UNITED NATIONS, May 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The UN General Assembly on May 9 elected the 47 members of the new Human Rights Council, thus replacing the now defunct Commission on Human Rights, which was widely criticized for allowing countries with notorious human right records to block its work. Still, some countries with poor human rights ratings will be on the new council, too -- including Russia, Azerbaijan, and China.
Rights groups say the election has produced a UN Human Rights Council that is an improvement over its predecessor body. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said that even though some states identified as rights foes won seats, "the important step is that we have made real progress."
The 47 countries winning seats on the newly formed UN Human Rights Council include six nations the New York-based Human Rights Watch lists among the world's worst abusers of human rights: Russia, Azerbaijan, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba.
But the new council is free of the most notorious members of the now defunct Commission on Human Rights that it replaces. Those countries, such as Libya and Sudan, often voted as a bloc to defeat critical resolutions, turning the UN human rights body into an international embarrassment.
After the vote, many of the new members pledged to work hard to make the new Human Rights Council a success.
"This council and the member states who have been elected today will do their utmost to make this council effective because that was one of the ideas why we voted in favor of this council," Germany's ambassador to the UN, Gunter Pleuger, said. "The alternative of not having this council would have been no forum for human rights at all."
The threshold for winning seats was high. Candidates had to receive a minimum of 96 votes, an absolute majority of the General Assembly's 191 members. Iran, Iraq, and Kyrgyzstan applied for membership but failed to get elected.
The contention for seats was most heated among the Eastern European group of candidates, where it took three rounds of balloting to select the six members: Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.
The council will begin its work with one notable absence on its roster: the United States, which did not seek election to the new body. Washington has been skeptical of the new body, saying that its procedures do not adequately prevent human rights abusers from winning seats.
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said that for the time being Washington will restrict its role to that of an observer. "We can actually have more influence being on the outside and the reason for that is that obviously any decision by the United States to participate in the new council depends on whether it is materially better than the commission that it replaced," he said.
Washington objects, among other things, to what it says are too lax rules governing when and how a member of the new council can be suspended from the body for failing to uphold rights standards.
With Membership Comes Scrutiny
But top UN officials said this week that such issues will now be addressed after the new council begins work.
"The precise procedures for that will probably be worked out in the context of the next couple of months as the new council establishes the details of its procedures," Craig Mokhiber, the deputy director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said.
"But there's another sort of guarantee which is written in there, which is that members of the council will be the first countries that will have their human rights record publicly reviewed under the universal review mechanism," he added. "So if you are a candidate for the council you know that you are going to be among the first that are put under the public scrutiny for your human rights record."
The first meeting of the new Human Rights Council is scheduled for June 19. The council is to hold no fewer than three sessions per year, for a total period of no less than 10 weeks.
The membership of the council will rotate regularly, with one-third of the seats coming up for election each year. To start the process, those states that won seats on May 9 were awarded one-, two-, or three-year terms by lottery.
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