Stunned U.S. voted off U.N. rights body


In a stunning upset, the United States lost its seat on the top United Nations human rights body it helped found in 1948, a move that reflected frustration at U.S. positions from its allies and foes alike.

The defeat on Thursday came during voting for three seats allocated to Western nations on the U.N. Human Rights Commission. France got 52 votes, Austria 41 votes, Sweden 32 votes and the United States 29 votes.

Speculation on why it happened ranged from poor lobbying and the absence of a U.S. ambassador to American condemnation of rights abuses in mainland China, Russia, Cuba, Sudan and elsewhere.

Others blamed the action on the huge debt Washington has yet to pay the United Nations and the Bush administration’s position on environment, defense and attitude towards international organizations.

The secret balloting took place in the U.N. Economic and Social Council in New York, the parent body of the 53-nation Geneva-based human rights commission, which assigns investigators to probe abuses around the world.

The United States as well as Russia and India had served on the commission since its inception. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the commission’s first chair and the main author of its 1948 landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Understandably, we are very disappointed,” James Cunningham, the chief U.S. representative, told reporters, declining to speculate on the reason for the defeat.

“We very much wanted to serve on the committee,” he said.

In Washington, a State Department official, who would not be named, said “there is no question that financial questions formed an important background to this vote.”

She was referring to the long dispute between Washington and the United Nations over U.S. arrears and the level of the U.S. contribution. The dispute has been settled in principle but Congress still has not paid its US$1.7 billion debt.

However, Joanna Weschler, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, said the United States had voted “on the wrong side of several human rights issues in the last few years,” and lost votes among some of its allies.

Among them were the treaty to abolish landmines, opposition to the treaty creating an International Criminal Court and rejection of a resolution calling for AIDS drugs to be made available to everyone, she said.

“It’s not surprising that the United States was voted off. But to punish the United States and reward Sudan, which was elected, is clearly absurd,” Weschler said.

She called several of the countries elected to the commission this year and last, such as Uganda, Togo, Syria, Algeria, Libya and Saudi Arabia a “rogues’ gallery of human rights abusers,” saying that nations with a poor rights record should not sit in judgment of other abusive countries.