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US rejoins UN’s human rights forum

Bush had shunned it as an ineffective dictators' club. Obama's team pledges to work from within to 'improve' it.

By Staff writer / May 12, 2009

United Nations, N.Y.

The United States won a seat on the United Nations' top human rights organization Tuesday, closing out another vestige of the Bush administration's confrontational relationship with the world body.

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But the US election to the 47-seat Human Rights Council was overshadowed by the election of several countries – including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, and China – that human rights organizations often cite as violators of their own citizens’ rights.

As a result, Tuesday's vote in the UN General Assembly added fuel to a debate – percolating since the Obama administration announced in March its intentions to reverse Bush policy and seek a seat on the council – over whether human rights can be advanced by a body that is willing to seat rights violators.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, hailed the return to the human rights forum as part of America's determination "to again play a meaningful leadership role in multilateral organizations." The US will not wait for a 2011 review of the council to try to reform it, she added, but "will be working very hard from an early stage to try to support the strengthening and improvement of this body."

The General Assembly vote on the council's membership was largely a foregone conclusion, with only two competitive races out of 18 open seats. Azerbaijan lost its bid for membership from the Eastern Europe group, and Kenya lost from the Africa group.

Human rights groups split on US return

The US candidacy was the focus of the day, with human rights advocates divided over America's return to what is widely seen as a flawed institution.

The purist view – that sitting on a body whose members include rights violators does not serve the cause of human rights – was voiced by prominent rights advocates such as Vaclav Havel, leader of the Czech Velvet Revolution and a former president of the Czech Republic.

The Obama administration took the other side in the debate: that rights improvements and institutional reforms will be best achieved from inside the council. Many international human rights groups and experts in global institutions endorsed that position.

"The administration is taking the right decision here – with the proviso that we will use this new position to speak out forcefully against the abuses we see taking place," says Michael Doyle, an expert in UN institutions at Columbia University in New York and a former UN official. "Our participation on the council does not per se legitimate bad behavior if we are acting on the inside to fight it."

Others counter that a US presence on the council could actually set back the cause of human rights.