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New U.N. Rights Group Includes Six Nations With Poor Records

The New York Times

May 9, 2006

By Warren Hoge

Six nations with poor human rights records were among those elected to the new Human Rights Council on Tuesday, although notorious violators that had belonged to the predecessor Human Rights Commission did not succeed in winning places in the new group.

China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan, countries cited by human rights groups as not deserving membership, were among the 47 nations elected to the council. But in a move hailed by the same groups, both Iran and Venezuela failed to attract the needed votes.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said: "The good news is that we did better than expected in the voting because Iran and Venezuela both lost. Venezuela's losing shows that bluster and anti-Americanism isn't enough to get elected."

Nations running for the council had to meet more demanding standards than in the past.

The previous commission was long a public embarrassment to the United Nations because countries like Sudan, Libya and Zimbabwe became members and thereby thwarted the investigation of their own human rights records.

The United States did not run for a seat on the council, saying that the new body did not go far enough to correct the deficiencies of the old one. The council was created on March 15, in a 170 to 4 vote, that the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands opposed.

Commenting on the outcome of the vote, Kristen Silverberg, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said, "On the whole, we think it is an improvement over the commission."

She added, "There were some members elected who, in our view, don't share a genuine commitment to human rights, the kind of high standard we would have hoped would have been met on the selection."

Mr. Roth said the council had proved its ability to attract more suitable members even before the vote because countries with poor rights records that had been part of the commission were scared away from running this year by new demands to demonstrate a commitment to rights standards.

As examples he cited Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Vietnam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Eritrea and Ethiopia. "The pool of candidates for the council was significantly improved over the typical pool for the commission," he said.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, said, however, that he was not convinced that the vote signaled much change. "The council offers a membership with certain improvements, but the election of Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and other egregious violators suggests that, come June 19, when the council opens, we're likely to see business as usual in Geneva."

The all-day vote was conducted under more stringent rules than in the past. The principal innovation was that countries needed a minimum of 96 votes - an absolute majority of the 191 members - and that the election was for individual candidates rather than for closed regional slates.

The 63 nations that declared themselves candidates have been promoting themselves vigorously in recent weeks during meetings with other states and in documents on the United Nations Web site that outline their past records and future commitments to human rights.

When the delegates arrived in the General Assembly chamber, their desks were covered with stacks of campaign fliers marked with the colors of the nations' flags and the statement, "Your support will be highly appreciated."

All 63 candidates voluntarily agreed to a series of pledges that will form the basis for public reviews of their human rights records. Under the rules of the new council, all members of the United Nations must submit to such reviews, and the members of the council will be the first to be scrutinized.

Yvonne Terlingen, the United Nations representative for Amnesty International, said: "The countries that have weak human rights records and are elected to the council must now start re-examining their own records and improve them and implement the pledges they have made to the General Assembly. We will closely watch to see if they do so."

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