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(photo credit: AP [file])
NEW YORK - The United States was elected to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday, after a surprise bid that marked a turnaround in its approach to the often controversial body.
The secret balloting for 18 open seats produced few surprises, since only a handful of seats were contested.
The US, Belgium and Norway will replace Canada, Germany, and Switzerland, while China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia will be reappointed to three-year terms on the Geneva-based body.
Hungary and Russia shut out Azerbaijan for one of two seats representing the Eastern European bloc. Five African nations - Cameroon, Djibouti, Mauritius, Nigeria and Senegal - edged out a sixth candidate, Kenya.
The elections came under fire from human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, which, while calling for the vote, cited many of the candidate countries for violating their citizens' human rights.
Former Czech president Vaclav Havel described the exercise as a "farce" in a stinging essay in Sunday's New York Times.
Craig Mokhiber, a deputy director for the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters after the vote that he had no comment on Havel's criticisms.
Mokhiber said he hoped that the new members, including the US, would participate fully in the council's agenda and back existing initiatives when they take their seats in June.
"We do think it's important for all the members of the council, indeed all member states, to support the work of the commission," Mokhiber said.
He specifically said he believed the US and other new members should support the Human Rights Council's inquiry into the Gaza crisis, headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, calling it "an extremely important mechanism." Israel has so far refused to cooperate with that investigation.
Human rights organizations have long criticized the council, created in 2006, for extending membership to countries with spotty human rights records and perpetuating the dysfunction that plagued its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. The work of that body was widely discredited because of the inclusion of countries accused of severe human rights abuses, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe.
In its current incarnation, the council has been particularly critical of Israel, holding votes on five resolutions against Israeli policy in a single week in March. Israel's ambassador in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, accused countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference of quashing other issues, including freedom of speech and religious freedom, at Israel's expense.
The US, which under the Bush administration boycotted the council, announced in March that it would seek a seat in order to gain a foothold before a comprehensive review scheduled for 2011.
UN ambassador Susan Rice told reporters the Obama administration felt engagement would offer the opportunity to work "from within, rather than standing on the sidelines." The US entry prompted New Zealand to withdraw its candidacy on the grounds that the US could push "positive changes" more quickly.
Like many UN bodies, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council divides its 47 seats among regional groups, guaranteeing proportional representation, and most group delegations engage in elaborate diplomatic dances to head off competition ahead of voting in the General Assembly.
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