- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

UNITED NATIONS — Human rights groups and a growing number of governments are working to prevent Syria from being elected to the U.N.’s top human rights body, as President Bashar Assad’s security forces crack down on pro-democracy protesters.

Syria’s election to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council is all but assured as one of four candidates selected to fill four Asian seats unless another candidate enters the race or Syria fails to win a majority of votes in the May 20 election in the 192-member General Assembly.

Since the 53-member Asian Group endorsed its slate — which also includes India, Indonesia and the Philippines — for the council in January, rights groups and some governments have engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to keep Syria off the council.

Those efforts have gathered steam since a crackdown on pro-democracy protests since mid-March has left more than 350 dead and hundreds wounded, diplomats said.

One diplomat involved in the process, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations are private, said he was confident that another country would be found to contest the election but declined to say which countries were being pursued.

Repeated attempts to reach Syria’s U.N. ambassador for comment were unsuccessful.

Since 2006, rights groups and governments have successfully opposed the election of several countries including Iran, Venezuela, Belarus and Sri Lanka.

The campaign against Syria’s nomination on the human rights council also comes as France, Britain, Germany and Portugal are urging the U.N. Security Council to strongly condemn the violence against peaceful demonstrators in Syria. The United States is supporting the statement of condemnation, a diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Last Tuesday, the U.S., which normally doesn’t disclose its secret ballot votes, openly opposed Syria’s candidacy on the human rights body.

“I think in this particular case we feel compelled to comment, given Syria’s actions against its own people,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. “We believe it would be inappropriate and hypocritical for Syria to join the Human Rights Council.”

Following the Asian Group endorsement, Syria issued a statement “pledging to uphold the highest standards in promotion and protection of human rights … and fundamental freedoms.”

Syria considers that the protection of human dignity and fundamental rights are the basis of freedom, justice and peace,” the statement said.

Human rights groups, however, have pointed to the hypocrisy of such statements and lashed out at the Arab Group at the U.N. for reaffirming its support for Syria’s candidacy less than two weeks ago.

“The Syrian government’s aggressive campaign for the Human Rights Council has not slowed down the killing and torture of large numbers of peaceful protesters by its security forces,” Human Rights Watch’s U.N. Director Philippe Bolopion said.

Syria’s candidacy should be an embarrassment to its backers, the Asia Group, and particularly the Arab League, which supported military action in Libya to protect civilians, and is now blatantly siding against Syrian victims,” he said.

More than a dozen human rights groups from the Arab world also issued a statement Thursday urging Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to publicly denounce Syria’s candidacy and call on Arab states not to vote for Syria in the upcoming election.

“Support for its candidacy at this moment in time is not only an insult to the U.N. body and its mission, but shows flagrant disregard for the feelings and rights of the Syrian people, who have broken the barrier of fear and risen up in revolt in most Syrian provinces,” the statement said.

An Arab League official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment on such issues, said the League cannot take action against Syria or block its nomination for the Council because it is a sovereign country. The official said the issue might be discussed in the coming meeting of the Arab foreign ministers expected next month.

The 47-member Human Rights Council was created in March 2006 to replace the U.N.’s widely discredited and highly politicized Human Rights Commission. The council, however, has also been widely criticized for failing to change many of the commission’s practices, including putting much more emphasis on Israel than on any other country and electing candidates accused of serious human rights violations.

A major problem in the election process is that candidates for the Human Rights Council, and for many other U.N. bodies, are selected by regional groups where there is a lot of internal horse-trading for seats and support. Regional groups often put up uncontested slates to ensure victory for all their candidates.

Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.

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