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Libyan Chair of UN Human Rights Commission Draws Sharp Criticism

The United States and several human rights organizations say the election of Libya on Monday to chair this year's session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission undermines the organization's credibility. Human rights advocates are calling for reforms to prevent countries with poor human rights records from leading the commission in the future.

"I declare Ambassador Najat Al-Hajjaji of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya elected as the chairperson of the 59th session of the Commission on Human Rights."

Diplomats applauded as the outgoing Chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Krzystof Jakubowski, announced that the Libyan Ambassador had been overwhelmingly elected as the new chair of the commission.

Libyan Ambassador, Najat Al-Hajjaji accepted her election, promising to cooperate with all the members of the commission, despite the tensions which surrounded her candidacy.

In a break with tradition, the United States had forced a vote on the chairmanship, rather than letting the commission accept the only nominee by acclamation. U.S. officials said they wanted delegates to think about what they were doing. In a secret ballot, the vote was 33 in favor, three against and 17 abstentions.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Kevin Moley, said the United States did not expect to win the vote, but wanted to be on record standing up for human rights by opposing Libya for the chair. "We cannot allow a nation under U.N. sanctions, a nation with a poor human rights record like Libya to become the chair by acclamation. It was not a defeat for the United States. It was a defeat for the Human Rights Commission, a defeat for the system which allows countries with egregious records on human rights to become members of the commission," he said.

Libya has been criticized by the United Nations for a variety of human rights violations. And the latest human rights report from the U.S. State Department accuses the Libyan government of torturing its political opponents and holding them in jail without proper trials. Libya has branded such reports lies.

The presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Commission rotates annually among the United Nations' five regional groups. This year was Africa's turn to make a nomination.

Libya's supporters on the commission declined to comment on the country's human rights record. But speaking on behalf of the African Group, the South African Ambassador, Sipho George Nene, praised Ambassador Al-Hajjaji for what he called her leadership qualities. He said there is no doubt the commission is in the right hands.

The South African ambassador also defended what he called the time honored practice of regional rotation of the chairmanship, and said the U.S. insistence on a vote risked undermining the authority of the chairwoman and the commission as a whole. "This reliable practice has now been violated," he said. "It is our hope that this unfortunate act will not be emulated in the future. The right of regional groups to present candidates of their choice should be respected without impediments."

But the U.S. Ambassador said it is time to look at ways to improve the composition of the commission. "We would hope that more nations committed to human rights which have democratic values, which have regularly scheduled multi-party elections would join the commission," he said. "I think we are going to look toward ways that we can make sure that nations that have democratic values run for the commission in future years."

Human rights advocates agree. They believe the election of the Libyan ambassador puts the credibility of the Human Rights Commission at stake. The U.N. Representative for Human Rights Watch, Joanna Weschler, called this a very bad development. "I hope it will not get any worse. Right now, you have a situation in the commission where you have a significant number of governments which operate almost as a caucus, but the only thing they have in common is their very poor human rights record. So, it is almost like a human rights violator's caucus, and it is a solidarity of abusers," she said. "They support each other, they shield each other, they work on behalf of each other and their peers. And, that is extremely bad."

U.N. human rights spokesman, Jose Dias, said the idea of establishing criteria for potential members of the commission has been gathering momentum in recent years. He said he believes the vote on the Libyan ambassador may sharpen the debate. "I think the commission recognizes that there needs to be reform," he said. "There have been attempts at reform before. But, given that the commission represents all the regions in the world, it is not very easy to get agreement on what these criteria or conditions should be."

The Commission's annual six week session begins March 17. Delegates hear reports on human rights violations around the world, including torture, arbitrary arrests and summary executions. They also vote on resolutions to condemn countries that violate human rights and make recommendations on how countries should change their policies.

Much of the commission's work has already been planned, but the new Libyan chairwoman will be in a position to influence the debate.