UNITED NATIONS, May 3 -- The United States lost a seat on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights today for the first time since it was established in 1947. Diplomats said the vote was a sign of international irritation over the Bush administration's stands on global warming, missile defense and AIDS medication.
The United Nations' 54-member economic and social council voted to fill 14 vacancies on the human rights commission, including three seats reserved for Western nations. A senior U.S. official said Washington had received written pledges of support from 41 countries. But only 29 delegates cast their votes for Washington in the secret balloting won by France with 52 votes; Austria, 41; and Sweden, 32.
"Understandably, we are very disappointed," said James Cunningham, the acting U.S. representative to the United Nations. "We very much wanted to serve on that committee."
Even some countries that view the United States as a champion of human rights were annoyed by Washington's opposition to recent votes by the commission to provide AIDS treatments to poor people and to declare a "right to food."
The commission, which usually meets in Geneva, recommends measures to protect human rights around the world, keeps track of violations and censures countries that trample basic freedoms. Although much of its work is symbolic, the denial of a seat was a blow to U.S. prestige and an indication that Washington may be losing influence with traditional allies.
The United States privately had tried to persuade Austria or Sweden to pull out of the race. But at a meeting of European Union ambassadors at the United Nations last month, France, Austria and Sweden made it clear they would not withdraw.
Diplomats said that Cuba and China, which have been the target of censure resolutions backed by the United States, campaigned aggressively against Washington.
"We prefer to have dialogue. The United States does not," China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Yingfan, said after the vote. "They want to have confrontation. I hope this is the last one we have in Geneva."
Yet, even some countries that view the United States as a champion of human rights were annoyed by Washington's opposition to recent votes by the commission to provide AIDS treatments to poor people and to declare a "right to food."
"The hostility towards the United States was tangible," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who visited the commission's headquarters in Switzerland last month. He added that economic interests, particularly trade with China, may have swayed today's election.
"People would rather look the other way when it comes to human rights in China," Smith said.
One Western diplomat said that despite President Bush's assurances that the United States intends to consult with allies on missile defense, global warming and international conflicts from the Balkans to Iraq, "there is a perception that the U.S. wants to go it alone."
European allies have objected to the Bush administration's decision to reject the Kyoto treaty, a pact aimed at forestalling climate change by limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. Some have also been irritated by the administration's intention to scrap or fundamentally alter the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits national missile defenses, and by its opposition to creating an International Criminal Court.
At the same time, countries accused of violating human rights resent U.S. criticism. To defend themselves, they are among the most ardent seekers of seats on the 53-member Human Rights Commission. Among the nations that won three-year terms today was Sudan, which independent monitoring groups accuse of gross abuses of political and religious freedom, including slavery.
Others elected to the commission were Bahrain, South Korea and Pakistan from the Asia group of nations; Croatia and Armenia from the Eastern European group; Chile and Mexico from the Latin American group; and Sierra Leone, Togo and Uganda from the African group.
Some diplomats said a further impediment to the United States in the voting was the lack of a permanent successor to Richard C. Holbrooke as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. While Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has pledged "strong support" for the United Nations, the Bush White House has not yet formally nominated its choice for ambassador, John D. Negroponte, and the House of Representatives has been slow to authorize the payment of $582 million in U.S. arrears to the world body.
Cunningham, the acting U.S. ambassador, said he would not "speculate" on the reasons for the U.S. defeat. But a senior administration official in Washington said he suspected that the European allies were prompted to field three candidates by European solidarity rather than by resentment toward Washington.
The official added that Washington's campaign was also hampered by its refusal, as a matter of principle, to swap votes. And the official said that Washington would continue to press the commission to censure human rights violators from Cuba to China. "I don't think this will make that much difference," he said.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the International Relations Committee, said the vote "may have the unfortunate decision of turning the human rights commission into just another irrelevant international organization."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company