Nations today agreed to launch a UN-led investigation of Syria's bloody crackdown on its uprising, demanding that its government immediately stop the violence, release political prisoners and lift restrictions on the news media and access to the internet.
In a 26-9 vote that coincided with Syrian forces again opening fire on demonstrators, the UN's top human rights body used a day-long special session to say it "unequivocally condemns the use of lethal violence against peaceful protestors by the Syrian authorities and the hindrance to access of medical treatment".
UN officials said the killings of more than 450 people during the protests may include crimes against humanity.
The Geneva-based Human Rights Council said it would ask the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to urgently dispatch a mission to investigate "all alleged violations of international human rights law and to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated".
The council said it wanted reports at its next full sessions and urged Syrian President Bashar Assad's government "to co-operate fully with and grant access to personnel from the mission" dispatched by the UN office. It also requested that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN's top human rights official, Navi Pillay, provide logistical support.
A simple majority vote was required to pass the resolution. China and Russia were among those opposed to it as political meddling. Saudi Arabia and six other nations abstained.
UN human rights deputy chief Kyung-wha Kang said the Syrian government "risks creating a downward spiral of anger, violence, killings and chaos" through tactics such as ordering tanks and other artillery to fire on peaceful pro-democracy protesters and snipers to shoot people trying to help the injured or remove dead bodies from public areas. She said around 1,800 people also have been injured in Syria.
"Any official ordering or undertaking of attacks against the civilian population can be held criminally accountable," she said. "Such attacks that occur on a widespread or systematic basis may amount to crimes against humanity."
However, Syria's UN ambassador, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, said the council was misguided since his nation was only defending itself against extremists.
"The council is acting under the pretext of humanitarian action to meddle in the internal affairs of a country," he told the council. "It's a return to a colonialist mentality."
Assad promised reforms last week and ditched the emergency laws the government has been using for a half-century to detain people. But critics point out he has continued to try to violently quell the protests that are the gravest challenge to his family's 40-year ruling dynasty.
"To the brave people of Syria, who are demanding freedom and dignity, we are here to say that the world stands by you, and we will not ignore your plight," said the US ambassador to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe.
The US and the European Union led the effort to send a strong message to Assad's authoritarian regime.
It was only the second such special session the council has ever called. The first such gathering was in late February to deal with Libya.