Monday, May 8, 2006

NEW YORK — The first members of the revamped U.N. human rights body will be elected by secret ballot in a daylong process today that could yield a more credible monitoring organization — or reinforce the world body’s reputation as a clubhouse for dictators.

The new Human Rights Council was created by world leaders in September, under pressure from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Western democracies and human rights groups frustrated with the old commission.

U.N. member states have made the selection process more transparent and are holding the applicants to a new standard of accountability, but U.S. officials and others say it’s not yet clear whether the new group will be any more effective than the old.

The United States, one of only four countries to vote against the new arrangement, has decided not to seek election to the body this year, saying it first wants to see how the commission functions. However, Washington has promised to work with the Geneva-based body and will consider membership in the future.

U.S. officials also said they are satisfied that the nine candidates for its regional group, called Western Europe and Others, will do a professional job on the council.

Among the more controversial candidates for the 47 seats on the new council are Azerbaijan, Cuba, China, Iran, Russia and Pakistan.

These nations are “unworthy of membership on the new council,” said Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, which has evaluated the rights records of 65 declared candidates.

Despite some concerns, Human Rights Watch says the new rules have produced a more credible field of candidates than in past years.

“It’s interesting how much better this list is than those in the past,” said Lawrence Moss, HRW’s special counsel for U.N. reform. “The worst of the worst aren’t even planning to run.”

Libya, Zimbabwe and Sudan — countries that have attacked their own citizens with impunity and brought discredit to the old Human Rights Commission — are not seeking membership this year.

Among the 14 candidates for 13 African seats are South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, Ghana and Kenya.

Proponents of the new rights body say that its slightly smaller size and more rigid election standards will ensure a higher quality of candidate.

In the past, regional groups chose their representatives to the commission and presented them to the 54-member Economic and Social Commission for formal selection. The commission would vote only if there were more candidates than allotted seats, and even then handshake deals were easily brokered.

Today, for the first time, the entire General Assembly will vote for candidates directly and individually, with at least some candidates having to be eliminated from every region. The use of secret ballots will presumably diminish the value of politicking.

Each new member must receive at least 96 votes in the 191-member assembly, a process that could go to five ballots or more. U.N. officials say they wouldn’t be surprised if the process took all day, and even tipped into tomorrow morning.

In addition, every candidate nation has agreed to let its rights record be monitored while it is on the council.

By far the hottest race is for Eastern Europe, which has 13 candidates for six seats. The contestants include Albania, Georgia, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Asia’s 13 seats are being contested by 18 candidates ranging from Bangladesh to Bahrain, Iraq to Thailand and Japan to Kyrgyzstan. Even Saudi Arabia — where women are forbidden to drive or show their ankles on the street — is seeking a seat.

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