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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

U.S. wins seat on 'dubious' rights council

May 15, 2009

UN body's members have been criticized for repressive practices
The Toronto Star
May 14, 2009

Fulfilling President Barack Obama's promise of "a
new era of engagement," the U.S. has won its
first seat on the contentious United Nations Human Rights Council.

Washington took the seat unopposed in a secret
ballot in New York yesterday, as one of three
Western states that will replace Canada, Germany
and Switzerland, which have completed three-year terms.

China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia won second terms on
the Geneva-based body, which has been criticized
for including countries with dubious human rights records.

"Imagine an election where the results are
largely preordained and a number of candidates
are widely recognized as unqualified," former
Czech president Vaclav Havel argued in an essay
in the The New York Times. "Any supposedly
democratic ballot conducted in this way would be considered a farce."

Human Rights Watch, which campaigned for
competitive council elections, welcomed the U.S.
participation but lamented the deal-making that
allowed Washington to walk into the seat instead of campaigning on its merits.

"It's a black spot on the U.S.'s election," said
Elizabeth Sepper, the group's UN advocacy fellow.
"In the past the West encouraged countries to run
against each other. This year they were saying
that they don't need to do that."

New Zealand stepped aside when Washington
announced its intention to run, leaving just
three countries to fill three places. The U.S.
nevertheless won an overwhelming 167 votes from
the UN's 192 members, a sign of vigorous international support for Obama.

The previous Bush administration refused to run
for the council when it was created in 2006,
skeptical that it would be more even-handed than
the discredited Commission on Human Rights that
it replaced. The commission was infamous as a
refuge for rights violators who deflected
criticism of their own appalling records while
railing against others, in particular Israel.

But Sepper said, Washington's membership "will be
positive for the U.S. and the council. Part of
the problem was that (the U.S. was) sitting
outside and pointing a finger at the council's
shortcomings. Now they may be able to build
bridges and coalitions that the Europeans were not able to build."

B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish human rights group,
called on Washington to continue Ottawa's
opposition to "one-sided, politicized
anti-Zionism" in the council, which has passed
more than 25 resolutions condemning Israel.

The council's 47 seats are spread among five
regions, which often decide in advance who they
will support, and competitors drop out before the elections.

In the two regions that held competitive polls
yesterday, East Europe elected Hungary and Russia
but dumped Azerbaijan, which has been criticized
for its repressive practices. Africa re-elected
Senegal, Mauritius, Nigeria, Cameroon and Djibouti but defeated Kenya.

Although Washington now takes a seat among major
rights violators China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, it
is expected to work for reform of the council,
which comes under review in 2011.
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