updated 3/15/2006 3:39:27 PM ET 2006-03-15T20:39:27

U.N. member states ignored U.S. opposition and overwhelmingly approved a new Human Rights Council on Wednesday, attempting to strengthen the world body’s machinery to deal with major human rights offenders.

The vote in the 191-member General Assembly was 170-4, with three abstentions.

The Bush administration refused to back the new council, saying it was not the radical reform needed to ensure that countries like Cuba, Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe — known as rights abusers — were barred from membership.

U.S. officials said Washington does not support withholding money from the U.N. budget that will fund the new council, but no decision has been made on whether it will seek a seat on the new council.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the new council made some improvements but not enough.

“In coming years we will be judged on whether we created U.N. human rights machinery that was effective and strong,” he said. “We must not let history remember us as the architects of a council that was a compromise and merely the best we could do.”

Other countries opposed
The resolution also was opposed by Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Venezuela, Belarus and Iran abstained.

Some member states are barred from voting because of their failure to pay U.N. dues.

A year ago, Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed replacing the widely criticized and highly politicized U.N. Human Rights Commission, which has allowed some of the worst-offending countries to use their membership to protect one another from condemnation or to criticize others.

Under the resolution adopted Wednesday, the commission will be abolished June 16 and the new council will convene three days later.

“This gives the United Nations the chance — a much-needed chance — to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world,” Annan said in a statement after the vote. “The true test of the council’s credibility will be the use that member states make of it.”

The resolution was drafted by General Assembly President Jan Eliasson after months of contentious negotiations.

Before the vote, he told the assembly that “no member state has got everything it argued for.” But he said the resolution represents “a unique opportunity for a fresh start for human rights” and would strengthen the U.N.’s machinery, authorize more frequent meetings and toughen the criteria for membership on the new council.

Members to be elected by absolute majority
The 53-member commission will be replaced by a 47-member Human Rights Council elected by an absolute majority of the General Assembly, or 96 members. Annan, the United States and human rights campaigners wanted the council elected by a two-thirds majority to try to keep human rights abusers off.

Every U.N. member state is eligible for membership but the new draft toughens the criteria. Council members must “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” fully cooperate with the new council and have their human rights records reviewed during their three-year term.

All 191 U.N. members eventually would face such scrutiny, which Eliasson said will “ensure equal treatment and prevent double standards” in dealing with human rights.

The resolution also allows the General Assembly to suspend a member for “gross and systematic violations of human rights” by a two-thirds majority of those voting.

Any country on the council, with the support of at least one-third of its members, also can call a special session, a provision aimed at getting a quick response to human rights emergencies.

Leaders at September’s summit decided to replace the discredited commission with the council as part of a major overhaul of the United Nations, which was created in the ashes of World War II and must now tackle 21st century challenges ranging from terrorism to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. wanted 30-member council
The United States had argued for a permanent body of 30 members, chosen primarily for their commitment to human rights, to deal with major rights violations. Its two key demands were a two-thirds vote for council membership and a ban on membership for any country under U.N. sanctions for human rights violations.

Bolton also objected to a two-term limit for council members and to the provision allowing one-third of council members to put an issue on the council’s agenda. Bolton said it should be a majority vote.

The United States lobbied unsuccessfully to reopen the negotiations, but Eliasson refused, saying members told him it would be tantamount to opening “Pandora’s Box.”

Diplomats said Eliasson and Annan worked behind the scenes to try to ensure that no amendments were proposed if the United States called for a vote, which almost certainly would have weakened the text.

Cuba already circulated several proposed amendments, and Russia, Pakistan and the Organization of Islamic Conference were among those also reported to have prepared amendments, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closed-door proceedings.

One of the surprises was that Cuba voted in favor of the resolution, despite serious reservations that it was no improvement over the commission that it claimed unjustly targeted developing countries.

“The attacks of the current U.S. administration to the text being adopted today prove their arrogance,” Cuba’s U.N. Ambassador Rodrigo Malmierca said. “They lost nothing with this project.

“On the contrary, they have assured new means to exert confrontation, hatred and punishment, and if they protest today, is because they intended to get new concessions.”

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