U.S. Voted Out of U.N. Rights Group

The United States, a vocal critic of human rights records of China and Cuba, lost its seat Thursday on the top U.N. rights body for the first time since the commission was formed in 1947.

The 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission, which usually meets in Geneva, makes recommendations for the protection and promotion of human rights — either on its own initiative or at the request of the General Assembly or the Security Council.

Regional groups at the United Nations nominate candidates for the commission, and the Western Europe and Others Group proposed four candidates for three seats: the United States, France, Austria and Sweden.

In the balloting, France got 52 votes, Austria 41 and Sweden 32 votes — edging out the United States with 29 votes.

``It was an election, understandably, where we're very disappointed,'' acting U.S. ambassador James Cunningham said after the vote. ``This won't at all, of course, affect our commitment to human rights issues in and outside of the United Nations. We'll continue to pursue them.''

The United States has been in the forefront of efforts to condemn the rights records of China and other countries at the commission's Geneva meetings.

The loss of a seat means the United States will not be able to vote for at least a year on commission resolutions, though it can still initiate and co-sponsor resolutions, and lobby for particular votes.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson expressed hope the United States ``will return speedily as a member of the commission,'' spokesman Jose Luis Diaz said in a statement released in Geneva.

``The United States of America has made a historic contribution to the Commission on Human Rights,'' the statement said, noting that the first U.S. representative on the body, Eleanor Roosevelt, ``helped shape the commission and its vision of an International Bill of Human Rights.''

Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an early supporter of the United Nations.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a member of the U.S. delegation to the commission, blamed the U.S. defeat on a failed effort to have China censured for its human rights record. The move ``exacerbated the resentment'' among other commission members.

``Even friends in Western Europe would rather we just looked the other way when it comes to human rights in China,'' he said, adding that it comes down to the importance of trade. ``It's all about money.''

The commission is part of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, whose 53 members choose its new members. The members serve for three years, and roughly one-third are elected every year.

Election to seats on U.N. bodies usually involves intense lobbying by diplomats.

The United States has been at a diplomatic disadvantage since the January departure of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, an appointee of former President Clinton. President Bush nominated veteran diplomat John Negroponte as U.N. ambassador in March, but his nomination has not yet been sent to the Senate.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who is co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional U.N. Working Group, called the vote ``an embarrassment for our country'' and blamed Bush for dragging his feet in getting key foreign policy officials confirmed.

``It is unacceptable that we still have no U.N. ambassador, and this vote is a painful blow to our global leadership on human rights and democracy,'' she said. ``The U.S. commitment to human rights has fallen victim to the administration's laissez-faire attitude toward diplomacy and foreign policy.''

Cunningham refused to speculate on whether the U.S. ouster from the commission was the result of growing anger against the United States for taking too many unilateral positions on important issues such as a national missile defense shield and pulling out of the 1997 Kyoto treaty to curb global warning.

``I don't want to speculate on what might have been the motives underlying the outcome of the election,'' he said.

Joanna Weschler, the U.N. representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the vote ``should come as a wake-up call'' to Washington. She noted a growing resentment toward the United States by both Western and developing countries over its votes on land mines, international tribunals and AIDS drugs.

France lost its seat in 1977 and Britain was voted off in both 1977 and 1991.

Other countries elected to the commission in contested votes were Bahrain, South Korea and Pakistan from the Asia Group, and Croatia and Armenia from the Eastern Europe Group. The Latin America Group selected Chile and Mexico without a vote, and the African Group chose Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo and Uganda, also without a vote.

Asked whether it was awkward for the United States to have lost when Sudan had been chosen for a commission seat, Cunningham refused to comment.

``We're disappointed in the outcome. We very much wanted to serve on the commission,'' he said. ``I'll leave it at that for the time being.''