May 4 Bush administration officials said today that the vote
removing the United States from the United Nations Human Rights
Commission raised questions about the group's commitment to human
rights. But the officials vowed that the United States would
continue lobbying the body from the sidelines as an observer.
"A commission that purports to speak out on behalf of human
rights, that now has Sudan and Libya as members and doesn't have the
United States as members, I think may not be perceived as the most
powerful advocate of human rights in the world," a White House
spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said.
Administration officials said they were stunned by the vote on
Thursday, especially because the United States delegation to the
human rights group had lined up 43 votes of support, more than
enough to win a seat on the 53-member commission. In the end, only
29 nations backed the United States.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that the United
States had "43 solid written assurances" going into this week's
tally but lost out in the vote-swapping that is a regular part of
the United Nations.
Some allies of the United States, Secretary Powell said, had
swapped their votes because they thought the United States had its
seat locked up. "They're as astonished as we are about what
happened," he said.
But administration officials acknowledged that there were also
many nations who voted against the United States deliberately, for
reasons that include resentment over the American delegation's
criticism of countries that violate human rights and anger over the
White House's recent decision not to sign the Kyoto treaty on
Secretary Powell said he did not intend to quiz the various
member countries to determine which ones reneged on their votes and
"I suspect there are lots of different reasons," he said. "I'm
not going to spend any of my time trying to break into what was
essentially a secret vote to try to find out what happened. We're
going to continue to pursue human rights. We're going to put out our
human rights reports. We're going to call nations to account when
they violate basic principles of human rights."
But others were seeking to piece together the motivations of the
member countries. The United States has drawn criticism in recent
years for building up a large debt to the United Nations, for
rejecting a number of treaties and agreements and, more recently,
for rejecting the Kyoto treaty and criticizing the 1972
antiballistic missile treaty as it pursues a missile defense
"I think there's an annoyance with the United States on a variety
of issues that is not so far below the surface," said Representative
Christopher H. Smith, Republican of New Jersey and vice chairman of
the House International Relations Committee.
Still, Mr. Smith, who attended the commission's recent meeting in
Geneva as part of the Bush administration's delegation, said he did
not understand the human rights vote.
"I happen to be in favor of the Kyoto treaty," he said. "But
environmental issues and other issues should not be used to punish
the United States when it comes to things like torture."
Lawmakers said the human rights vote would only increase the
reluctance on Capitol Hill to participate in international
agreements, and might reverse the improvement of relations between
Congress and the United Nations that resulted in a deal to pay back
dues. In recent years, the United States has declined to join a
variety of pacts including a treaty on land mines, the Law of the
Sea treaty and the agreement setting up an International Criminal
Court because they contain provisions opposed by Washington.
"If this is the way the international court is going to
adjudicate cases, totally on a partisan basis, that will make the
court a complete farce, as well," Mr. Smith said.
The human rights commission, which Eleanor Roosevelt helped
create in 1947, has long been a polarized group, which is no
surprise given the delicate nature of its subject matter. China,
Cuba and other countries have grown adept at using procedural rules
to outflank the efforts of the United States to use the commission
to condemn them.
On Wednesday, as the commission was voting to exclude the United
States, the House International Relations Committee was urging the
Bush administration to seek the ouster of member countries that do
not allow their human rights situation to be scrutinized.
Former Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro, who led the American
delegation to the commission from 1993 to 1996, said today that the
Bush administration had not done enough to round up support before
"This should have been anticipated, and this should have been
prepared for," Ms. Ferraro said. "We should not have lost the vote.
Eleanor Roosevelt is probably turning over in her grave, and if I
were dead, I'd be turning over, too."