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U.N.'s Arbour says rights body marks new beginning

Written by: Staff
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GENEVA, May 10 (Reuters) U.N. human rights chief Louise Arbour today said the election of members to the organisation's new rights watchdog marked a new beginning in the fight for fundamental freedoms.

The 47-member state Human Rights Council, whose members were chosen on Tuesday for the first time by a ballot of the U.N. General Assembly, replaces the Commission on Human Rights which had become largely discredited by political infighting.

''The signs from the election of the 47 members of the council yesterday are very encouraging ... The polls were not 'business as usual','' the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.

Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have generally applauded the council, saying it has a better chance of providing protection for victims of rights' abuse than its predecessor.

Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge, said the fact that the council's members had faced an open election and that they had given pledges to promote human rights was positive.

''There is good reason to believe that we are putting aside some of the difficulties we saw with the Commission on Human Rights,'' she said.

Critics, including Arbour and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said the commission became increasingly hobbled because states whose rights' records were questionable had sought and won seats in order to shield themselves.

One of the biggest differences with the commission is that members of the council themselves will have to submit to a review of their records.

However, the United States declined to take part in the council elections because it said that it was still too easy for states with a history of abuse to get elected.

Several countries on the new body, including Russia, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, were named by rights groups as being unworthy of membership.

But others, including Iran, failed to win election.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said it was inevitable that some abusers would win seats but ''the important step is that we have made real progress'' over the commission, which shut down in March.

The council, due to meet three times a year, not once like its predecessor, will open its first session in Geneva on June 19.

REUTERS CH PC2105

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