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U.S. Won't Seek Seat on U.N. Rights Panel

Washington's decision eliminates its chance to help shape the body in its crucial first year.

April 07, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The United States will not seek a seat on the new U.N. Human Rights Council this year, the State Department said Thursday, a decision that underscores its disappointment with the framework of the panel but also eliminates an opportunity to help shape it in its crucial first year.

The Bush administration's decision marks the first time that the U.S. has not sought a seat on the U.N.'s premier human rights body since the world organization was formed after World War II. It was apparently made in part because of fear that Washington, under scrutiny by human rights investigators for its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, Iraq, might not have won a seat in a vote of the General Assembly.

"The United States will work cooperatively with other member states to make the council as strong and effective as possible," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington. He added that the U.S. would fund and support the body and probably would seek a seat next year.

Although the U.S. initially pushed to create the council, it stood virtually alone last month in seeking to reject it in a 170-4 General Assembly vote. U.S. officials said the manner in which the council was set up did not do enough to keep rights abusers off the panel. The previous Human Rights Commission was often criticized for including countries with poor human rights records, which helped them avoid the council's censure.

McCormack said Thursday that it was "fair" to let other allies who embraced the council serve first, implying that the U.S. was in a difficult position to be a leader on the body after such a public rejection.

"We concluded that this year, given the basic reasons why we voted 'no' in the first place, that we're not prepared to run," U.S. Ambassador John Bolton told reporters at the U.N. "We want to see what other countries present themselves. We'll work to elect countries that share our values on human rights."

Given the circumstances of Washington's opposition, Bolton said, "Our leverage in terms of the performance of the new council is greater by the U.S. not running."

But many diplomats and others close to the decision-making process say that U.S. officials also feared not being able to win the 96 votes necessary to gain a seat on the council. One person present at a meeting with a senior National Security Council official last week said the official cited the uncertainty of winning a seat as a key concern.

"It's unfortunate that the Bush administration's disturbing human rights record means that the United States is today hardly a shoo-in for election to the council," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

The decision not to seek a seat surprised many diplomats and human rights groups, who believed that U.S. pledges to support the body despite the "no" vote meant it would want membership to try to influence it from the inside. To abstain is a "missed opportunity," said T. Kumar, an advocate with Amnesty International.

"The first year is crucial for the new council. That's when the new structures and regulations are set up. So the U.S. is going to miss out on the chance to build the institution and set the ground rules," he said. "They said it is not strong enough, but how can they make it stronger by walking away?"

U.N. officials who deal with the Human Rights Council say many Western countries with which the U.S. would compete for a seat had held off, waiting for a U.S. decision on its candidacy. But as the Sunday deadline neared without word from Washington, at least nine decided to put themselves forward for the seven seats allotted for the regional group.

"If they made it clear from the start that they wanted a seat, the other countries would have helped it happen," said one official, who spoke on the condition he would not be named. "American participation is considered very important for the credibility of the council."

The countries that the U.S. would have run against are Canada, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland, Portugal, and possibly the Netherlands and Spain.

Bolton said that if the U.S. sought a seat, it would have had to defeat other Western nations or persuade some to withdraw, "which was something at this point that taking into account everything else that was going on, we just didn't think it was worth it."

The General Assembly will elect 47 members to the council May 9, and its first session will begin June 19. So far, 35 countries have formally entered the race, including Cuba and Iran.

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