Aloof US loses clout at UN

At odds with Europe and developing states, US lost seat on human rights panel last week.

International human rights campaigners are voicing fears about how the United States will react to its surprise removal from the top United Nations human rights monitoring panel.

But they say that Washington has only itself to blame for last Thursday's vote, in which the US lost the seat on the UN Human Rights Commission that it had held since 1947.

"People are worried about the American response," says Claudine Haenni, a human rights defender with long experience of the commission's work. "Will they get their act together, or will they go into a sulk? You cannot have a world forum without them."

President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Friday that the move "will not stop this president or this country from speaking out strongly on matters of human rights." But he called the vote "a disappointment," and some members of Congress are warning that the incident could further damage Washington's often strained relations with the world body.

The United States lost its seat on the UN commission, which probes human rights abuses around the world, through a combination of poor legwork and broad resentment at US attitudes on a range of human rights issues, diplomats and activists say.

"This is something that has built up over several years ... a resentment of a certain arrogance to bully other countries into going along with them," says Mark Thompson, head of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, a Geneva-based group.

Washington also fell victim to European solidarity, with European Union nations apparently voting for Austria, Sweden, and France for the three seats reserved for Western governments. The US, which came in fourth, was eliminated.

"The US could not have lost its seat without at least some of the Europeans taking revenge for the new administration's unilateralist character," argues Guillerme Parmentier, head of the Paris-based French Institute on the United States. At the same time, he points out: "EU countries are obliged by EU rules to ... vote for each other."

The US delegation to the human rights commission's annual session, which closed in Geneva a week ago, earned considerable hostility from many other nations, according to sources close to the commission.

Cuba and China, traditional targets of harsh US criticism, were predictably gleeful at Washington's discomfiture after last week's vote in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the commission's mother body.

But developing countries in general, who comprise a significant number of ECOSOC's 54 members, are angered by Washington's refusal to consider economic, social, and cultural rights as human rights. This philosophical difference over what constitutes a human right, rather than a government-conferred benefit, has long festered at the commission.

Almost all the commission's members, meanwhile, are puzzled and frustrated by the fact that the US will not ratify a UN convention on the rights of children. Somalia is the only other holdout.

Washington's vote against a moratorium on the death penalty also angered European nations - though the US was joined by Japan and Saudi Arabia, among others. And Europeans were disappointed that the US cast a lone vote against an EU-sponsored resolution calling for a halt to further Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory.

"Childrens' rights and the death penalty are important issues for the Europeans," explains Ms. Haenni. "And there is a discrepancy between what the Americans say they do for human rights, and the way they behave in the negotiating rooms at the commission. Sometimes they are totally at odds."

Despite these drawbacks, Washington might have held onto its seat if US diplomats had lobbied more carefully, diplomats and other observers say. The fact that the US has not had an ambassador at the UN since Richard Holbrooke left in January did not help. The new administration has named John Negroponte to the post, but has not yet sent his nomination to the Senate for confirmation.

"The Americans were less engaged, they did less lobbying" than other countries, says Eleni Tetrula, who represents the Paris-based International Human Rights Federation at the UN commission.

The US will still be an observer at the commission, able to lobby on behalf of resolutions. But its influence will be diminished, say diplomats, who expect Washington to work hard next year to win back its seat.

That, at any rate, is the hope of Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who is now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The United States has an important contribution to make to the commission, and the High Commissioner hopes that the US will return speedily as a member," said her spokesman, Jose Diaz.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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