World News

Belarus shut out of U.N. human rights body

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Belarus, described by Washington as Europe’s last dictatorship, failed on Thursday in its effort to win a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council after Western nations backed a rival campaign by Bosnia.

Belarussian schoolchildren in military uniform train during a rehearsal at Victory square in central Minsk, May 17, 2007. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

In a hotly contested vote by the U.N. General Assembly, two vacant Eastern European seats on the 47-nation council, the world body’s principal rights watchdog, went to Slovenia and Bosnia, both former Yugoslav republics.

The result was a victory for the United States, which diplomats said had persuaded Bosnia to seek a seat at the last minute in hopes of shutting out ex-Soviet Belarus, which otherwise would have had an uncontested ride into the council along with Slovenia.

It was also hailed by private human rights groups as lending credibility to the relatively new council, which some groups have already criticized for being soft on rights abuses in developing nations.

“I was particularly heartened by the election of Bosnia,” said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, current president of the Security Council, adding that he had been “particularly concerned” by the prospect of Belarus being chosen. “This was the right decision,” he told reporters.

The United States itself has so far declined to run for a seat on the Geneva-based body, but Khalilzad said Thursday’s vote “should be helpful in our deliberations on the future of our role vis a vis the council.”

In the only other contested part of the election -- for two vacant West European seats -- the Netherlands and Italy went through at the expense of Denmark.

Uncontested elections for African, Asian and Latin American seats gave places on the council to Angola, Bolivia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Philippines, Qatar and South Africa. The remaining seats on the council are not up for election this year.


But most attention focused on Belarus, a state lying between Russia and Poland whose President Alexander Lukashenko has long been accused by the United States and European Union of crushing all opposition and muzzling independent media.

Thursday’s election turned into a minor cliff-hanger after Bosnia and Belarus both failed to get enough votes -- 97 of the assembly’s 192 members -- to win a seat, necessitating a second round. That gave 112 votes to Bosnia and 72 to Belarus, with eight countries abstaining or not present.

The Human Rights Council last year replaced the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, widely criticized for ignoring abuses in the developing world. Some groups have said the new body is little better and devotes too much time to issuing condemnations of Israel.

The outcome was a landmark for Bosnia, which was created in a 1995 agreement that ended a savage three-year war between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. The far from unified country remains overseen by an international representative.

Bosnian Ambassador Milos Prica called the vote a “huge achievement” for a country he said had witnessed “horrific violations of human rights” during that conflict.

Steve Crawshaw, advocacy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the vote “an important signal for the future of abusive governments.” Belarus, he said, “has an appalling track record.”

Support for Belarus came from Sudan, whose Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem told reporters: “I came personally to vote for Belarus because you should not develop the attitude of isolating countries.”

The successful campaign by Western nations against Belarus followed their failure last week to stop Zimbabwe from being chosen to head the U.N.’s Commission on Sustainable Development, its main inter-governmental body on the environment.