Syria has likely committed crimes against humanity, and the United Nations Security Council should refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, the UN's human rights commissioner said Monday.

"All member states must ensure that these crimes do not go unpunished, yet these crimes continue to be committed as I speak," Navi Pillay said in an address to the General Assembly.

The failure of the United Nations to agree on action against Syria's Assad regime has merely emboldened it to launch "an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force," Pillay said.

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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay: outraged and distressed. (Reuters)

The Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighbourhoods of the southern city of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas. "Each and every member of the international community must act now to urgently protect the Syrian population," Pillay said.

"I am outraged by these serious violations," she said. "I am very distressed that the continued ruthless repression and deliberate stirring of sectarian tensions might soon plunge Syria into civil war.

"The longer the international community fails to take action, the more the civilian population will suffer from countless atrocities committed against them."

Pillay told the assembly that there are patterns of systematic, widespread use of torture in interrogation and detention facilities.

"Children have not been spared," she added. "Children have been killed by beating, sniper fire and shelling from government security forces in several places throughout Syria. 

The assembly was debating Syria's behaviour. UN estimates have said more than 5,400 people have been killed by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Crimes against humanity are generally taken to include murder, extermination, torture, rape, and other forms of persecution when they are part of a widespread or systematic policy.

Saudi Arabia was expected to distribute a draft proposal to the 193 members of the General Assembly, calling on them to support the Arab League peace plan.

It's modelled on the resolution that was vetoed by Russia and China two weeks ago, but there are no vetoes at the General Assembly. The resolutions are non-binding, however, so they are more like an international opinion poll.

Meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League officially scrapped its earlier observer mission, which started Dec. 26 and was suspended on Jan. 29 with monitors increasingly under attack and no reduction in the Syrian military's crackdown on its own citizens.

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A woman holding a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad chants slogans during an anti-Syrian regime protest in downtown Brussels, Sunday. The Arab League has called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria. (Yves Logghe/Associated Press)

The next proposed solution would have the UN send in a peacekeeping force to supervise after a ceasefire. With the Security Council divided, however, it seems unlikely that the UN will act.

In the past, the Security Council has been reluctant to deploy a peacekeeping operation when there's actually no peace to keep on the ground, Kent reported.

In Cairo, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal conveyed the 22-nation Arab League's deep frustration with Syria, telling delegates that it was no longer appropriate to stand by and watch the bloodshed.

"Until when will we remain spectators?" he said. The bloodshed in Syria "is a disgrace for us as Muslims and Arabs to accept."

On the other side, Syria's ambassador to the Arab League, Ahmed Youssef, was quoted as saying that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were "living in a state of hysteria after their last failure at the UN Security Council to call for outside interference in Syria's affairs and to impose sanctions on the Syrian people."

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The proposition was called "meaningless" and "unacceptable" by a Syrian opposition member, Reuters reported. Kadri Jamil, head of the Popular Will Party, suggested the Arab League should focus instead on working with the monitors. "This proposition is unacceptable. It is a violation of the international law," Jamil was quoted as saying. "I think that Arab League should work with the monitors and reinforcing their role."

The Arab League has been at the forefront of regional efforts to end 11 months of bloodshed in Syria. The group put forward a plan that Assad agreed to in December, then sent in monitors to check whether he was complying. When it became clear that Assad's regime was flouting the terms of the agreement and killings were continuing, the league pulled out the observers last month.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told the Arab foreign ministers: "We must move quickly in all directions … to end or break the ongoing cycle of violence in Syria."

Russia might co-operate

Elaraby told the Cairo meeting that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote him a letter Saturday saying Russia could agree to a joint UN-Arab League observer force. (Earlier, The Associated Press said it had misquoted Elaraby as saying Lavrov had written that Russia definitely would agree to the joint observer force.)

Meanwhile, Washington piled more pressure on Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Jacob Lew, said it was only a matter of time before Assad's regime collapsed.

"The brutality of the Assad regime is unacceptable and has to end," Lew told Fox News Sunday. The U.S. is pursuing "all avenues that we can" and "there is no question that this regime will come to an end. The only question is when," he said.

Late Saturday, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri threw the network's support behind Syrian rebels trying to topple Assad, raising fears that Islamic extremists are exploiting the uprising that began peacefully but is quickly transforming into an armed insurgency.

The Syrian regime has long blamed terrorists for the revolt, and al-Qaeda's endorsement creates new difficulties for Western and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help force Assad out of power.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story suggested incorrectly that Russia would agree to a joint UN-Arab League peacekeeping force in Syria. In fact, The Associated Press later said it had misquoted Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby as saying Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote him saying Russia would agree to the peacekeeping force in Syria. Elaraby said later Lavrov wrote that Russia could agree to the observer force.
    Feb 13, 2012 6:10 AM ET