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US Set to Get Back Seat on U.N. Rights Commission
Thu Mar 14, 5:53 PM ET

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States is virtually certain to regain its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2003 after a humiliating defeat last year for the first time since it helped found the body in 1947, diplomats disclosed on Thursday.

European Union (news - web sites) countries Italy and Spain have pulled out of the running for seats on the 53-nation Geneva-based commission, after intensive U.S. lobbying, the envoys said.

Both countries would have competed with the United States as part of a Western group of nations when elections are held April 29-30. Their withdrawal leaves Washington as an uncontested candidate for one of four vacant Western seats along with Australia, Germany and Ireland.

But the election will not be in time for the United States to have a vote in this year's session of the commission, which opens March 18 for six weeks. The body makes recommendations and probes rights abuses around the world.

Spain's information counselor, Agustin Galan, said Madrid, in its role as current president of the European Union, withdrew its candidacy because it recognized the importance of giving Washington a voice.

"It was very important for the United Nations (news - web sites), itself, that the United States be a part of this commission," Galan told Reuters.

Europeans last year apparently voted as a block in a secret ballot and elected France, Austria and Sweden for three Western seats, thereby squeezing out the United States.

The defeat stunned the Bush administration with diplomats blaming the United States for poor lobbying at the United Nations, the then-huge debt Washington owed the world body and the attitude of the administration toward global treaties.

Angry at the vote, President Bush (news - web sites) told the U.N. General Assembly in November: "It undermines the credibility of this great institution, for example, when the Commission on Human Rights offers seats to the world's most persistent violators of human rights."

Sudan was one of the countries elected to the commission last year and Libya had been chosen earlier.

In the arcane machinations of U.N. elections, almost all committee chairmanships and other posts are divided among geographic groupings. If a group fails to agree on a slate, the seats are open to a vote.

The United States belongs to the "Western European and Other States Group," known as WEOG, which last year could not agree on candidates. The biggest voting bloc among the 26 nations in WEOG are the 15 European Union members.

U.S. DECISION

Consequently, the 54-member U.N. Economic and Social Council in New York, parent group of the human rights commission, voted last May 3 to give three vacant Western seats to France, Austria and Sweden.

After Italy and Spain made their moves earlier this week, the United States on Wednesday wrote a letter to Luxembourg's ambassador, Hubert Wurth, who chairs the WEOG group, saying it "had decided to present its candidature" for the commission's 2003 to 2005 term.

The letter was written by James Cunningham, the deputy U.S. representative at the United Nations.

The United States as well as Russia and India had served on the commission since its inception in 1947. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the commission's first chair and the main author of its 1948 landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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