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Cuba Elected to New UN Human Rights Council; Iran, Venezuela Rejected


May 9, 2006

By Bill Varner

Cuba, China and Russia were voted onto the United Nations' new Human Rights Council, and Iran and Venezuela were rejected, in elections by secret ballot that the U.S. described as a step toward barring abusive governments.

"On the whole, we think this demonstrates some progress," Kristen Silverberg, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, told reporters after the vote today. "There are some members in our view that don't share a genuine commitment to human rights."

Silverberg mentioned only Cuba as a nation the U.S. opposed for membership, even as the Bush administration is locked in a dispute with Iran over its possible nuclear-weapon ambitions. Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the group believed that the records of Cuba, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia didn't merit their election to the 47- nation panel.

The Human Rights Council replaces the discredited Commission on Human Rights that "cast a shadow on the reputation" of the UN, according to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, because it included governments, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, that have been accused of widespread abuses against citizens.

Creation of the council is part of an effort to improve UN management and overhaul the world body, steps that were endorsed by world leaders at a summit in New York last year.

Geographic Distribution

Election required 96 votes in the General Assembly, consisting of all 191 UN member governments, and was based on a geographic distribution. Africa and Asia each got 13 seats; Latin America and the Caribbean, eight; the U.S. and Western Europe, seven, and Eastern Europe, six.

There was no immediate explanation of why Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil-exporting country, was rejected in the balloting. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been outspoken in his opposition to U.S. policies under President George W. Bush, and he moved this week to boost taxes on foreign oil producers.

The U.S. didn't seek a seat after pressing for the panel's creation and then voting in March against the final version of the General Assembly resolution that established membership criteria. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton cited flaws in the text that could allow rights abusers to join the body.

"The U.S. would have had trouble getting elected because it has chosen to use cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners and at times torture," Roth said, referring to the handling of some detainees in Iraq. Still, he called the U.S. decision not to seek a seat "childish."

The U.S. sought to elect governments by a two-thirds vote and wanted about 30 members on a human rights panel that would promote democracy and exclude proven abusers of their citizens.

U.S. Support Pledged

Silverberg said the U.S. would support the new council and lobby actively for or against resolutions the panel considers.

The U.S. had been a member of the old commission since the body's formation in 1946, except for one year, 2002. European nations didn't support the U.S. that year because of the Bush administration's opposition to establishment of the International Criminal Court.

The council's first session is set to begin on June 19 in Geneva and last two weeks. Craig Mokhiber, a senior aide to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the council would probably meet for eight more weeks this year.

Other nations elected include Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa and South Korea.

"The good news is that two of the least deserving governments were not elected, Venezuela and Iran," Roth said. "This doesn't guarantee the council will be a success, but we have made real progress."

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