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UN: U.S. Loses Seat On Rights Commission In Surprise Vote

The United States has lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time since the body's founding 54 years ago. In the same vote yesterday, countries with poor rights records such as Sudan and Sierra Leone were elected to the commission. At the same time, Croatia and Armenia became first-time commission members, while Azerbaijan's bid failed. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A UN chamber has voted to drop the United States from the world's leading human rights body in an election that has raised new questions about the legitimacy of the way the group is formed.

The vote yesterday (3 May) in the Economic and Social Council means that the United States will not serve on the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time since its founding in 1947.

The Council votes on about one-third of the commission's members every year and the United States has regularly received enough votes to renew its three-year term. But this year, it finished behind three other candidates from the Western nations group -- Sweden, Austria, and France.

The acting U.S. ambassador to the UN, James Cunningham, told reporters the United States very much wanted to continue on the Commission.

"Understandably we're very disappointed. This won't, of course, affect our commitment to human rights issues in and outside of the United Nations and we will continue to pursue that."

Cunningham declined to speculate whether yesterday's vote reflected international resentment of the United States for its stand on controversial issues such as national missile defense or the Kyoto treaty on global warming.

"It was an election between a number of solid candidates. We had too many candidates for too few seats. I don't want to speculate on what may be the motives underlying the election."

Yesterday's balloting brings nations with questionable human rights records to the commission, in particular Sudan, Togo, and Sierra Leone. They join Syria, Algeria, Libya, and Vietnam in what the U.S.-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch calls a "rogues' gallery" of rights abusers.

Sudan has been widely accused of human rights abuses by forces loyal to the government during the course of its longtime civil war. And this week it was retained on a U.S. list of countries responsible for promoting terrorism.

Human Rights Watch released a statement yesterday saying it was "absurd" for the United States to be voted off the commission while Sudan was voted on.

Yesterday's vote also saw two states from the East European regional grouping -- Armenia and Croatia -- appointed to the commission for the first time. Azerbaijan lost in its bid for a first-time seat and Latvia failed to gain enough votes to renew its place.

Human rights advocates have given high marks during the past several years to countries from the former communist region for voting to uphold rights standards on the commission.

A diplomat (second secretary) at Armenia's mission to the United Nations, Paruyr Hovhannisyan, told our correspondent that gaining a seat on the commission is another step in Armenia's reform efforts during its transition from communism.

"For Armenia it is extremely important. First of all, it is one of the most important forums within the UN system. And secondly, it is a good opportunity to share its experience in the process of transition in the field of human rights."

Armenia gained about twice as many votes as Azerbaijan to make it on the commission. A diplomat at Azerbaijan's mission to the United Nations, Farid Shafiyev, told RFE/RL that the vote was a difficult one.

Shafiyev said Azerbaijan had participated in past sessions of the human rights commission in Geneva as observers and would continue to attend as observers, especially now that Armenia was a member.

Croatia's accession to the rights commission marked a major turnaround during the past year. The country went from being the subject of human rights reporting in 2000 to a place on the commission starting in 2002.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights responded to the vote by issuing a statement saying the United States has made important contributions to the rights commission. The statement expressed hope for the speedy return of the United States to the commission.

Yesterday's vote came one week after the commission's latest six-week session finished its work in Geneva.

The commission is responsible for preparing reports on human rights abuses, appointing special rapporteurs and sometimes voting on the performance of individual countries. Its actions are not legally binding but they are considered to carry great moral weight in the international community.

Officials from governmental and non-governmental organizations said this year's voting patterns appeared to show a growing rift between the developed and developing world. The United States backed an unsuccessful bid to discuss China's human rights record and supported a resolution introduced by the Czech Republic that called attention to problems in Cuba. That resolution passed by a slim margin.

The United States also was a key supporter of a resolution that condemned Russian human rights abuses against civilians in Chechnya. The resolution passed. Russia is the only permanent member of the powerful UN Security Council to face such a resolution.

Russia and India are now the only remaining countries to have served on the commission since its beginning. Both are due to serve until 2003.