Syrian President Bashar al-Assad [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday ordered a referendum on a new constitution. The new constitution reportedly omits a clause [RFE/RL report] in the old document that describes the ruling Ba'ath Party as the "leader of the nation and society." The expressed intent of that omission is to open the country up to a multiparty political system. The order for a referendum comes as the country is facing increasing unrest and violence in the wake of the government crackdown on protesters. Critics of Al-Assad's regime, including Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center [official website], have called the referendum insufficient. The referendum on the new constitution is set to take place on February 26.
The growing unrest in Syria has drawn copious international attention recently. Earlier this week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Pillay urged an investigation of Syrian government and military officials for possible crimes against humanity. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) claimed earlier in February that the past 11 months of violence in Syria have led to the deaths of hundreds of children. In January, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon demanded [JURIST reports] that al-Assad end violence against Syrian civilians. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that more than 5,000 people have died since anti-government protests began last March.