- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

NEW YORK — The U.N. General Assembly voted yesterday to create a new human rights body over the objections of the Bush administration, which said the rules of admission are not stringent enough to keep out repressive regimes.

The world body voted 170-4 to establish the Geneva-based Human Rights Council after five months of often rancorous negotiations. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton stressed that the United States would work with the new council despite the reservations.

“Absent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, the United States could not join consensus on this resolution,” Mr. Bolton said. “We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the [Human Rights Council] would be better than its predecessor.”

The council was meant to redeem the organization’s reputation as standard-bearer and enforcer of international human rights norms. The old body, the Human Rights Commission, became widely discredited after some countries accused of being among the world’s worst human rights abusers — including Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China — won election as members.

The United States was joined in opposition by Israel, a frequent target of the Human Rights Commission, as well as the Marshall Islands and Palau.

Among countries regularly criticized over abuses, the reaction was mixed. China, Zimbabwe and Cuba voted in favor of the new panel; Iran, Belarus and Venezuela abstained.

The new body will have 47 members elected to three-year terms by the General Assembly. The seats will be distributed among the world’s main regions, but candidates must win the support of at least 96 voting nations — a simple majority in the assembly.

The Bush administration had fought for a smaller panel whose members would have to be elected by a two-thirds majority, which would have made it more difficult for countries with questionable records to get elected.

Many U.S. allies, including members and affiliates of the European Union, had backed the two-thirds voting standard, but they said they could live with the compromise deal, which urges governments to “take into account” the rights records of candidates.

That and a voluntary pledge by the European Union and other nations not to send abusers back to the council should be enough to maintain credibility, said Gerhard Pfanzelter, ambassador of Austria, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw welcomed the new rights body, saying: “The U.N. must remain at the forefront in setting standards in the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide and examining progress in the implementation of these standards.”

In Washington, U.S. conservatives expressed frustration at the vote.

“The victims of human rights abuse around the world deserve better than this new, egregiously flawed council,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa, global human rights and international operations.

“The hypocrisy and gross ineffectiveness that was the hallmark of the former commission will likely continue unless the American position in favor of sweeping reform is enacted,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who first proposed scrapping the rights commission a year ago, said the new body was “qualitatively better than the commission.” However, he stressed, it is up to member states to make the council an effective and credible organ.

The council, like its 60-year-old predecessor, is charged with monitoring rights violations by governments and issues such as religious intolerance, treatment of prisoners and education among minorities.

The old commission, once led by Eleanor Roosevelt, delayed its scheduled annual opening on Monday to allow the assembly to take the vote. The commission will open next week for its final six-week session. The new body will convene formally later in the month.

Despite the overwhelming votes in favor of the new agency, many governments voiced doubts about the final shape of the Human Rights Council.

“The members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are far from happy with the Human Rights Council,” said Yemeni Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi, adding that the bloc had wanted an explicit renunciation of acts of hatred, intolerance and incitement to violence.

China said decisions on human rights must be evaluated in the context of the history of individual countries.

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