UNITED NATIONS - A running gag at the United Nations is that whenever the United States takes a defiant stand against an overwhelming majority of the 191 member states, there are only three countries that predictably vote with Washington most of the time -- whether it is right or dead wrong.
As expected, this incongruous voting pattern was repeated Wednesday when the three loyal U.S. allies -- Israel and the two tiny Pacific Island nations of Palau and the Marshall Islands -- were the only member states to stand in unison with the United States when it rejected a resolution calling for the creation of a new Human Rights Council.
The vote in the General Assembly was 170 in favour and four against (United States, Israel, Marshall Islands, Palau), with three abstentions (Venezuela, Iran and Belarus).
Seven member states -- Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Eritrea, Papua New Guinea and Seychelles --were deprived of their votes because they had not paid their dues to the world body.
Since the United States has no veto in the General Assembly, the resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority. The U.S. opposition couldn't block the establishment of the new Human Rights Council.
"With the exception of the usual additions of two tiny dependent island-states, the United States and Israel stand alone in defying virtually the entire world's support for the new Human Rights Council," says Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.
As the work of selecting the first group of members for the new Council begins, each candidate state must agree to being vetted before membership as well as being examined fully at some point during its three-year term, she said.
"The United States, despite its opposition to the Council, has claimed it will 'work with' the Council, and we can anticipate it will expect to win a seat in the first term," Bennis told IPS.
But such an effort should be rejected, she said, as countries evaluating human rights records keep in mind the continuing patterns of U.S. human rights violations both within the United States itself and internationally, where U.S. military or political officials are in power.
"No country with such a record of torture, secret detentions, 'extraordinary renditions,' rejection of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), denial of due process and generations of capital punishment, even for minors and the mentally disabled -- all as a matter of official policy -- should be allowed to serve on the new Human Rights Council," said Bennis, author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the U.N. Defy U.S."
If the General Assembly does indeed allow the United States a seat, she argued, special care should be taken to insure that the mandatory human rights evaluation carried out of all members be taken very seriously when it comes to the U.S., so that the claim that the so-called "indispensable nation" should be somehow exempt from human rights scrutiny will be rejected.
The proposed new Council will have 47 members compared with 53 in the outgoing Human Rights Commission, which has been criticised for accommodating "habitual human rights abusers" as some of its members.
The membership in the new Council shall be based on equitable geographic distribution and seats shall be distributed among regional groups: 13 for the African Group; 13 for the Asian Group; eight for the Latin American and Caribbean group; six for the Eastern European Group; and seven for the Western European and Other States Group.
All members, who will have term limits, will serve for three years but will not be eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms.
The General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Human Rights Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.
Since a two-thirds majority for membership was opposed by an overwhelming majority of states, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who crafted the draft resolution, opted for a compromise: an "absolute majority" -- meaning 96 votes in a 191-member General Assembly.
After the voting in the Assembly, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said that too many countries sought membership in the outgoing Commission primarily "to protect themselves against criticism, or to criticise others".
He agreed with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had initially proposed that the new Council be elected by a two-thirds majority.
"That would have made it harder for countries not committed to human rights, to win seats on the new body. The United States had also proposed exclusive criteria to keep gross human rights abusers off the Council, to exclude the worst violators," he added..
Sadly, Bolton said, those suggestions had not been included in the text. The resolution merely required member states "to take into account" a country's human rights record when voting.
"And suspension of a member required a two-thirds vote, a standard higher than that required when electing new members," he added.
Bolton also said the real test would be the quality of membership that emerged on the Council -- "and whether that would include countries like the Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Belarus and Burma, to name a few".
In a statement released Wednesday, Annan said: "This is only the first step in a process of change." In the coming weeks, he said, states wishing to be elected to the new Council will put forward their pledges and commitments to protect and promote human rights.
"It will be up to their fellow member states to evaluate these promises, and to hold the successful candidates to them. The General Assembly will vote on all candidates, and thereafter will have the responsibility to suspend any of the Council's members that commit gross and systematic violations of human rights," Annan said.
He also said that the universal review mechanism will allow the Council to hold all member states to their human rights obligations fairly and equally, without selectivity or double standards.
The Council will meet regularly throughout the year, and can hold special sessions when needed. This should enable it to deal with human rights crises immediately, whenever they arise, Annan added.
The creation of the new Council was also hailed by virtually all human rights organisations.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the new council should be a great improvement over the old Commission on Human Rights.
"Today's resolution marks an historic step towards enhanced human rights protection within the U.N. system," he added.
"The challenge now is to make the Human Rights Council function effectively, so human rights victims around the world will gain the forum they urgently need to seek relief from abuses," Roth said, in a statement released Wednesday.
Yvonne Terlingen, U.N. representative for Amnesty International, said her organisation welcomes "the overwhelming vote" by the General Assembly in favour of establishing a new Human Rights Council.
She said the U.S. government's decision to vote against the resolution was "regrettable". However the result, 170 in favour, four opposed and three abstaining, demonstrates unambiguous international support for the Council.
Although the hard work is only just beginning, she said, it is encouraging to hear that, despite voting against the resolution, the U.S. government will cooperate with the Council and support it.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service