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U.S. eyes bid for U.N. rights council

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

UNITED NATIONS | The Obama administration is weighing a bid to join the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), a decision that would reverse Bush administration policy and underline a more favorable U.S. attitude toward international organizations.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has discussed joining the organization with fellow ambassadors at U.N. headquarters in New York.

"The U.S. is very interested in joining the Human Rights Council," an ambassador from one European country quoted Ms. Rice as saying. The ambassador requested anonymity because he was repeating details of a private conversation.

The U.S. mission in New York declined to comment, saying no decision has been made. But it referred a reporter to earlier comments by State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

"My expectation, although I have no inside knowledge of this, is that the Obama administration will reverse that policy," Mr. Wood told reporters.

"It's hard to improve [the HRC] from the outside," Mr. Wood said.

The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 amid a push by the United States to reform its discredited predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Many countries criticized for human rights violations - including China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - have since won election to the council.

Until now, the United States has not sought a seat on the Geneva-based HRC, citing the poor rights records of many of its members. The council was established at a time when the U.S. faced severe criticism for its own record amid scandals over the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Washington would have to compete with other Western nations for one of two available seats on the body, which includes 47 member states.

President Obama has emphasized human rights during his first month in office, as well as a desire to work with multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. His administration has indicated a willingness to support prosecution for war crimes of the president of Sudan, Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir, by the International Criminal Court - a body that the Bush administration sometimes gave cooperation but refused to join.

Mr. Obama, among his first acts as president, ordered the Guantanamo prison closed and said he would bar waterboarding of suspected terrorists.

"There is so much good will towards the United States right now, because of the statements that have been made about the need for engagement at the global level," said Jessica Neuwirth, director of the U.N. human rights liaison office in New York.

"There would be a lot of disappointment if that didn't translate into participation," she said.

HRC responsibilities include citing human rights violators, regardless of whether or not they are council members. It also can investigate reports of rights abuses.

The Bush administration said repeatedly that HRC members undermine human rights by protecting violators and excessively focusing on Israel while treading lightly on abuses by Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus and other nations.