UNITED NATIONS - The Obama administration has decided to seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday, reversing a decision by the Bush administration to shun the U.N.'s premier rights body to protest the repressive states among its membership.
The United States announced it would stand as a candidate in elections May 15 to decide three seats on the 47-member council, joining Belgium and Norway on a slate of Western candidates. New Zealand, which had planned to run as well, offered to step aside to allow the United States to run unchallenged.
Clinton and Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the decision was part of a broader push for "a new era of engagement" in U.S. foreign policy.
"Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy," Clinton said in a statement. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system to advance the vision of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights."
The decision was criticized by U.S. conservatives, who regard the council as fatally flawed.
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"This is like getting on board the Titanic after it's hit the iceberg," said John R. Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006 under President George W. Bush. "It legitimizes something that doesn't deserve legitimacy."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the "decision surrenders the strongest leverage we have to force changes in the council."
But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and human rights advocates welcomed Clinton's announcement, saying U.S. membership would help blunt the influence of some of the council's most repressive members.
The Obama administration and rights advocates concede that the council has failed to emerge as a powerful champion of human rights and has devoted excessive attention to alleged abuses by Israel and too little to abuses in places such as Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Sudan's Darfur region.
The Human Rights Council was established in March 2006 to replace the Human Rights Commission, whose credibility had suffered because of the membership of noted rights abusers, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. The Bush administration refused to join the new council but initially agreed to fund it and be an observer. It later withdrew.