US in U-turn over joining human rights watchdog

A decision by Washington to join the UN's human rights watchdog will see Washington at odds with Muslim countries.

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NEW YORK // A decision by the United States to join the UN's human rights watchdog will see Washington at odds with Muslim countries in Geneva's fractious debating chamber, analysts say. The administration of Barack Obama said on Tuesday it will run for a seat on the Human Rights Council, reversing the decision of George W Bush to shun the 47-nation body.

The three-year-old council is widely seen as dominated by the agenda of such Muslim members as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, who seek to condemn Israel and place curbs on free speech. Commenting on her country's turnaround, the United States' UN envoy, Susan Rice, outlined a "new era of engagement" with council members while promising to "forcefully lead on those issues that we care most deeply about".

Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, a non-governmental organisation that monitors the UN, predicted "exciting and feisty times" in the Swiss-based chamber once US delegates strive to "vigorously push back against the world's worst abusers, who currently have the human rights agenda in an Orwellian stranglehold". Among the most divisive resolutions to be adopted recently by the council relates to the so-called "defamation of religions", proposed by members of the 56-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to prevent denigration of the Muslim faith.

Critics fear Pakistan's non-binding proposal, which passed by majority vote last month, places unreasonable curbs on free speech and grants despotic regimes a licence to silence human rights activists and religious dissenters. "The US has to stand firm against the defamation of religions initiative, because it is an initiative that actually threatens human rights particularly freedom of expression," said Juliette de Rivero, the Geneva advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

Ms Rivero said US council involvement would likely herald fewer "one-sided decisions" that vilify Israel but fail to address violations by Hamas - a dispute that critics say dominates more than 80 per cent of the council's schedule. The campaigner said she hoped a US-led "dialogue with the countries of the OIC" could see members break away from their "rigid voting blocs and create a more fluid dynamic" that would give rise to a more effective council.

Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First, said US influence could limit the power of council "spoilers"; while Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said US policy changes could "reverse the bias and politicisation that has plagued" the body. The council was created in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was widely seen as ineffective and discredited - although its replacement organ has attracted much the same criticism.

The US, which played a leading role in forging the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady, has stayed on the sidelines, frequently disparaging the council for spending too much time attacking Israel's treatment of Palestinians while downplaying human rights abuses in other parts of the world. Last month, however, the Obama administration said it would attend council meetings as an observer after rights groups complained it had sat out of the panel's discussions on the rights records of China, Russia and other countries that Washington previously criticised for abuses.

This week's decision will see the US run for one of three vacant seats allotted to the so-called "western Europe and other states" bloc, due to be voted upon by the General Assembly's 192 members on May 15. Diplomats say Norway, New Zealand and Belgium are also interested in serving a staggered, three-year term, but believe New Zealand will step aside to allow the US to run. A UN spokesman said Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, lauded the decision, saying US "engagement on human rights issues is an important step toward realising the goal of an inclusive and vibrant intergovernmental process to protect human rights around the globe".

jreinl@thenational.ae