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May 3, 2001


By Evelyn Leopold
Thursday May 3, 2001

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States was voted off the key U.N. Human Rights Commission on Thursday for the first time since it helped found the body in 1947 to probe abuses around the world.

The United States came in fourth with 29 votes in balloting for three seats allocated to Western nations that were up for re-election. France received 52 votes, followed by Austria with 41 and Sweden with 32 in a secret ballot among members of the Economic and Social Council, the parent group for the 53-member human rights commission.

The United States, Russia and India had served on the commission, now based in Geneva, since its inception. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first U.S. delegate to the group and the main author of its 1948 landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Reactions were fierce, ranging from denunciation of the United Nations (news - web sites) by Republicans in Congress to criticism of the Bush administration for ignoring the world body, delaying dues payments and isolating itself on some key rights issues.

Others blamed the defeat on a group of countries accused of human rights violations themselves who vote as a bloc to stymie U.S. criticism of their actions. And Britain blamed it on deals among U.N. members against the world's superpower.

``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 spoke on condition of anonymity, said the commission would be weakened without U.S. participation.

The official also would not speculate on the reasons for the defeat but 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 $1.7 billion debt.

In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, said the vote was an embarrassment for the United States and a painful blow to U.S. leadership on human rights and democracy.

``President Bush (news - web sites) has dragged his feet in getting key foreign policy officials confirmed. It is unacceptable that we still have no U.N. Ambassador,'' she said, referring to the delayed appointment of John Negroponte, a retired diplomat.

But Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House International Relations Committee, attacked the United Nations. ``This is emblematic of the increasing irrelevancy of some international organizations,'' he said in a statement.

Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, attributed the vote to U.S. attempts to secure a resolution critical of China at this year's meeting of the commission.

``Stunning Development''

At the United Nations, Singapore's ambassador, Kishore Mahbubani, called the vote ``a stunning development.'' ``When I heard it, I couldn't believe it,'' he said.

British Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock, whose country has a commission seat, said U.N. votes often involved deals. ``This can mean less focus on the suitability of candidates. The U.S. has tended not to be keen on doing deals,'' he said.

Some Western diplomats said the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto climate change treaty as well as its plans for a missile defense shield, contributed to the loss.

But Joanna Weschler, the U.N. representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said both Western and developing countries bore grudges against the United States.

``In recent years, the United States often failed to support important human right initiatives,'' she said. These include a measure calling for AIDS (news - web sites) drugs to be made available to all, the treaty to ban land mines and the International Criminal Court.

``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,'' she said.

Also elected were Bahrain, South Korea, Pakistan, Croatia and Armenia. Chile, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo and Uganda won uncontested seats. Failing to get seats were Iran, Latvia, and Azerbaijan in addition to the United States.

Saudi Arabia was not a candidate, as U.N. officials reported earlier, but received a vote although it already had a seat on the commission.

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