Friday, May 11, 2007

Zimbabwe won approval last night to head a key United Nations body charged with promoting economic progress and environmental protection despite protests from the U.S., European nations and human rights organizations.

The approval was voted 26-21 with three abstentions by the 53-member U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development despite the fact that the government of President Robert Mugabe presides over one of the world’s worst-performing economies.

The post of chairman traditionally rotates among the regions of the world and it is Africa’s turn this year. The government of Zimbabwe nominated Francis Nhema, the minister of environment, to chair the commission.

Mr. Nhema, who faces sanctions on his personal travel and assets from both the European Union and the United States, was the only candidate put forward for the post.

Jennifer Windsor, executive director of the Washington-based human rights group Freedom House, called the Zimbabwe nomination “preposterous.”

“The Mugabe government clearly has nothing but scorn for the U.N.’s founding principles of human rights, security and international law,” she said. “But for it to preside over an institution examining ways toward sustainable development is particularly ludicrous.”

Critics say the once-prosperous Zimbabwean economy has all but collapsed under Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power for more than a quarter-century.

Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate at over 2,200 percent. Unemployment is estimated at between 80 and 90 percent, and severe food shortages are common in a country once considered southern Africa’s breadbasket.

Just this week, Harare announced daily power cuts of up to 20 hours for households across the country, to give struggling farmers enough electricity to run irrigation systems.

The Bush administration sharply criticized Mr. Nhema’s choice.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Zimbabwe would not be a “particularly effective leader” of the commission, which monitors global policies on economic development and the environment.

Benjamin Chang, deputy spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, told the Associated Press that Zimbabwe is “hardly a model over good governance, sustainable development or even responsible leadership.”

A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said London watched the vote closely, “but clearly we’d prefer another African country to chair the committee.”

Other African countries have been reluctant to criticize Mr. Mugabe’s government, but the parliament of the African Union yesterday voted to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Harare to investigate charges of human rights abuses, including the arrest and killing of opposition leaders and journalists.

The 83-year-old Mr. Mugabe, who plans to run for another six-year term in 2008, blam es Western sanctions and a crippling drought for much of Zimbabwe’s recent economic and agricultural hardships.

Boniface Chiyausiku, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United Nations, staunchly defended his country’s bid in an interview this week with the British Broadcasting Corp. He blamed the campaign against his country on Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial power.

“When they tell the African group to change [candidates], it’s an insult to our intelligence - that we Africans can’t think,” Mr. Chiyausiku said.

Human rights groups say the United Nations is likely to face — and fail — another test next week when the General Assembly elects 16 new members to the 47-nation Human Rights Council.

Belarus, considered the most authoritarian regime in Europe, is expected to win a seat, as are Egypt, Angola and Qatar. A coalition of some 40 human rights groups are circulating a letter urging U.N. members to vote against Belarus.

The U.N. human rights panel was revamped last year in an effort to prevent some of the world’s most repressive regimes from gaining membership. The Bush administration has so far declined to seek a seat on the new council, saying the reforms did not go far enough.

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