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U.N. Human Rights Commission Boots U.S.

Thursday, 03 May 2001 12:00 AM

It was the first time Washington has failed to be represented on the 53-member panel since the commission was established in 1947 to prepare an international bill of rights.

U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the United States was being punished for disagreements with the commission.

"This appears to be a deliberate attempt to punish the United States for its insistence that the commission tell the truth about human rights abuses wherever they occur," said Hyde. "The decision may have the unfortunate result of turning the human rights commission into just another irrelevant international organization.

"This commission includes some of the world's premier human rights violators. The machinations of international bureaucrats are irrelevant to the plight of the world's oppressed people who yearn for the universal values of freedom and democracy to which the United States is deeply committed."

Members of the Economic and Social Council voted in a secret ballot in New York to replace Norway and the United States with Austria and Sweden.

The four countries competing for three posts in the commission's Western group were France with 52 votes, Austria, 41, Sweden, 32, and the United States with 29.

Other nations elected to three-year rotating memberships Thursday were Bahrain, South Korea and Pakistan in the Asia group, and Croatia and Armenia in the Eastern European group. Chosen without a vote were Chile and Mexico for the Latin America group and Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo and Uganda for the Africa group.

The choice of Sudan raised eyebrows in light of its own human rights record, most notably its reputation for turning a blind eye to the country's slavery dilemma.

Joanna Weschler, the U.N. representative in New York for Human Rights Watch, said: "This is a rogues' gallery of human rights abusers.

"A country's human rights record should be the single most important factor in whether or not it joins the commission. An abusive country cannot honestly pass judgment on other abusive countries," said Weschler.

According to the international watchdog organization, "Sudan is responsible for massive human rights abuses committed by forces loyal to the government in the course of its 18-year civil war, as well as for the widespread torture, harassment, and persecution of opponents of the regime."

It said Sierra Leone suffered massive human rights violations in its 10-year civil war, some of them committed by forces loyal to the government. Togo has been the target of a recent U.N. investigation on human rights abuse, while the Ugandan regime has restricted political opposition in its single-party system, HRW said in a statement.

"In recent years, the United States often failed to support important human rights initiatives at the commission, or found itself voting alone, on the wrong side of important issues," said Weschler. "It's not surprising that the United States was voted off. But to punish the United States and reward Sudan is clearly absurd."

There are 53 countries represented in the human rights commission. The 54-member ECOSOC established the commission in 1946.

A spokesman in Geneva for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, said: "The United States of America has made a historic contribution to the Commission on Human Rights. The first chairperson of the commission was Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped shape the commission and its vision of an International Bill of Human Rights.

"The United States has an important contribution to make to the commission on human rights," the statement said. "The High Commissioner for Human Rights hopes that the United States of America will return speedily as a member of the commission."

The United States could be re-elected to the human rights commission in a year's time if it garners the necessary votes from the ECOSOC membership.

The vote took senior U.N. diplomats in Geneva by surprise. A diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said, "It's hard to say if it's due to the change in administration or they did not realize the impact it would have, or they did not lobby hard enough."

"I doubt they wanted to be out," the diplomat added.

A former high-level U.S. diplomat, however, called the HRC a hypocritical place where many members use the panel for commercial gain, rather than pursue universal principles.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, James Cunningham, told reporters outside the Security Council chamber in New York: "We very much wanted to serve on the commission.

"It was an election. Understandably, we are very disappointed. This won't at all, of course, affect our commitment to human rights issues in and outside of the United Nations," said Cunningham. "We will continue to pursue that."

Asked if he thought the vote could have been a reaction to recent U.S. foreign policy moves, such as on pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol for the environment and calling for National Missile Defense, he replied, "I don't want to speculate on that. It was an election among a number of solid candidates, too many candidates for too few seats.

"I don't want to speculate on what might have been the motives underlying the outcome of the election," he said.

Sweden, currently president of the EUs rotating presidency was quick to put out a statement.

"Sweden has a long tradition of serious and constructive engagement in the promotion of universal respect for human rights, embracing civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights," the statement said. "It is a priority for Swedish foreign policy to contribute constructively to the further promotion of human rights.

"As a member of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Sweden will be in a position to actively advance international co-operation in the promotion of human rights and enhance the respect for international law in that field," the Stockholm statement said.

Meanwhile, the State Department expressed its disappointed with the United States expulsion from the commission.

"We're disappointed in the outcome of the vote," said State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker. "We continue to believe this is an important forum, this does not diminish our commitment to human rights or our resolve to address human rights problems around the world."

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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It was the first time Washington has failed to be represented on the 53-member panel since the commission was established in 1947 to prepare an international bill of rights. U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the...
Thursday, 03 May 2001 12:00 AM
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