updated 2/27/2006 6:24:26 PM ET 2006-02-27T23:24:26

The United States announced its opposition to the proposed new U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday, putting the U.S. administration on a collision course with many U.N. members, key human rights groups, and a dozen Nobel peace laureates.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the United States will vote against the latest proposal for the council unless negotiations are reopened to address what it views as serious deficiencies, especially the chance that countries abusing human rights can become members.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson and Secretary-General Kofi Annan both indicated they want to see action on the draft resolution this week and no new negotiations.

At stake is whether the compromise proposal by Eliasson to revamp the widely criticized and highly politicized Human Rights Commission with a new Human Rights Council significantly improves the U.N.’s human rights machinery.

Bolton told reporters Monday it was “unacceptable.” Supporters — including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — said it is a significant improvement and should be approved even though it doesn’t go as far as many of them wanted.

Human Rights Commission criticized
The Geneva-based Human Rights Commission has been attacked for allowing some of the worst-offending countries to use their membership to protect one another from condemnation or to criticize others. In recent years, commission members have included Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe and Cuba.

A primary U.S. goal in the negotiations has been to ensure that human rights offenders are barred from membership on a new council. It wants a permanent body of 30 members chosen primarily for their commitment to human rights that would deal with major rights violations.

Under Eliasson’s proposal, the 53-member Human Rights Commission would be replaced by a 47-member Human Rights Council that would be elected by an absolute majority of the 191-member General Assembly — 96 members. The United States, Annan, and human rights campaigners wanted a two-thirds majority to try to keep countries abusing human rights off, but faced strong opposition, especially from developing countries.

The new draft does toughen the criteria for membership: Every member must “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and have their human rights record reviewed during their three-year term. Eventually, all 191 U.N. member state would face such scrutiny.

The proposal also contains provisions to allow members of the new Human Rights Council to call special sessions to deal with human rights emergencies — and to suspend a member for “gross and systematic” rights violations.

New options for discredited commission
Annan first proposed replacing the discredited commission in March 2005. At a U.N. summit in September, world leaders agreed, but left the details of the new council to the deeply divided General Assembly. After months of highly contentious negotiations, Eliasson presented his final proposal last Thursday and called for quick action — hopefully by consensus.

Bolton immediately expressed reservations and said the General Assembly should consider the possibility of reopening negotiations between nations — not using a “facilitator” like Eliasson.

But Eliasson, Annan, human rights groups and many diplomats warned that reopening the text would almost certainly weaken it.

“We don’t think it’s acceptable,” Bolton told reporters Monday. “I say this more in sorrow than in anger, but we’re very disappointed with the draft that was produced last Thursday.”

“My instructions are to reopen the negotiations and to try and correct the manifold deficiencies in the text of the resolution or alternatively to push off consideration of the resolution for several months to give us more time,” he said.

If Eliasson still intends to put the draft to the General Assembly in a day or two, Bolton said, “we will call for a vote and vote no.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Annan on Sunday and they discussed the Human Rights Council, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said. She had no details, but presumably Rice informed the secretary-general of the U.S. opposition.

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