U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed Washington’s decision not to run for a seat at the upcoming HRC elections scheduled to take place May 9.
The widespread speculation at the United Nations is that the U.S. decision may have been prompted by lingering fears it will not be able to muster the 96 votes needed in the 191-member General Assembly.
Fearing the secret ballot?
"Since the voting was expected to be by secret ballot, it was very unlikely that the customary strong-arm tactics and political bullying would have helped the United States to get the necessary votes," an Asian diplomat told IPS.
"If the United States contested and lost, it would have been a resounding public slap for a country which is a self-styled promoter of human rights but which still justifies abuses in the name of fighting terrorism," he added.
The new 47-member HRC will replace a much-maligned 53-member Human Rights Commission that was once home to countries such as Zimbabwe, China, Sudan, Cuba, Iran and Libya, routinely labelled "human rights violators" by Washington.
Cuba, China, Iran and Libya candidates
As of Thursday, Cuba, China, Iran and Libya were all candidates for membership in the HRC — and with a fair chance of being elected.
When the United States ran for a seat in the outgoing Human Rights Commission back in May 2001, it suffered a humiliating defeat and was ousted from the panel for the first time since its creation in 1947.
The resentment against Washington was so intense that many of the members who publicly pledged their votes to the United States reneged on their promises privately — and got away with it in a secret-ballot vote.
During discussions leading to the creation of HRC early this year, Washington backed a proposal under which the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia — would also be "permanent members" of the HRC.
But the attempt to ensure "guaranteed seating" for the Big Five was rejected by an overwhelming majority of members, even though the five permanent members found permanent seats in another newly created U.N. body: the Peacebuilding Commission.
"Despite the urging of some U.N. and U.S. officials for Washington to enter the race for membership on the new Human Rights Council, it is absolutely appropriate for the United States to remain absent," says Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.
She said that concern that Washington might actually fail to win the necessary 96 votes in the General Assembly is certainly part of the decision of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to stand aside and wait for next year’s election.
"Anger over U.S. hypocrisy and double standards towards other alleged human rights violators (sanctioning Cuba and Iran, while protecting Saudi Arabia and Egypt, all the while embracing Israel) runs high in the United Nations, and other governments may be unwilling to support Washington’s bid," Bennis told IPS.
Other reasons likely include U.S. Ambassador John Bolton’s pique at the Council being created over a U.S. "no" vote, and the Bush administration’s overall antagonism to the United Nations and its jurisdiction — since all Council members must submit to a human rights evaluation during their three-year term.
"But even beyond those reasons, the U.S. simply does not deserve to be a member of the new Council, whose mandate was specifically designed to exclude human rights violators," she added.
NGOs express disappointment
Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) expressed disappointment over the U.S. decision to shy away from the HRC. Tim Wirth, president of the Washington-based U.N. Foundation, said the Bush administration’s decision not to seek a seat "is profoundly regrettable".
"To many, today’s decision will be interpreted as a signal of U.S withdrawal from organised efforts by the international community to promote human rights," Wirth said in a statement released Thursday.
Ambassador William H. Luers, president of the New York-based United Nations Association of USA (UNA-USA), said Washington should have been "on the ground floor" of this important new human rights forum.
"This short-sighted decision contradicts the U.S. government’s previously stated position that it will work cooperatively with other member states to make the council as strong and effective as it can be," he said.
"We are hard pressed to see how this can be achieved when the U.S. has effectively given up its seat at the table," Luers added. He also argued "anything less than full participation flies in the face of U.S. interests".
UN-Watch: “a big mistake”
Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, said that Washington’s decision not to run "is a big mistake".
"Even those not favourably disposed to the U.S. recognise that a decision by the world’s leading superpower to stay out may spell doom for the new Council," he said.
"Certainly, we Genevois who regularly walk in the U.N. halls of the structure that formerly housed the League of Nations are ever aware of what America’s absence can mean for a major international organization," Neuer told IPS.
He said that some opposed to joining the HRC have argued that the Untied States should form an alternative human rights forum, such as an alliance of democracies.
Yet, he said, there is little indication that anyone is ready to follow. The existing Community of Democracies meets only once every two years and, regrettably, has so far proved largely ineffectual.
"Whether people like it or not, the U.N. Human Rights Council, with all its flaws, is the new reality. The U.S. ought to hold its nose and get inside. Those tempted by the fantasy of splendid isolation may enjoy seeing America stick it to rest of the world," he added.
”New council more legitimate without the US”
Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies was uncompromising in her criticism of the United States. "A country that routinely relies on the death penalty, even allowing the execution of minors and mentally disabled prisoners, does not belong on the Council," she pointed out.
And a government whose highest officials have not only ignored but also affirmatively rejected the Geneva Conventions (governing the rules of war), clearly leading to the shredded human rights conditions at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere in its secret prison network, does not belong on the Council, Bennis added.
"Whatever the combination of reasons, the new Council will be stronger and far more legitimate without the United States," she declared.