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Libya to Chair UN Human Rights Meeting - 2003-01-20

Libya has been elected to chair this year's United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting, despite U.S. complaints that Libya has a poor human rights record and has been involved in sponsoring terrorism.

In an unprecedented move, the United States pushed for a vote on Libya's candidacy. However, only the United States, Guatemala and Canada voted against Libya to head the U.N.'s annual human rights review in March and April.

Thirty-three countries backed Libyan ambassador Najat Al-Hajjaji as commission chairperson.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva Kevin Moley says Washington wanted its objection to Libya's presidency made known publicly. He said the outcome was not a loss for the United States, but for the Human Rights Commission.

"This is an opportunity that Libya has through its chairwoman to make dramatic improvements to its human rights record," he said.

African countries hold this year's rotating presidency of the commission and chose Libya to chair the meeting.

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Joanna Weschler says Libya has yet to make good on pledges made six months ago to open itself to scrutiny by international rights groups. Ms. Weschler says there is growing concern that the U.N. Human Rights Commission is becoming a club for rights abusers rather that rights defenders.

"The election of Libya as chair puts the spotlight on this issue, so obviously this is a very bad development and symbolically it looks very bad to have Libya as chair," she said. "But on the other hand, perhaps, it will have some positive impact because it did make everybody suddenly aware of what is going on."

Libya is still under U.N. sanctions imposed for its alleged role in the 1988 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, and rights groups point to its poor record on civil liberties.

But the Arab League ambassador to the U.N. headquarters in Geneva welcomed the appointment. Ambassador Saad el Faragi says countries of the African Union, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic States all endorsed Libya's candidacy.

"I am really happy with this result, although this is the first time we have to precede to election for this post," he said. "But anyhow, it was a test to show that democracy is always prevailing in the Commission."

The balloting for the new chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission marked the first time a vote was held since the Commission was set up in 1947.