New U.N. rights body will scrutinize all states

GENEVA Mon Jun 18, 2007 7:30pm EDT

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations new human rights watchdog agreed on Monday rules for working that oblige all states -- even members of the Security Council -- to submit to periodic scrutiny of their records.

Agreement, after a marathon 14-hour final session, only came after last minute objections by China were overcome that had threatened to throw the Human Rights Council into disarray.

The council's charter preserves the watchdog's right to appoint special investigators for countries where the human rights' records are of particular concern, something which many developing states opposed.

As expected, the council agreed that Cuba and Belarus, both of which are accused of abuse, particularly of political rights, would escape further immediate scrutiny as they did not appear on the list of special mandates to be carried forward from the Human Rights Commission, the council's discredited predecessor.

"I would like to propose we accept this text as a compromise," the council's chairman, Mexican ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba, said to applause from exhausted delegates.

China sought to make it more difficult for the council to single out individual states for censure by unsuccessfully demanding such moves have the backing of a two-thirds majority.

The council, set up by the General Assembly last year to try to burnish the U.N.'s image on human rights protection, had until Monday night to reach a deal on how it would operate.

Some of the deepest divisions had surrounded the submitting of individual countries to special scrutiny. Without that power, activists said the council would be toothless.

Developing countries have traditionally been suspicious of finger-pointing, saying mainly poorer and less politically powerful states were singled out. But European Union states and other richer members were equally adamant that the council must be able to censure abuse.

POOR RECORDS

"The EU resisted attempts to weaken the council ... by making it impossible to address human rights situations ... by raising the threshold for country mandates," said Germany's ambassador Michael Steiner in clear reference to China. Germany holds the rotating EU presidency.

It was to avoid suggestions of unfairness that the General Assembly decided when setting up the new body that all U.N. states should be subject to periodic review, although it left it up to the council to decide on how and when.

The council was launched as part of a wider U.N. program of reform which has been slow to materialize. The United States declined to stand for membership, saying it was no improvement on the commission because there were still too many members elected with poor records on human rights.

Washington had lobbied hard for Cuba, a council member, to continue to be the subject of special scrutiny. But Western diplomats said that dropping Cuba, which has strong developing country support, was one of the prices of a deal.

Votes to censure Cuba on the old commission were always close, despite the 2004 jailing of dozens of dissident journalists and writers, some for long terms.

Russia -- a council member -- led demands for an end to the mandate of the controversial special envoy for Belarus.

The council kept nine states, including North Korea, Cambodia and Sudan, on the list of states warranting particular attention. The situation in Palestinian territory under Israeli military occupation will also continue to be the subject of special scrutiny.

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