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A Sneak Rebellion

Eleanor Roosevelt started it. Now a group of nations from Asia to Europe may just finish it off.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission, which the former first lady helped create in 1947 and then chaired, no longer has the United States as a member.

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The nation that champions universal ideals was given the boot last week in a vote by the UN body that picks the 53 members of the commission. The vote came as a shock to the US, because it had written agreements of support from 43 nations. But it received only 29 votes in the secret tally.

Even worse than this ouster of the US and the treachery by some of its allies is the fact that this commission, which was set up to monitor and condemn nations that violate human rights, now has only a minority of members that are democracies. And notorious violators such as Cuba, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and China remain members.

That lopsidedness only mutes the commission's credibility as a global bully pulpit on human rights, and weakens the UN as a whole in its role of standing up for its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Still, the US should be patient before it reacts harshly to this slight.

The House of Representatives, which is due to vote this week on paying $582 million in back dues to the world body, should not retaliate by withholding the money. Not paying its share of UN dues for many years is one reason for the growing resentment against the US that resulted in this sneak rebellion.

The US should realize that its diplomatic prowess was weak against a concerted campaign by China to eject the US and stop the commission from embarrassing it with regular condemnations. Beijing used access to its market and other economic levers to win votes, perhaps even from West European nations. The US either matches that diplomacy or persuades more nations to censure China for its human rights record.

Many nations also resent the US for blocking the commission from condemning Israel's crackdown on Palestinian civilians. The US can counter that by including European nations and others in the peacemaking process.

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And lastly, President Bush should be careful how he injects a "new realism" - or starts putting US interests first - into his foreign policy. Such unilateralism, without due consultation with other nations, only feeds resentment. His dismissal of the Kyoto global warming pact infuriated Europe - partly in its high-handedness.

The US should not feel defensive for its principled stands on human rights and other issues. But to prevent other nations from ganging up on it again, it needs to be more assertive - and humble - in its diplomacy.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor