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High hopes, disappointments on new UN rights council

Written by: Staff

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24 (Reuters) A draft resolution for a new UN Human Rights Council, one of the flagship reforms demanded by world leaders, makes it more difficult for rights abusers to get a seat on the body, but was sharply criticized by the United States.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson released yesterday a compromise resolution on the council to replace the discredited Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, which has included some of the world's worst rights violators.

The council, a mainstay of reforms adopted at a U.N. summit in September, is to do reports on abusers and help nations devise human rights bodies and laws.

Under Eliasson's proposals the 191-member General Assembly must elect council members by a majority of all, not just those present and voting. Annan and Western governments had wanted a two-thirds majority.

''At first review it does not meet the standards set by the secretary-general himself,'' US Ambassador John Bolton said.

''We will be examining it closely.'' But he indicated he wanted to reject the text and reopen negotiations rather than have ''facilitators'' in the assembly fashion a compromise.

However, Annan, as well as rights advocates, said the new system is a vast improvement on the current election system by regional states in the 54-member Economic and Social Council.

''It obviously doesn't do everything we hoped for,'' said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. But it is clearly better than the Human Rights Commission and we are supporting it. '' Roth said a rejection would reopen negotiations, which might lead to ''death by 1,000 cuts.'' He said there was no reason to presume more talks will yield improvement.

The new body would have three annual sessions totaling at least 10 weeks a year, with the added possibility of convening emergency sessions. Currently the commission meets for six weeks a year.

Eliasson also felt obliged to compromise on the size of the new body, settling on 47 while Bolton had pushed for no more than 30 members, in hopes a smaller council would be more nimble in responding to rights emergencies.

The draft would also enable council members to kick off troublesome members by calling a vote.

The plan also requires every new member -- including major powers like the United States or China -- to undergo a rights review soon after winning a seat, a new rule supporters said might scare off some rights abusers from the start.

The seats would be distributed among regional groups: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean. They would serve for three years and not be eligible for immediate reelection after two consecutive terms.

Islamic countries, as a result of the controversy over cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, had wanted language on blasphemy. But in the end this was watered down to a provision in the preamble of the draft that reaffirms ''the significant of national regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.'' Reuters PDS VP0440

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