by William M. Reilly
UNITED NATIONS, May 13 (Xinhua) -- Human rights groups generally welcomed the Tuesday election to the UN Human Rights Council of the United States, which itself admitted a flawed human rights record.
Washington was easily elected Tuesday for the first time to a 3-year term on the 3-year-old UN panel based in Geneva, Switzerland. It garnered 167 votes in the 192-member U.N. General Assembly. An absolute majority or 97 votes was required for election. It was one of 18 nations, or one third of the total council membership, to be elected.
The administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush had said it could be more effective operating outside of the 47 member group. But, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration had the opposite view and has been opting in general for diplomatic engagement.
The council succeeded the disgraced the UN Commission on Human Rights, which critics said had become a hiding place in the open where rights abusers shielded themselves from investigations. Now, the new council is being criticized by the United States and others as being an Israel-basher, having passed 21 measures against Israel, a staunch U.S. ally.
Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told reporters after the balloting being elected to the council did not mean candidate countries had any better human rights record than any other UN member nation. He pooh-poohed the notion they were ushered into "a club of the virtuous."
Mokhiber said "We would like to get away from the idea that there are good guys and bad guys. Today, there were 18 human rights violators elected to the Human Rights Council," pointing out all 192 UN member states had serious human rights problems.
Elected by secret ballot were five African countries -- Cameroon, Djibouti, Mauritius, Nigeria and Senegal, four Asian States -- Bangladesh, China, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia, two Eastern European countries -- Hungary and Russia, three Latin American and Caribbean countries -- Cuba, Mexico and Uruguay, and three Western European and other States -- Belgium, Norway and the United States.
Being a member of the rights council was no different than being a member of any other UN committee or council, such as the Security Council, except members of the Human Rights Council had to pledge to uphold human rights before election and stood closer scrutiny after winning election by their peers and held to account for human rights abuses, he said.
Non-members did not escape the spotlight either because of the new Universal Periodic Review, which assesses the human rights record of all UN members.
"The strength of the Human Rights Council is that it has a number of innovations that actually force member states to put their human rights money where their mouth is," Mokhiber said.
Washington had come under criticism for the way it interrogates and holds prisoners. These criticisms most likely will get an airing under the Universal Periodic Review.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, claiming victory after the election, acknowledged the problems.
"We're particularly gratified by the strong support we received,90 percent of the valid votes cast, and we're gratified by the strong showing of encouragement for the United States to again play a meaningful leadership role in multilateral organizations including the United Nations on the very vitally important set of issues relating to human rights and democracy," she said.
"While we recognize that the Human Rights Council has been a flawed body that has not lived up to its potential, we are looking forward to working from within with a broad cross section of member states to strengthen and reform the Human Rights Council and enable it to live up to the vision that was crafted when it was created," the U.S. envoy told reporters.
Responding to questions about the criticism, she said "We wouldn't be running if we thought it was impossible for the council to fulfill the vision that we all had when it was established. Obviously there will always be some countries whose respect and record on human rights is sub-par, we have not been perfect ourselves. But we intend to lead based on the strong, principled vision that the American people have about respecting human rights, supporting democracy."
Rice also said "We look forward to the review that is coming up in 2011 as an important opportunity to strengthen and reform the council."
She envisions the United States "working with a number of other nations to try to support the improvement and strengthening of this body so that it is more often acting in a fashion consistent with its purpose and our vision in founding it."
The number of votes Washington received in the assembly balloting indicated the United States would get support from those countries, Rice said.
The non-governmental organization Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council, formed by 13 NGOs from around the world, welcomed U.S. reengagement with the Human Rights Council.
"The election of the United States to the council is a positive step toward U.S. re-engagement in multilateral institutions," said Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of Democracy Coalition Project. "Now, the U.S. must demonstrate its commitment to 'fully cooperate' with the council, by issuing an invitation to the UN's independent human rights experts to visit U.S. detention facilities, including Guantanamo Bay."
The Bush administration ordered detained terrorist suspects, or "illegal combatants," held off-shore at the U.S. Marine Corp base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where critics said they were held illegally and tortured. Obama ordered it closed.