'Abusers' elected to human rights council

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Britain won a seat on the newly created Human Rights Council of the UN yesterday, but five countries identified as being among the world's worst abusers also achieved membership.

There were 63 countries vying for 47 seats on the new council yesterday. The results of the first round of secret balloting among the UN membership in New York last night revealed that the hopes of human rights organisations, and many Western governments including Britain, that recent reforms would assure a more effective watchdog for abuse had only been partly realised.

Among other countries chosen to take their places on the new panel were Russia, China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, all nations labelled by the New York-based Human Rights Watch as unworthy of membership because of their own records of abuse and repression.

Other countries with similar reputations for violations, which had similarly been striving for membership, were discarded in the vote, notably Iran and Azerbaijan. Venezuela, which has come under criticism for deteriorating human rights conditions since the coming to power of Hugo Chavez, also failed to win enough votes. Iraq also fell short.

The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who was at the UN headquarters yesterday for meetings on Iran and the crisis in Darfur, voiced optimism that the panel, voted into existence in March to replace the widely discredited and slightly larger UN Human Rights Commission, would operate effectively. "The council provides a real opportunity to better promote and protect human rights for all everywhere," she said. "We now have to make sure that the council works. Its members will carry an important responsibility to ensure that the council meets its full potential. The UK will strive to meet these high expectations."

Not among the candidates yesterday was the United States, which had declined to support the new panel's creation, arguing that it would be insufficiently different from its predecessor. Washington was among the most vociferous critics of the old Human Rights Commission, on the ground that too many rogue states were elected to serve on it.

Human Rights Watch, however, did acknowledge last night that the forging of the new body as well as the results of voting yesterday represented measurable progress. Suggesting that it had been inevitable that some human rights violators would win, the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said: "The important step is that we have made real progress. It doesn't guarantee that the council will be a success, but it is a step in the right direction."

Members of the old human rights panel were elected by the UN's 54-member Economic and Social Committee. Because candidates were proposed and supported by regional blocs, candidate countries were rarely rejected. To win yesterday candidates had to win the support a majority of the UN's members.

Moreover, under the new regulations of the Human Rights Council, any country attaining membership of the council must agree to have its own record scrutinised in the course of the year by its UN peers. This, in theory, is meant to encourage any members with dubious records to put their houses straight.

Most human rights activists have acknowledged that the new procedures are an improvement. The changes were apparently stringent enough that four countries condemned for human rights abuses that successfully won seats on the predecessor panel ­ Zimbabwe, Libya, Sudan and Syria ­ decided this time not to run.