US joins UN rights body, urges cooperative spirit

By FRANK JORDANS, AP, Google News, June 19, 2009

GENEVA (AP) — The United States joined the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday, a body widely criticized for failing to confront abuses around the world and for acting primarily to condemn Israel, one of Washington's closest allies.

U.S. officials pledged to work constructively in the 47-member council, which has frequently been hampered by ideological differences between rich and poor countries.

"The United States assumes its seat on the council with gratitude, with humility, and in the spirit of cooperation," said Mark C. Storella, who is for the moment the top diplomat at the U.S. Mission to U.N. organizations in Geneva.

The decision in May to seek a seat on the Geneva-based body after three years of giving it the cold shoulder represented a major shift in line with President Barack Obama's aim of showing that "a new era of engagement has begun."

Council members, U.N. officials and independent pressure groups applauded the move as a sign the only remaining superpower is prepared to debate human rights with the rest of the world.

Observers say the U.S. may succeed in breaking diplomatic deadlocks where European countries have failed because of grievances held by their former colonies in Africa and Asia.

"The U.S. has a unique capacity to counter some of the negative trends in the council," said Felice Gaer, an independent human rights expert from the United States.

She cited the tendency in the council to eliminate the appointments of some human rights experts assigned to check on countries such as Cuba and Belarus. A vote to scrap the expert on Sudan, who has criticized the government for abusing human rights in Darfur, was narrowly averted, thanks in part to heavy lobbying by the U.S., diplomats said.

Gaer, a member of the U.N. Committee against Torture, said Washington will have to move swiftly if it wants to counterbalance Russia, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Egypt, China and Pakistan, who between them dominate the council.

But Geneva is still waiting for a U.S. ambassador, the main person on the ground to push U.S. positions; the post of assistant secretary of state for human rights remains vacant; and foreign diplomats and U.N. officials in Geneva report little contact with the State Department so far, though the council doesn't return from its summer recess until September.

"The U.S. has diplomatic and economic levers it can pull more efficiently than the European Union can," said Andrew Clapham, professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

The U.S. is also nimbler when it comes to pressuring other governments than the 27-nation EU, which often operates as quickly as its slowest member, Clapham said.

Although the council is virtually powerless compared to the U.N. Security Council, its decisions carry considerable symbolic weight, particularly in the developing world, to which the Obama administration wants to reach out.

The U.S. made clear Friday that it considers human rights to be universal and urged other countries to pledge that they, like the U.S., won't flinch from having their own records scrutinized.

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