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US to Take Seat at UN Human Rights Council


The United States has been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The U.N. Human Rights Council was established three years ago to replace the widely discredited and highly politicized U.N. Human Rights Commission. The resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly creating the council said the new body would be responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. In addition, the 47-member council would address human rights violations around the world.

The Bush administration shunned the new council after attempts to reform the election process and put strict membership criteria on the countries sitting on the new body were watered down by many U.N. members. The United States, along with three other countries - Israel, Marshall Islands and Palau - voted against the creation of the council. Washington also decided not to stand for election to the new council.

But the Obama administration reversed that policy. As a result, the United States was elected to the council May 12 along with 17 other countries, some of them accused of serious human rights violations: Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and Kyrgyzstan.

Anne Bayevsky is a U.N. expert with the Hudson Institute. She says because of voting rules, the United States and two other countries were running for three slots on the council's Western regional group.

"And still the United States got the least number of votes of the other two countries which were Belgium and Norway," she said. "It was a slap in the face to the president. And even a country like Kyrgyzstan, who was elected and running in a different category, regional category obviously, got more votes. A country like Kyrgyzstan has an abysmal human rights record got more votes than the United States of America."

Bayevsky says that proves the new Human Rights Council is no better than the old Human Rights Commission.

Following Washington's election to the council, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, admitted that the council is flawed. But she said the United States is looking forward to strengthening and reforming the council.

Now that the U.S. is a member of the council, many experts are asking whether Washington's presence will make the U.N. body more effective in fighting for human rights worldwide.

John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the Bush administration, says "no."

"You've got to look at the historical record of the old commission where the U.S. was a member all the time - it didn't make the slightest bit of difference," he said.

"And there's nothing in the makeup of the new council that gives any basis in evidence for believing that it'll turn out any different this time. The old saying that you keep trying the same thing over and over again, despite having a bad outcome each time, is a definition of insanity," he added.

Anne Bayevsky says the United States will have a tough time trying to push through its human rights agenda.

"Essentially, the United States is going to find itself in a very, very difficult position." she said. "They are not going to be able to just throw their weight around - they have one vote among 47 votes. The Western Group has a total of seven votes out of the 47 and the fact of the matter is they are going to be constantly outvoted."

But many experts say despite the council's flaws, the presence of the U.S. on the U.N. body will have a positive effect.

One of those is Don Kraus, chief executive officer of "Citizens for Global Solutions", a non-profit organization working to reform the United Nations. He welcomes the U.S. election.

"This is a step away for the U.S. from the kind of human rights abuses we've seen in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and a step toward the U.S. beginning to be able to reclaim some leadership and some recognition for its role as a leader in global human rights," said Kraus.

"The United States was founded on the principle of human rights and freedom. We helped create the United Nations in order to spread these ideas around the world - so taking a seat on the Human Rights Council is the next step in reclaiming our rightful place as a beacon of fairness and justice in the world," he continued.

Michael Doyle, former special adviser to then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says it is better for the U.S. to be inside than outside the council.

"It does very little good to sulk outside the tent in this case," he said. "We should be fighting inside the tent to promote human rights. Our not being there does not delegitimize the council per se - that is it doesn't raise or lower its legitimacy. But being inside allows us an opportunity to struggle against the abuses of the human rights doctrine and legal commitments that exist out there."

After a three year absence, the United States will take up its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council June 19 when the body meets in Geneva, Switzerland.

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