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UNESCO to rebuke Syria but keep it in rights committee

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - U.N. cultural agency UNESCO is set to condemn Syria at its executive board meeting on Wednesday but fall short of Western and Arab hopes of expelling it from its human rights committee, according to a draft resolution obtained by Reuters.

The U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) executive board, which includes the United States, France and Russia, elected Syria to two panels in November, including one that judges human rights violations.

A group of Western and Arab nations had sought the expulsion of Syria from the U.N. cultural agency's human rights committee, the latest international effort to isolate Damascus over its violent crackdown on domestic unrest.

The resolution submitted by countries including Saudi Arabia, the United States and Britain condemns Damascus for "the continued widespread and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities".

The draft requests UNESCO's director general to report on the matter in the future. It makes no mention of Syria's membership of the human rights committee.

More than 7,500 people have been killed since a revolt erupted in March against President Bashar al-Assad's government, according to the United Nations. Damascus says "terrorists" have killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.

"The Executive Board urges the Syrian authorities to immediately put an end to all human rights violations and to protect their population, particularly children and students, to restore freedom of expression and communication and to protect heritage," the draft said.

A vote is due to take place later on Wednesday, sources said, although discussions were still ongoing on the final text.

Ambassadors, including those of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar and Kuwait, had asked in December for Syria's situation to be discussed at the 58-member UNESCO executive board meeting this week.

Seventeen states led by Russia last week attempted to block the move and appear to have managed to convince members to water down the resolution.

"It is a strong condemnation. Eighteen countries of the executive council have signed it and it will be presented later today for vote," a diplomatic source at UNESCO said.

After Russia and China shielded Syria from global condemnation by blocking two U.N. Security Council resolutions backed by Arabs and the West, the United States is working on a new draft resolution in New York to show unity by world powers and warn Assad he risks running out of support.

Moscow has made clear it has no intention of shifting its position on Syria -- which has drawn strong criticism from the West -- for the sake of a deal and said it would not consider supporting the U.S. draft without changes.

The UNESCO condemnation in itself would mark a significant step for the agency which rarely rebukes member countries.

"That UNESCO will keep President Bashar al-Assad on its human rights committee -- at the same time as the regime mercilessly murders its own people -- is a moral outrage," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group.

(Reporting By John Irish Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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