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U.N. rights panel off to rocky start

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

The United Nations' revamped human rights body has thus far failed to live up to reformers' expectations, with its first two special sessions devoted to slamming Israel's handling of the war in Lebanon, senior U.S. officials said yesterday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Lagon said the Bush administration was "disappointed" with the work to date of the new U.N. Human Rights Council, created this spring to replace the ineffectual and widely disparaged U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

While the United States still has hopes the new panel can be effective, "unfortunately, the new council's sessions so far have been disappointing," Mr. Lagon told a hearing of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, global human rights and international organizations.

"Much work remains to be done if the new council is to become an improvement over its discredited predecessor," Mr. Lagon said.

The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and a leading voice on human rights issues in Congress, also criticized the early work of the council.

Despite the "congratulatory euphoria" of the council's creators earlier this year, "the new human rights machinery remains broken, in need of serious repair and fundamental reform," Mr. Smith said.

Pushed by the new council's Islamic members, the body held its first two special sessions in July and August to condemn Israel's conduct in the Lebanon conflict, Mr. Smith noted, while ignoring the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Darfur region or ongoing rights violations in countries like China, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

"The victims of abuse throughout the world deserve better, and, thus far, they haven't gotten it," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pushed an overhaul of the human rights body as the centerpiece of a larger drive to reform the operations of the United Nations itself.

Critics slammed the old 53-member Commission on Human Rights for its ineffectual record and for the ability of the world's worst human rights violators -- including Libya, Sudan and China -- to gain seats on the body and block action against them.

The new, streamlined 47-nation Human Rights Council was designed to revise the election process to keep the worst violators off the panel, while giving the body more flexibility to deal with human rights crises and review the records of nations that apply for seats. The Bush administration pushed for deeper reforms and, in the end, was one of four countries to vote against the new panel.

Mr. Lagon and Erica Barks-Ruggles, deputy assistant secretary for human rights, told the House hearing the new human rights body has brought some positive changes, with countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan opting not to run under the new voting membership rules. Still, they noted, China and Cuba were among the countries winning seats on the new council.