U.N. Rights Council Gets U.S. Support

John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is skeptical about the value of the United States joining the new Human Rights Council.
John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is skeptical about the value of the United States joining the new Human Rights Council. (By David Karp -- Associated Press)
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, March 14 -- The Bush administration indicated Tuesday that it is prepared to help fund and possibly try to join a U.N. Human Rights Council despite deep reservations about the value of the new rights body.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns assured U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and General Assembly President Jan Eliasson by telephone that the United States will formally oppose the creation of the council in a General Assembly session Wednesday but supports its overall mission, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

Rice and Burns also told Annan and Eliasson that the United States will not stand in the way of an anticipated decision by a key United Nations budget committee Wednesday to authorize $4.5 million in initial funding for the agency. The United States would be required to cover 22 percent of the council's costs.

"We have very high standards for human rights at the United Nations, and won't be able to support the proposal because the new institution falls short of those standards," Burns said in a telephone interview. "But we also want to see the U.N. succeed, and so we hope the human rights council can be strengthened over time so that they can deal effectively with real world problems, such as Darfur and Burma. So we'll look for ways to support with the aim of strengthening it."

The move marked a dramatic shift in the U.S. attitude toward Eliasson's proposal to create a rights council to replace the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has sharply criticized the council in recent weeks, saying it is only "marginally better" than the "discredited" human rights commission.

Annan has led the U.N. campaign over the past year to create a new rights council. He has accused rights abusers of discrediting the Commission on Human Rights by joining it to prevent criticism of their own rights records.

The United States backed a proposal by Annan to set higher standards for membership in the rights body, including a requirement that members get support from two-thirds of the General Assembly to be elected.

But the United States balked at a compromise offered by Eliasson that did not include several of its amendments -- including a proposal to bar countries facing U.N. sanctions from joining -- and that would have required new members be elected by an absolute majority -- at least 96 countries. A final U.S. push to persuade Eliasson to make several changes to the text or to reopen negotiations failed.

Under the terms of the council's charter, the commission would begin its final session next week.

U.N. officials warned the United States that its decision to press for a vote in the General Assembly could prompt opponents of the council, including Cuba, to introduce amendments that would further weaken the council's charter.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, acknowledged that there are divisions in the Bush administration over policy on the rights council. Bolton is skeptical about the value of U.S. membership and advocates a tougher approach.

One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that Bolton's explanation of the vote before the General Assembly on Wednesday would reflect a harder line on the rights council than Burns supports.

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