U.S. loses seat on U.N. Human Rights Commission
UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United States, a vocal critic of human rights records of China and Cuba, lost its seat Thursday on the top U.N. rights body for the first time since the commission was established in 1947.
The U.S. ouster comes the same day Sudan and several other nations with poor track records on human rights were elected to the panel.
Diplomats gave various reasons for the U.S. loss, including the current absence of a U.S. ambassador at the world organization and relatiation for frequent American criticism of rights abuses in other countries.
In voting for spots on the 53-member U.N. Humans Rights Commission, the United States was edged out by three European countries – a loss that means the United States will not be able to vote for at least a year on commission resolutions.
”It was an election, understandably, where we’re very disappointed,” said acting U.S. ambassador James Cunningham. ”This won’t at all, of course, affect our commitment to human rights issues in and outside of the United Nations. We’ll continue to pursue them.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, the late U.S. first lady and human rights advocate, was the commission’s first chairperson, and the United States has traditionally played a very active role in its debates. In recent years, it has been in the forefront of efforts to condemn human rights abuses in Cuba, China and other countries.
The commission, which usually meets in Geneva, makes recommendations on the protection and promotion of human rights – either on its own initiative or at the request of the General Assembly or the Security Council.
It is part of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, which chooses the commission’s new members to three-year terms. Roughly a third are elected each year.
Candidates are nominated by regional groups, and the Western Europe and Others Group proposed four candidates for three seats: the United States, France, Austria and Sweden.
In the balloting at U.N. headquarters in New York, France got 52 votes, Austria 41 votes, Sweden 32 votes and the United States 29 votes.
Though the United States will not be able to vote on commission resolutions, it can still initiate and co-sponsor resolutions and lobby other governments to vote a particular way.
U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson expressed hope that the United States ”will return speedily as a member of the commission,” saying it has made ”a historic contribution,” spokesman Jose Luis Diaz said in a statement released in Geneva.
But Cuba’s Foreign Ministry called the vote proof of ”the arrogance and coercive methods” it claimed that Washington regularly employs in international organizations. Cuba said it hoped the United States would ”take note of the pertinent conclusions of this lesson,” said a statement carried by Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service.
Speculation among diplomats on reasons for the U.S. ouster ranged from poor lobbying and the absence of an ambassador to the makeup of the commission and U.S. condemnation of rights abuses around the world.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a member of the U.S. delegation to last month’s commission meeting in Geneva, said the underlying problem is that ”gross violators of human rights” – including China – seek membership on the commission ”to avoid scrutiny.”
Sudan, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Togo – all countries with poor human rights records – were elected onto the commission Thursday, Human Rights Watch noted. They join Syria, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, also frequently accused of rights abuses, elected to the commission last year.
”This is a rogues’ gallery of human rights abusers,” said Joanna Weschler, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. ”A country’s human rights record should be the single most important factor in whether or not it joins the commission. An abusive country cannot honestly pass judgment on other abusive countries.”
Election to seats on U.N. bodies also involves intense lobbying.
The United States has been at a diplomatic disadvantage since the January departure of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Clinton appointee. President Bush nominated veteran diplomat John Negroponte as U.N. ambassador in March, but his nomination has not yet been sent to the Senate.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional U.N. Working Group, called the vote ”an embarrassment for our country” and blamed Bush for dragging his feet in getting key foreign policy officials confirmed.
”The U.S. commitment to human rights has fallen victim to the administration’s laissez-faire attitude toward diplomacy and foreign policy,” she said.
Weschler said the vote ”should come as a wake-up call” to Washington. She noted a growing resentment toward the United States by both Western and developing countries over U.S. opposition to the treaty to abolish landmines, the Bush administration’s refusal to ratify the treaty creating an International Criminal Court and its opposition to making AIDS drugs freely available.
Cunningham refused to say whether he thought the U.S. ouster was the result of growing anger against the United States for taking too many unilateral positions on issues such as a national missile defense shield and pulling out of the 1997 Kyoto treaty to curb global warning.
”I don’t want to speculate on what might have been the motives underlying the outcome of the election,” he said.
The United States is not the first country from its group to lose a seat: France lost its spot in 1977 and Britain was voted off in 1977 and 1991.
Other countries elected to the commission in contested votes were Bahrain, South Korea and Pakistan from the Asia Group, and Croatia and Armenia from the Eastern Europe Group. The Latin America Group selected Chile and Mexico without a vote, and the African Group chose Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo and Uganda, also without a vote.
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