Deal Elusive on New U.N. Human Rights Council

The United States has argued strongly for the creation of a new human rights council at the United Nations. But U.N. ambassador John Bolton doesn't like the new version that's being proposed. Bolton says the plan would not prevent human rights abusers from getting on the council.

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The United Nations has postponed a vote to create a new Human Rights Council after the U.S. rejected the latest proposal. American Ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, says the plan doesn't do enough to isolate nations that abuse human rights. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The United States has been among the strongest voices calling for a new forum to address human rights issues at the United Nations. The U.S. and other Western governments say the existing Human Rights Commission has been hijacked by countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe which have used the Commission to block criticism of their own human rights abuses.

But U.N. Ambassador John Bolton was scornful of the latest proposal which was put forward by Sweden's Jan Eliasson, the current president of the U.N. General Assembly.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (U.N. Ambassador): The strongest argument in favor of this draft is that it's not as bad as it could be.

FLINTOFF: One thing Bolton wanted but didn't get in the proposal was a requirement that members of the Human Rights Council would have to be elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. The idea was that countries with poor human rights records couldn't muster the necessary votes to get themselves on the Council. Assembly President Jan Eliasson originally favored that condition too.

Mr. JAN ELIASSON (President, U.N. General Assembly): It turned out not to be possible, but what we instead got in my view was a very good language on the expectations of membership, that they must live up to the highest standards of human rights, that they must give pledges and commitments to human rights.

FLINTOFF: The proposal Eliasson supports would require that Council members be elected by a vote of more than half the U.N. membership, and it says that all Council members would have their human rights records reviewed during their terms.

Mr. ELIASSON: And we even got the right of suspension of the members who grossly and seriously violate human rights.

FLINTOFF: Ambassador John Bolton says that's not strong enough, and it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Mr. BOLTON: If you have a discredited mechanism in place now which is what the Human Rights Commission is, why should you settle for a new body that is at best marginally better than the old body? Why not continue the struggle over a longer period of time to achieve real reform.

FLINTOFF: The advocacy group Human Rights Watch originally sought stronger language too, but it now supports the compromised proposal.

Mr. KENNETH ROTH, (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch): As for Bolton's proposal that we recommence negotiations, that's simple naive.

FLINTOFF: Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. ROTH: Anybody who has followed these negotiations recognizes that the abuse of governments of the world have followed a strategy of death by a thousand cuts. They are going to continue that strategy making the Council weaker and weaker the longer these negotiations drag on. This is the best deal we can get and the U.S. should support it.

FLINTOFF: General Assembly President Jan Eliasson had hoped to get the Human Rights Council approved before March 13 in order to head off another meeting of the old Human Rights Commission. But it's not clear whether he can muster the support in the face of U.S. opposition.

The Human Rights Council is only one part of a larger package of U.N. reforms. John Bolton says it's an indication of bigger fights ahead.

Mr. BOLTON: If this is the best we can do on the Human Rights Commission, what's going to happen on management reform, on governance reform, on rules and regulations reform? We need to work harder on at this.

FLINTOFF: The Human Rights Council was thought by some to the easiest part of the package to achieve, but so far nothing about changing the United Nations has been easy.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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