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The United States decision not to seek election to the new United Nations Human Rights Council undermines its claims to leadership in promoting human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the United States to live up to its promise to participate actively in elections to the council and to help make the new body effective.

“Despite this regrettable decision, it’s important that Washington helps make the new Human Rights Council as strong and effective as possible,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The council needs active support if it is to get off to a good start.”

Improving membership standards was at the heart of the decision by the U.N. General Assembly last month to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a more selective Human Rights Council. Abusive states had joined the commission to prevent it from taking effective action against violators. The United States was one of only four countries to vote against the change, arguing that the reform did not go far enough, but announced that it would still cooperate to strengthen the council.

Previously, candidates for the commission were put forward by regional groups and often rubber-stamped by the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Now, election to the council will require an affirmative vote of 96 of the 191 members of the General Assembly, based upon the human rights records and commitments of candidate countries.

The U.N. resolution establishing the council permits extensive participation in proceedings by non-member states, as well as by nongovernmental organizations. The United States can still play a very useful role in helping to shape the council’s rules and procedures, and in bringing human rights abuses to the council’s attention.

“The Bush administration's disturbing human rights record would have complicated its candidacy this year,” said Roth. “We hope that the U.S. will make a serious effort to address its own rights abuse so that it can be in a stronger position to present itself for election to the council next year.”
Human Rights Watch repeated its call to member states to reject council membership for abusive countries. It said states that could make positive contributions to the council should declare their candidacies 30 days before the May 9 elections and present their human rights agendas so that the elections produce a council ready to address crises and protect victims.

On June 19, the new council will meet in Geneva for the first time.

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