- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

GENEVA (AP) - The United States gained a clear path Wednesday to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, after New Zealand’s foreign minister said his country would step aside because the U.S. could have a greater impact on the 47-member body.

“Membership of the council by the U.S. is more likely to create positive changes more quickly than we could have hoped to achieve,” Murray McCully said in a statement from Wellington.

He said the decision to withdraw was not taken lightly. “But we see New Zealand’s standing aside as being in the best interests of the advancement of international human rights at this time,” McCully said.

The Obama administration’s announcement Tuesday that it would seek a seat reverses former President George W. Bush’s policy of disengagement with the Geneva body over its criticism of Israel.

The U.S. is now almost certain to gain one of three seats reserved for Western countries when the U.N. General Assembly in New York votes on 18 of the council’s seats May 15. Norway and Belgium are the only other countries from the U.N.’s “Western group” running for a seat, meaning there is no competition.

Canada, Germany and Switzerland will step down when their three-year terms end next month. France, Italy, Netherlands and Britain remain on the council.

The council is dominated by African and Asian countries, who have blocked criticism of allies such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Sri Lanka while passing a series of resolutions critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Western countries, human rights groups and senior U.N. officials have all warned that the council needs to improve its work if it wants to avoid the fate of the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission it replaced in 2006.

Competition for membership was one of Washington’s key demands when the council was set up.

The U.S. said it put no pressure on New Zealand to withdraw its candidacy.

“Running on competitive slates is one of the key reforms of the Human Rights Council,” said Dick Wilbur, a spokesman for the U.S. mission in Geneva. “This is an important component of ensuring the best candidates for the council.”

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