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Sri Lanka denied seat on U.N. rights council

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

NEW YORK — Sri Lanka yesterday lost its bid for re-election to the United Nations' Human Rights Council — a likely recognition by the international community of rampant and ongoing human rights abuses in the country.

However, Pakistan, Bahrain, Gabon and Zambia — all countries with poor records — were among 15 nations that won three-year terms on the Geneva-based council.

Twenty countries from five regions were vying for the 15 seats.

France and Britain narrowly defeated Spain for the open European seats, a race that was something of a tossup for the gentleness of the campaigns and nearly indistinguishable voting records.
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Slovakia and Ukraine won over the Czech Republic and Serbia for the two available seats reserved for Eastern Europe.

To the chagrin of rights advocates and the United States, who maintain that all members should be elected by the 192-member world body, the African and Latin American regions nominated only as many candidate countries as they had seats to fill.

That meant Africa will be represented by Zambia, Burkina Faso, Gabon and Ghana; Latin America and the Caribbean by Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

Sri Lanka, whose government is engaged in an increasingly violent war with well-armed rebel groups, was defeated for an Asian seat by South Korea, Japan, Bahrain and Pakistan.

"Sri Lanka's defeat is a victory for the Human Rights Council," said Lawrence Moss, special counsel to Human Rights Watch. "Because member states enforced the membership standards they established two years ago by rejecting re-election for a country whose rights record has so seriously deteriorated."

The Human Rights Council dispatches lawyers and other rights experts to evaluate how well countries are meeting various human rights commitments, such as independence of the judiciary and the press, protections for minorities and women, and freedom of religion. It is technically independent of the United Nations, but attached to the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It also reviews the records of individual countries — most often, Israel.

The two-year-old Human Rights Council replaces an earlier body that had been largely overtaken by undemocratic countries or nominal democracies, many of them widely perceived as rights abusers by the West.

The assembly agreed to impose stricter election standards than before and require all members to submit to a periodic public review of their records on civil and political rights. The measures were designed to stock the 47-member rights commission with more upstanding nations.

"Today's elections ... reduced the number of fully free democracies on the Council — already in the minority," said Anne Bayefsky, senior editor of a newsletter called EYE on the UN. "Human rights abusers will, therefore, continue to dominate the U.N.'s primary human rights body."

With the re-election of Pakistan and the inclusion of dictatorships and family-dominated enterprises, the council is still not the beacon that many hoped for. Among the members routinely criticized by the nongovernmental, nonpartisan Freedom House: Saudi Arabia, China, Libya, Gabon and Zambia.

The United States, long a critic of the independent U.N. body, has refused to seek election to what Washington sees as a compromised institution unworthy of America's participation.

RIGHTS PANELISTS

Fifteen nations were elected to the United Nations' Human Rights Council. Winning nations are listed below in bold:

Europe: France, Britain, Spain

Asia: South Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Bahrain, Pakistan

Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Africa: Zambia, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana

Latin America/Caribbean region: Brazil, Argentina, Chile

Source: United Nations