Syria Out of Running for Seat on U.N. Human Rights Council

UNITED NATIONS -- Kuwait is slated to replace Syria as a candidate for a seat on the U.N.'s top human rights body in what would be a victory for human rights groups and many governments opposed to the ongoing crackdown by President Bashar Assad's security forces, Western diplomats said Tuesday.

An intense behind-the-scenes campaign has been waged to prevent Syria from being elected to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council following the government's attempts to crush a seven-week uprising challenging the Assad family's 40-year rule.

One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because no public announcement has been made, said that Kuwaiti government officials told diplomats in Kuwait City that Kuwait will replace Syria as a candidate in the May 20 secret-ballot election in the U.N. General Assembly.

Kuwait had been slated to be a candidate in 2013. The diplomats said it was unclear whether Syria would take Kuwait's spot in 2013.

Syria's U.N. Mission said the ambassador was not available for comment.

Syria was a frontrunner for a seat on the Human Rights Council as one of four candidates selected to fill four Asian seats.

It was considered likely to win unless another candidate entered the race or it failed to win a majority of votes 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 started a campaign to keep Syria off the council. Those efforts gathered steam following the crackdown on pro-democracy protests that began in March and which according to the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria has killed more than 750 civilians.

"We hope it will prove true," Philippe Bolopion, United Nations director for Human Rights Watch, told AP. "These reports are another reassuring sign that many countries see through Syria's attempt to use its bid to the Human Rights Council to legitimize its bloody crackdown on protesters."

UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group that has been campaigning against Syria's bid, hailed the news that Damascus is expected to drop its bid but expressed concern that it might be replaced by Kuwait, which is "far better than Syria, but another non-democracy nevertheless."

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.