in the harshest winter the country has seen in years.
Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, welcome to Democracy Now! First talk about what you have found and are calling for in Syria.
SALIL SHETTY: I think the media reports are, you know, giving you the picture already. But our staff on the ground—we—Amnesty International is not allowed access into Syria, as you can imagine. In fact, that’s one of our calls, that independent human rights monitors, including the U.N. body, should be allowed access. And, you know, I don’t think we can describe it in any more gory detail. It’s unbelievable. It’s outrageous. You know, crimes against humanity, the numbers spiraling every day. I think thousands of people have lost their life, and tens of thousands have been injured and affected, including children.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you think the United—what are you going to be telling Ban Ki-moon?
SALIL SHETTY: Well, you know, the concern we have is that the international community, and particularly the Security Council, has got paralyzed in this regard. I mean, of course the Syrians themselves are fighting a brave fight. Initially, it started completely as peaceful protest, and now it’s ended up having to go beyond that. But there’s a limit to what they can do from inside. So the international community has to rise up.
And here, as you know, Russia and China are blocking any movement in the Security Council. And as far as the Russians are concerned, of course they have some short-term, you know, business interests, because almost 10 percent of their arms sales go to Syria. But our view is that it cannot even be in the interest of Russia, Russia’s own commercial interest, to alienate the entire Arab League and the Gulf states. So our call on the Secretary-General today certainly is to increase the pressure, to really push hard on the Chinese and the Russians to change their position and allow the Arab League to do what it’s really doing, what it should be doing.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of armed intervention in Syria, where does Amnesty stand?
SALIL SHETTY: Well, you know, right now, the immediate issue, that the Syrian government has to stop the bombardment, that is the core issue, and allow humanitarian access. Now, Amnesty has not called for use of force. I mean, that’s something which, you know, we don’t do, because we’re not experts on the issue of using force or not. I think the immediate issue really is about allowing unfettered access to independent human rights monitors. It’s to stop the arms flow, because the arms embargo, which we’ve been calling for for a long time, has not happened. Navi Pillay has also called again for a refer—Navi Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, has called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court. That needs to happen.
There are other sort of issues which are getting less attention. For example, we have a team right now sitting on the borders in Jordan, and there’s a massive flow of refugees into Jordan. And many of these people who are coming out into Jordan and Turkey, unfortunately, they are being pushed back by some of these governments, back into Syria, which creates an additional risk for them. And the asset freeze—you know, there has not been a systematic asset freeze on Assad and his family. These are the things which we feel can make a difference. Of course, we need a broader political settlement. You know, Amnesty’s general view is that increasing the flow of arms into Syria can’t really help anybody.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Assad should leave? There’s word that Tunisia might be offering him asylum.
SALIL SHETTY: Yeah, I mean, in most of these places, as you know, even in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s not just a question of the dictators leaving, because we have to—we have to see an end to dictatorships. So, it’s not just Assad; it’s a system which has to change. It has to be the full observance of international human rights standards. It’s not just a matter of one person, because Assad is surrounded by a whole group of people who are violating international human rights law and humanitarian law. So, I think it’s—yeah, Assad is, in a sense, iconic, but it goes beyond Assad.
AMY GOODMAN: Iran—in Iran and Syria, there is a connection between the two. Talk about that connection and what you are seeing in this lead-up to these parliamentary elections Friday.
SALIL SHETTY: The elections are going to be taking place in early March, and that has really heightened the issue of the domestic human rights violations inside Iran. And our worry is that, because of the Arab Spring, and now because of this whole whipping up of anxiety around Iran’s nuclear program, what is happening, effectively, is that the Iranian government is getting away with a massive increase in human rights violations in the last few weeks. And we have a report which we released just a few days ago which describes this in great detail. So I think the first thing is to bring a focus back onto the Iranian domestic human rights violations. That’s absolutely crucial.
On the ground, what we are seeing—let’s not forget that since February 2011, which is when the first initial protest inside Iran started, we have key opposition leaders, like Mousavi, Karroubi, under arrest—not just them, but their families, as well. But in the last few weeks, what we’ve seen is, you know, a spate of unfair and arbitrary detentions of artists, journalists, students. And the most recent one is a sort of a cyber army that they’ve created to start tracking internet bloggers. And most recently, we have a situation where Mehdi Khazali has been—one of the bloggers, well-known bloggers, has been arrested for a four-and-a-half-year term, plus 10 years of what they’re calling "internal exile." A BBC journalist—I’m sure you’re aware—of the Persian service, one of them was arrested, as well. So a lot of harassment is happening right now.
So, our call on the Iranian government right now really is to allow for public debate, which needs to happen, before the parliamentary elections, and, you know, allow for international human rights obligations. Basic freedoms—you know, freedom of association, expression, assembly—have to be in place. You may be aware that in 2011, the number of executions which have happened in Iran is four times as much as happened the previous year. And many of these are also cases of juvenile executions, all these drug—so-called drug offenses. And, you know, juvenile execution is absolutely prohibited under international human rights law. So, I think there’s a lot of work to be done in Iran.
And our worry on Iran is that, you know, somehow they’re not in the focus anymore, because—and as you said, it’s very linked now to Syria, as well. And the paradox, of course, is that the Iranian government was welcoming what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia and Bahrain, but they are not ready to accept their own people expressing their opinions and voice.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about Amnesty’s position on crackdowns in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, human rights abuses there, which are traditionally U.S. allies?
SALIL SHETTY: You know, I mean, those are the elephants in the room, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I mean, it really exposes sort of double standards. You know, I mean, it’s true that the U.S. government has voiced some concern on Bahrain, but we have one of our people right now in—visiting Bahrain, and the number of restrictions we have, even on our staff entering now, is increasing on a daily basis. You know, they want us to take permissions, etc., which is simply not possible for us to do. I mean, as such, Amnesty never enters a country unless we get government permission, so which is why we are not—we cannot enter to Syria and Iran. But Bahrain has historically been more open, but, you know, now they’ve really tightened on any independent monitoring. So, yeah, I mean, Saudi Arabia, in my view, is simmering. We don’t really hear much about what’s happening there. And the U.S. government’s behavior in relation to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is not any different from what they’ve historically done, which is to put their interests ahead of their values.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few minutes. I want to get to Egypt, but I want to ask you about the arms trade first.
SALIL SHETTY: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that’s one of the reasons we are here this week. The arms trade issue is very central to what we’re discussing. I mentioned the—you know, we had ships landing in Tartus, Russian ships landing, to support the Syrian dictatorship. And this is symbolic of the deeper problem of unregulated arms flow across the world, billions of dollars of business interests. The paradox here again is that the Security Council members, the five permanent members plus Germany, account for almost 70 to 80 percent of arms trade in the world. So I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: U.S., in particular?
SALIL SHETTY: The U.S. is a big contributor. So obviously you have a conflict of interest, in some ways, literally. But the issue really is that, you know, finally, we are close to having a sort of global arms trade treaty in place. This, unfortunately, is not getting much traction in the U.S. media, etc., because it’s tended to become a U.N. internal process. It really needs to become much more visible.
AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the U.S. position on the arms trade treaty?
SALIL SHETTY: So, the U.S. position is generally supportive, that there needs to be an arms treaty. At the end of the—the main issue for us is what we’re calling a golden rule, that any arms trade, before it happens, it needs to be tested to see if it is going to lead to human rights violations. Now, on this particular issue, the U.S. has been a bit more cautious, and their argument has been that they have domestic regulation which is already quite strong. But we don’t really understand that argument, because if they do have stronger domestic regulation, then there should be no worries in signing up to a global treaty which is powerful, because the worry is not just about U.S., but it’s about China, Russia, Iran, these actors.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is the U.S. resisting?
SALIL SHETTY: I mean, you know, there’s always a historical resistence to anything which is international. So there’s always these arguments about sovereignty, etc. I’m sure they want to reserve some of their rights around the sort of so-called "war on terror." There’s all of those things happening. But I think part of the reason is that people have not really focused on this, and that’s one of the things we want to speak to Ambassador Rice today, as well, about.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you’ve just returned from Egypt. Talk about the significance of what is happening there now.
SALIL SHETTY: Well, it’s—changes in Egypt are massive. Just to give you one example—but, you know, the fact of the matter is that, as I said, the dictators have gone, but the dictatorships haven’t. So, just when you enter into the airport, when we were walking in with Amnesty materials, we get stopped at the airport at the customs guy at the front. And historically, when Amnesty people enter, you get interrogated for hours. You’re made to wait. And the same thing happened with us. You know, the guy said, "Can you wait? I have to check your materials." And then he called his boss, and his boss came and said, "What’s wrong with you? This is the new Egypt. You know, you shouldn’t be doing this." But it’s going to take a long time for that to change. But the big issue right now is the behavior and the practices being followed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the military generals who are running the country right now. One of our big concerns is the use of military trials. More than—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
SALIL SHETTY: —twelve thousand people [inaudible] during Mubarak’s period. So they need to rein in security forces, and they need to follow international humanitarian law and human rights law.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Salil Shetty, I want to thank you very much for being with us, secretary general of Amnesty International.