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Syria, under pressure, drops bid for UN rights council. Is that progress?

Syria cuts a deal and gives up its quest for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, for now. Some see a victory for higher standards on human rights, but critics of the body say the selection process is still flawed.

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The organization Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Syria withdrew its candidacy rather than face “resounding defeat” in the General Assembly, which elects the Human Rights Council’s 47 members. The New York-based group noted that the council condemned Syria’s use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters in a vote April 29.

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But Syria’s decision does not end a continuing debate over the way the council’s membership is elected, the organization says. Countries are candidates from regional groups that in all but a few cases have put forth slates of candidates equal to the number of seats up for a vote.

“States collude to avoid any competition in Human Rights Council elections, which benefits human rights abusers like Syria,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

The group also called on Kuwait to take its near-certain accession to the council as an opportunity to improve human rights at home, in particular in the case of migrant and domestic workers.

After the Bush administration expressed its dissatisfaction with the Human Rights Council by refusing to join it, the Obama administration declared the US could do more good for international rights issues from the inside and now sits on the council.

The IPI’s Mr. Luck says it is undeniable that a “trend” is taking hold suggesting the international community is taking gross human rights violations – especially by governments against their own people – more seriously. He points to the Human Rights Council’s recent suspension of Libya from the council, and the General Assembly’s vote sustaining that suspension.

What’s needed next, he adds, is that countries with poor rights records not be considered as council candidates in the first place.

But others, like Heritage’s Groves, say the Human Rights Council remains a discredited institution because of who sits on it. The presence of a US or a Canada, he adds, won’t be enough to change it.

“As long as China and Cuba and Saudi Arabia and others from the rogues’ gallery are welcome, the US can stay on the council until doomsday and it’s not really going to change,” Groves says. “If it really is a human rights council, the very least would be to raise the bar for membership.”

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