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UN: Vote On Human Rights Council In Limbo Over U.S. Objections

U.S. Ambassador Bolton said that "real change" is needed (epa) The United States has rejected a UN compromise draft for a new Human Rights Council calling it "insufficient" and with "manifold deficiencies." But at the same time senior UN officials, several Noble Prize laureates, a former U.S. president, a number of UN member states, and nongovernmental organizations have expressed support for the plan. Still, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that he is hopeful the plan will proceed to a vote in the UN General Assembly this week. In view of Washington's strong opposition, however, prospects for a vote are uncertain and behind-the-scenes diplomacy is gaining speed.

UNITED NATIONS, 28 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said that his government's rejection of the proposal is "more in sorrow than in anger."

But, speaking on 27 February, he said Washington is very disappointed with the draft and does not think it is acceptable.

"We want an effective change in the Human Rights Commission, which is obviously broken beyond repair," Bolton said. "We're disappointed that we weren't able to get the kind of important change that we need. And we remain committed as I said, to try to persuade other nations that cosmetic reform alone is not sufficient, that we need real change in the way the human rights decision-making mechanism in the UN functions."

The United States intends to reopen the negotiations and to try to correct the "deficiencies" or, alternatively, to put off the vote on the resolution for several months to give more time for negotiations. Bolton said that if the vote is called now, the United States will vote against it.

Inefficient and Cumbersome

Among the U.S. objections are what it calls the inefficiency of the mechanism for expelling member states that are human rights violators from the Human Rights Council. Washington is also unhappy about the council's proposed size -- 47 states. Washington would be happier with a more compact body.
The proposed council would replace the UN Human Rights Commission, which has been criticized for having member states like Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe whose governments are accused of widespread human rights abuses.

UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson wrote the compromise draft to which the United States objects. In his proposal he included strong language regarding what would be expected from states having membership in the new Human Rights Council. He also put in provisions for suspending members who have committed gross human rights violations.

"We need to make sure that we consider human rights as a serious obligation and if there are serious violations, gross violations of human rights, we are now introducing something absolutely new, namely, a suspension possibility," Eliasson said on 27 February.

Wide Support Eleswhere

The proposal has gained considerable support from a number of member states, including France, one of the UN Security Council's five permanent members. And there is support from a dozen nongovernmental organizations, and several Nobel laureates. Prominent supporters include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

Eliasson's spokeswoman, Pragati Pascale, said on 27 February that member states are still awaiting responses from their capitals to the proposed text.

"President Eliasson is still hoping for a consensus, for action by consensus," she said. "It's still quite up in the air. He's awaiting responses, he's expecting responses to come in today and tomorrow. Action could happen quite quickly, it's just that everything is still in process."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan (CTK)

The proposal envisions a direct individual vote on candidates from the UN member states by secret ballot. To gain a seat on the council would require a state win a simple majority of votes. There also would be a mechanism to review the human rights record of all member states. And there would be the possibility to convene special sessions in emergency situations.

The proposed council would replace the UN Human Rights Commission, which has been criticized for having member states like Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe whose governments are accused of widespread human rights abuses.

Marie Okabe, the UN secretary-general's deputy spokeswoman, said that if negotiations are reopened it would lead to major delays and could cause serious problems. The United Nations has been on shaky ground for months, plagued by scandals for corruption and sex abuses.

"He [Secretary-General Annan] appeals to member states to understand this, that this is not a perfect world," Okabe said. "Since he was the one who put forward these proposals, he would have liked to have gotten, obviously, everything he did put forward, but the world does not work like that. He accentuated that there are enough positive elements to move forward."

Replacing the commission, which Annan has strongly advocated, has divided the 191-member UN General Assembly and sparked months of political debate.

Annan spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on 26 February to discuss the Human Rights Council situation, Okabe said.

But the remaining sharp differences between the UN Secretariat and the United States, the UN's most influential member, make the prospect for a vote this week uncertain.

The Next UN Secretary-General?

The Next UN Secretary-General?

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid (courtesy photo)

The women's rights group Equality Now has noted that no woman has held the position of secretary-general of the United Nations in its 60-year history. While geographic regions take "turns" in nominating candidates, women have never had their "turn," despite many qualified candidates. Below -- in no particular order -- is a selection of some of the women that Equality Now has put forth as possible candidates for secretary-general.

SADAKO OGATA served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1991 to 2000. Before her career as UNHCR, she was the independent expert of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar in 1990. In 1982-85, she was also representative of Japan on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Ogata has also been a prominent academic figure, serving as dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo from 1989 until 1991. Prior to that she was director of the Institute of International Relations at the same university.

TARJA KAARINA HALONEN is the current and first female president of Finland. She is currently running for a second term. Halonen has a master of law degree from the University of Helsinki. She is a very popular politician and she was Finland's foreign minister from 1995 until 2000.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI is the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. As a pro-democracy campaigner and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD), she has spent most of the past 16 years in some form of detention under Burma's military regime. Born on 19 June 1945 to Burma's independence hero, Aung San, Suu Kyi was educated in Burma, India, and the United Kingdom. Her father was assassinated when she was 2 years old.

THORAYA AHMED OBAID is the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the world’s largest multilateral source of population assistance. Obaid was appointed head of UNFPA on 1 January 2001 with the rank of undersecretary-general of the United Nations. She is the first Saudi Arabian to head a United Nations agency. Before joining UNFPA, Obaid was deputy executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 1993-98. In 1975, Obaid established the first women's development program in Western Asia.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND served three terms as prime minister of Norway in the 1980s and 1990s and was director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1998–2003. In the 1980s, she gained international recognition by championing the principle of sustainable development as the chairwoman of the World Commission of Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission).

(Compiled by RFE/RL; to see the complete list, click here.)