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US frowns at UN's new rights watchdog

The General Assembly voted Wednesday in favor of a revamped Human Rights Council, over US objections.

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The United Nations has buried one of its chief embarrassments by creating a new entity to replace its Human Rights Commission - a body that had evolved into a club for some of the world's worst violators of basic rights.

With that history still fresh, all eyes will be on who is elected to sit on the new Human Rights Council, which convenes in June. Its membership will be a first test of improvement - and also a barometer for whether the UN's reform process, begun last year, is moving ahead.

The United States stood almost alone in the UN General Assembly Wednesday as it voted against the new council, citing less arduous membership requirements than it had demanded or than Secretary General Kofi Annan had first proposed. The vote was 170 in favor to 4 opposed, with three abstentions (Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela). Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau joined the US in voting "no."

The US bowed to the overwhelming vote, but it also appeared to draw a red line against regimes whose inclusion it believes would make a mockery of the new council. US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton took the General Assembly floor immediately after the vote, listing Belarus, Cuba, Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Burma as "serious human rights abuse cases" deserving scrutiny by the new council.

"The real test will be the quality of membership of the council," Mr. Bolton said, adding that the US vote was a rejection of letting abuse victims think the world was "willing to settle for good enough ... compromise ... the best we could do."

Replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission was part of a reform agenda that world leaders adopted at the UN summit last September. But because some developing countries still suspect Western nations of using the human rights issue to intervene in their internal affairs, action had been held up until now.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson of Sweden said completion of the human rights element would open the way to take up other items on the UN's reform agenda. Other reform issues include UN management, accountability, and budget oversight - areas scrutinized in last year's investigation into the oil-for-food scandal. Like human rights, they are sensitive topics for the General Assembly.

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