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As we heard, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted yesterday to launch an investigation into the Syrian government crackdown on protestors. The U.S. has put a lot of effort into improving the council's work, and the vote on Syria gave the administration another reason to argue that it is worth joining.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Human Rights Council is a favorite target of U.N. critics in Washington. They often complain that the council is stacked with abusers, and focuses mainly on bashing Israel. But Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel says this is changing thanks to U.S. diplomacy.

Ms. SUZANNE NOSSEL (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State): It still pays too much attention to Israel, but that's no longer the totality of the docket, and there have been strong resolutions, we've set up a special rapporteur on Iran, we've put in place commissions of inquiry on Libya and on Cote d'Ivoire.

KELEMEN: And as of yesterday, a new fact-finding mission for Syria. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, was pleased with the outcome of that vote.

Mr. KENNETH ROTH (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch): What it shows the people today who are facing the guns of the Syrian government, it shows that the world stands with them.

KELEMEN: He says it also sends a powerful message to the Syrian regime.

Mr. ROTH: Even Syria's closest friends on the council, governments like Bahrain and Jordan and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they didn't even vote with Syria. They all abstained or left the room. So Syria really stands alone here other than a handful of tyrants who voted with them.

KELEMEN: But the diplomatic battle over Syria hasn't ended yet. Roth and many others are now trying to make sure that Syria does not get a seat on the Human Rights Council. That would be a travesty, according to the Heritage Foundation's Kim Holmes, a longtime critic of the council.

Mr. KIM HOLMES (Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, Heritage Foundation): It's actually a protection racket, to tell you the truth, to make sure that some of the bad actors in some of the regional blocs don't get criticized or get on the committee and therefore use their position there to defend themselves when they are committing human rights abuses.

KELEMEN: Holmes was assistant secretary of state for international organizations in the Bush administration.

Mr. HOLMES: And I saw the enormous amount of political clout and influence and time and effort it took for us just to defend human rights, much less promote it. Not only was it was not worth it, in the end it ended up giving more credibility to the institution than it deserved.

KELEMEN: So the Bush administration decided not to run for the council, and Holmes says the Obama administration should drop out too.

Mr. HOLMES: There have been some improvement and some resolutions which have passed but they're very minor and in my opinion they're offset by the larger losses and embarrassments of the council.

KELEMEN: The State Department's Suzanne Nossel disagrees.

Ms. NOSSEL: The idea that by boycotting this body we can so mortally weaken it that its impact will be nullified, I think is just mistaken.

KELEMEN: With Nigeria, Brazil and other rising powers on the council, she sees this as an opportunity for the U.S. to influence them and the international debate over human rights.

Ms. NOSSEL: So we have a pretty unique opportunity to take part in those debates, shape those debates, help set the agenda and I think by being absent we would lose out and the voices that we don't agree with would be all the stronger without us present.

KELEMEN: Many human rights groups agree, saying the council is slowly turning around from a defender of tyrants to an important tool for them to hold abusers to account.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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