US frowns at UN's new rights watchdog

The General Assembly voted Wednesday in favor of a revamped Human Rights Council, over US objections.

The United Nations has buried one of its chief embarrassments by creating a new entity to replace its Human Rights Commission - a body that had evolved into a club for some of the world's worst violators of basic rights.

With that history still fresh, all eyes will be on who is elected to sit on the new Human Rights Council, which convenes in June. Its membership will be a first test of improvement - and also a barometer for whether the UN's reform process, begun last year, is moving ahead.

The United States stood almost alone in the UN General Assembly Wednesday as it voted against the new council, citing less arduous membership requirements than it had demanded or than Secretary General Kofi Annan had first proposed. The vote was 170 in favor to 4 opposed, with three abstentions (Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela). Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau joined the US in voting "no."

The US bowed to the overwhelming vote, but it also appeared to draw a red line against regimes whose inclusion it believes would make a mockery of the new council. US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton took the General Assembly floor immediately after the vote, listing Belarus, Cuba, Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Burma as "serious human rights abuse cases" deserving scrutiny by the new council.

"The real test will be the quality of membership of the council," Mr. Bolton said, adding that the US vote was a rejection of letting abuse victims think the world was "willing to settle for good enough ... compromise ... the best we could do."

Replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission was part of a reform agenda that world leaders adopted at the UN summit last September. But because some developing countries still suspect Western nations of using the human rights issue to intervene in their internal affairs, action had been held up until now.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson of Sweden said completion of the human rights element would open the way to take up other items on the UN's reform agenda. Other reform issues include UN management, accountability, and budget oversight - areas scrutinized in last year's investigation into the oil-for-food scandal. Like human rights, they are sensitive topics for the General Assembly.

The new council represents an improvement over the old commission, say most human rights advocates, who acknowledge that higher standards for membership would have been even better.

"The new council is a major improvement over the old commission, but it's just the beginning," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York. "This [reform] is really about the membership problem because, before, you had problematic governments that flocked to the commission as a way to undercut its work," he says. Membership, decided "behind closed doors" among regional groups, "was actually a way to thwart investigation."

The new membership requirement - winning an absolute majority of the General Assembly, or 96 votes - should weed out most severe violators, Mr. Roth says.

Mr. Annan had originally proposed that countries must earn the vote of two-thirds of the 191-nation General Assembly to be eligible for membership, and the US stuck to that standard in explaining its "no" vote. Membership election will take place in May.

Human rights groups preferred the two-thirds rule as well, but most concluded that other revisions help make up for that loss. The council will meet at least three times a year for 10 weeks; its predecessor met once a year. "Meeting more often is essential to the ability to address emergencies," Roth says.

Under a new "universal review" principle, all nations are subject to scrutiny, including the council's 47 members. That change alone should mean that "the Cubas of the world" won't seek membership as a way to avoid the human rights spotlight, Roth says.

The new council may yet pose pitfalls to robust human rights promotion, and to US interests, say some analysts. "The council is in some ways worse than what we had before, because it lends a veneer of improvement ... to an apparatus that is still likely to be co-opted by despots," says Nile Gardiner, a UN expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Despite Bolton's pledge that the US will work with the new council, the US has not said publicly whether it will be a candidate for membership. Mr. Gardiner advises against it: "The US has no interest in perpetuating an institution that demonizes the US war on terror as one of its main goals."

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