U.S. Votes Against U.N. Human Rights Council

By Maggie Farley

Los Angeles Times

March 15, 2006

UNITED NATIONS — The U.S. stood nearly alone today as it voted against the creation of a new U.N. Human Rights Council, saying the reform did not go far enough in keeping abusers off the panel.

However, U.S. officials did not carry through on a threat to block the new body's funding, and pledged to work with other nations to make the council "as strong as it can be."

Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly called the vote "a historic moment for human rights" as 170 member-states backed the new council. Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau joined the U.S. in voting against, while Iran, Venezuela and Belarus abstained.

After the applause faded in the General Assembly hall, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said that the assembled diplomats had missed an historic opportunity to help those most in need.

"We must not let the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world think that U.N. members states were willing to settle for 'good enough,'" Bolton said. "We must not let history remember us as the architects of a council that was a 'compromise.'

The new Human Rights Council is meant to replace the 53-member Commission on Human Rights founded in 1946 to censure countries abusing their own citizens. But because seats were allocated by region, countries with poor human rights records had been able to gain seats and protect themselves from censure, rather than acting to protect human rights.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed the new council last year, saying that the Commission's declining credibility "casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole." But months of negotiations among U.N. members culminated in a the watered-down compromise presented today to the General Assembly

The new council will be slightly smaller, with 47 members. In an effort to keep violators off the new council, its rules say a candidate will have to win a majority, or 96 votes, in a direct election in the General Assembly. Each member country's human rights record will be reviewed, and a systematic violator of human rights can be suspended from the council with a two-thirds vote.

The seats will be distributed among regions: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean, seven for a bloc of mostly Western countries, including the U.S., and six for Eastern Europe.

Under the resolution adopted today, the commission will be abolished June 16 and the new council will convene three days later.

The U.S. said that the filter to exclude serious abusers is not strong enough. It pushed to raise the hurdle for membership to a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, and wanted to bar countries under U.N. sanctions.

Many countries, including Canada and the European Union, as well as major human rights groups, shared U.S. disappointment with the proposed council. But they believed that Washington's proposal to renegotiate it would risk an even worse result. Many point to a review of the council's status in five years as a chance to make improvements.

"This gives the United Nations the chance — a much-needed chance — to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world," Annan said in a statement after the vote. "The true test of the council's credibility will be the use that member states make of it."